Niles teachers mourn contract

Published 9:18 pm Monday, April 23, 2012

Supporters of the Niles teachers’ union dressed in black Monday to bring attention to ongoing contract negotiations with the Niles board of education. Daily Star photo/CRAIG HAUPERT

The Niles teachers’ union and its supporters mourned the death of the teachers’ former contract by wearing black to Monday’s Niles school board meeting.

Supporters stood side by side quietly in the hallway of the Westside Administration Building prior to the meeting. They also wore stickers saying, “You can’t put children first if you put teachers last.”

The board and the teachers union have been trying unsuccessfully to settle a new contract for the past year.

The board’s last offer asked teachers to take an 8 percent cut in salary, while placing hard caps on insurance. Supporters of the teachers’ union say the board is asking for too big a cut, while the board argues the cut is necessary in order to solve the district’s structural deficit problem.

Joe Washington, the union’s representative from the Michigan Education Association, and Katherine Elsner, the president of the Niles teachers’ union, were present at the meeting, but neither spoke during public comment.

Teachers’ union supporters left the meeting after public comment and prior to a presentation by Niles Supt. Richard Weigel.

“We are dressed in black to show how serious we take this process.” said Elsner outside of the meeting, “and really mourning the death of the contract we had in the past since the board has proposed an entirely new contract as we are negotiating.”

Elsner said she and other members of the teachers’ union chose not to speak during the meeting because the community has already heard what they have to say.

Jeff Curry, president of the school board, took exception of Monday’s display by teachers’ union supporters.

“They are just here to torment the board and the superintendent,” Curry said. “Does torment put more money in the bank for us? Does it cut our cost? It does nothing for us. We have to balance our budget.”

According to budget projections released by school officials, the district will go into deficit sometime in the 2013-14 school year if nothing changes. Supporters of the teachers’ union argue the board is painting too bleak a financial picture.

Jon Martin, a member of the Niles school board, suggested opening contract negotiations to the public. Weigel said he would see if that is a possibility.

Prior to the board meeting, about two dozen people stood outside of Ballard Elementary School in Niles in support of the teachers’ union.

Keith Klann, president of the Dowagiac teachers’ union, was there.

“Things aren’t as tough as what the Niles board is making it out to be,” Klann said. “It is one thing to negotiate and another thing to negotiate fairly.”

A few members of the South County Democrats Blue Tigers also came in support of teachers.

Negotiations are scheduled to continue with a mediation session May 7.