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Fruitport teachers file unfair labor practice charges

Krystle Wagner • May 18, 2016 at 8:00 AM

FRUITPORT — After months of contract negotiations, the Fruitport Education Association has filed unfair labor practice charges against the Fruitport school district.

The charges were filed with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission, and they “outline a pattern of behavior and actions by the administration and school board, which threaten teachers for speaking out about the failure to reach a fair contract settlement,” according to a press release from the FEA. The teachers union says the actions “were threats against teachers appearing and speaking at school board meetings, wearing FEA shirts to school, and participating in peaceful, informational picketing.”

In the release, FEA President Derek Woycehoski said: “All of the activities Fruitport teachers have been engaged in are protected forms of activity under Michigan labor law. The superintendent, through his threats, has created a hostile environment for our members and, as a result, has made it even more difficult to successfully bargain a new contract.”

Early last week, some Fruitport teachers carried signs in front of the school district’s administrative offices to demonstrate their interest in settling a contract, which expired in August 2015.

According to the union, Fruitport Community Schools Superintendent Bob Szymoniak sent a letter to the district’s teachers “which contained misleading and inaccurate information about salary decreases, health insurance and the total compensation package.”

Szymoniak said he provided the information in packets to the district’s school board, who then asked him to present the information to the bargaining team as a way to “educate them about our current fiscal situation.” Szymoniak said he didn’t send the documents to staff members.

“I believe the charges are unfounded,” he said.

The packet of information given to the Tribune by Szymoniak includes a “Plan to Address Fiscal Distress through June 2017,” which provides background information about the district’s funding levels and the change in the fund balance over the years.

In 2009, the fund balance was more than 20 percent, or about $5.89 million. The amount has fallen to an anticipated 6.4 percent by the end of the 2015-16 fiscal year, or less than $2 million.

According to the letter, the main cause of the drop was the loss of enrollment averaging 60 students a year, which was equal to about $250,000 of annual income. About 53 percent of those changes were approved for academic and social reasons.

Another reason for the fund balance drop was increasing retirement costs, which rose by about 56 percent since 2009. Health insurance costs paid by the district also rose 25 percent since 2009.

According to the 2016-17 budget development plan, the district projects a $400,000 deficit for the next school year. The projections include eliminating five teaching positions, flat state funding and a reduction of 60 students.

The letter explains the projected budget would take any changes to foundation allowance funding into account, and staffing reductions would eliminate any remaining deficit. If funding remains flat, additional positions would be eliminated “unless cost savings can be found elsewhere.”

If funding remains flat, it’s anticipated that nine teaching positions would be eliminated, and those positions would be subtracted from retirements. That scenario is contingent on a “deep freeze” for employees’ wages.

The letter states that the only way to increase salaries at this time is to eliminate more employees.

“Every year since 2011, the district has spent more than it received,” the letter from the school district states. “That is why our fund balance has declined from nearly $6 million to just over $2 million over that period of time. Unfortunately, the state has now put in measures that sanction school districts with significant decline of their fund balance. We are on the verge of experiencing those sanctions.”

The next phase of the plan would occur this fall when the annual student count is conducted. If fewer than 60 students leave the district, the funding “will be eligible for negotiations such as that the projected 6 percent fund balance” is maintained by the end of the fiscal year.

“Should the district end the 2016-17 school year with no hope for negotiable funds, we will look at every possible option to address budgetary concerns going into the 2017-18 school year, including restricting elementary buildings, elimination of programs, etc.,” the letter states.

The FEA includes about 175 staff members such as teachers, counselors, special-education teachers, school pathologists, psychologists and some early-education staff. The group members’ salaries account for about 60 percent of the school district’s budget. Woycehoski said they are looking to remain the same part of the budget as in previous years, which is now at roughly 58 percent.

Woycehoski also said the amount the district pays for health insurance has gone down.

The 2014-15 contract was valid for one year, and it called for pay freezes, with an exception of employees who received additional education. Those employees qualified for a “step” in pay.

Negotiations for the 2015-16 contract started in November 2015 after the student count was conducted. The district budgeted for a loss of 60 students, but saw nearly 90 students leave the district. Szymoniak said that loss of about $250,000 in funding “made bargaining very difficult.”

Woycehoski said the FEA is looking for a fair contract, and they’ve had to sacrifice for the past few years, as have other groups across Michigan as state funding has changed.

“It’s hard to watch the money for teachers dwindle,” he said.

Szymoniak said he would like to settle the contract, but he couldn’t say any more, given the bargaining situation. He said the next steps will involve working with the district’s attorney to decide how to respond to the unfair labor practice charges.

Woycehoski said teachers don’t want the ongoing negotiations to divide the community.

“I want what’s best for my community and district,” he added.

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