DUS, teachers continue contract talks

Published 2:44 pm Friday, September 24, 2021

DOWAGIAC — Driving through town, Dowagiac residents may notice yard signs popping up throughout the community.

The signs — colored orange with black lettering that reads “We Support Dowagiac Teachers” — are showings of solidarity between community members and Dowagiac teachers as contract negotiations continue between Dowagiac Union Schools and its teachers’ union.

Negotiations began in June, and the teachers’ most recent contract draft was submitted Monday night, according to Dowagiac Union High School teacher and Dowagiac Education Association president Matthew Nicholls.

District teachers and staff have been working several weeks without a new contract, as both sides continue to work toward a solution.

“We’ve gone through multiple proposals back and forth,” he said. “We’ve made offers and concessions. Both sides found some common ground but are still apart on a few things. We’re trying to work through it.”

“The Board of Education and the superintendent support and respect Dowagiac teachers,” said Board of Education president Ronda Sullivan. “Teachers are being paid under the current contract until the new contract is settled. Teachers and staff overseeing extracurricular activities will be paid. We want this done as soon as possible to move the district forward.”

Superintendent Jonathan Whan could not be reached for comment.

According to Nicholls, a new contract is an opportunity for salary increases and a renegotiation of benefits, which teachers are seeking as both the responsibilities teachers are tasked with and the cost of living continue to rise.

“We want to be treated with respect by the district,” Nicholls said. “We want a fair shake for what we do. We are here because we love kids, but that does not mean we should not be compensated and appreciated for that.”

Community members and teachers have voiced their concerns in recent weeks regarding the administration’s involvement with negotiations as well as its treatment of teachers and staff. More than 30 former DUS teachers left the district via resignation or retirement during the summer.

“I love Dowagiac,” said Dowagiac resident Kristin Ausra. “I don’t want to pull my kids from Dowagiac, but [the board of education and the superintendent] are hurting the overall experience that the teachers are able to provide for these families and students. When you have 20 percent of the teaching staff leave in three or four months, there should be a lot of looking back and reflecting on how we can change that.”

Ausra, a Dowagiac alumna who was a teacher with the district for six years, made the decision to resign in July and is not currently teaching. As a parent of two children in the district, Ausra supports her former colleagues as contract negotiations

“Dowagiac is a fabulous community,” she said. “Our staff and our teachers work hard to give back to the community. They’re the ones that are giving their energy and giving up time with their families so that they can give back to the families in Dowagiac.”

According to data from the Michigan Department of Education, more than 149,000 people in Michigan hold a valid teaching certificate, but roughly 65,000 do not work as a teacher.

“Teaching has changed a lot over the years and COVID has made it more difficult,” Nicholls said. “It isn’t just a problem here; it’s everywhere. There was a shortage of teachers before, and now it is worse. Teachers leave to get what they’re looking for.”

Nicholls and his fellow teachers are hoping to reach an agreement that makes DUS a place where teachers want to work.

“I have a student in this district,” Nicholls said during public comment at Monday’s board meeting. “I brought my son here through school of choice because I believe in the teachers and staff we have here, but I believe we can do better. If we want to be a destination district, we need to start treating our teachers and students with the respect and care they deserve.”