ESCANABA - The Escanaba School Board voted to not hear a grievance filed by the Escanaba Education Association intended to advance approximately six teachers' pay levels based on "lane change advancements." The decision was made during Monday's school board meeting.
Escanaba High School teacher Dan DeLong spoke on behalf of the EEA on the grievance during the meeting, saying the six teachers were not aware they would not be compensated for "lane changes" until their first pay check on Aug. 23.
A "lane change" refers to the advancement of salary based on a teacher completing a higher degree or additional college credit hours. This differs from "step increases," which essentially is a pay increase based on longevity or the number of years a teacher remains with the district.
The grievance filed accused Escanaba Area Public Schools management of violating the collective bargaining contract from 2011-12. The district currently follows as much of the contract as they legally can since an agreement for 2012-13 has not been made. The grievance was denied at step two due to Public Act 54 of 2011, which management says supersedes the contract.
An excerpt of PA 54 reads that "...after the expiration date of a collective bargaining agreement and until a successor collective bargaining agreement is in place, a public employer shall pay and provide wages and benefits at levels and amounts that are no greater than those in effect on the expiration date of the collective bargaining agreement."
"We understand that and we're not disputing that, but it's basically the interpretation of the law is what we're disputing," said DeLong, explaining that two school districts were involved in two separate lawsuits with conflicting outcomes.
DeLong said he spoke with other school districts, including Gladstone, who sided with the Bedford lawsuit outcome which favors paying the lane changes. He also talked with Rep. Ed McBroom who said the language of the law was not intended to be applied toward lane changes.
"Any time that we had a contract before, steps and lanes were always paid," said DeLong. "Now the law states that you can't pay steps. It's up to two judges who couldn't decide on if you should pay the lanes or not. Steps is agreed upon, it's not the lanes that's agreed upon."
Escanaba Superintendent Michele Lemire responded by reading the portion of the bill stating that districts cannot pay and provide wages and benefits at higher levels until the the next collective bargaining agreement is in place.
"The district is obligated to follow the law," said Lemire. "This is a grievance hearing. This isn't a court of law."
She said she looked back into the contract which explains the advancement of teachers on the pay schedule based on lane changes, but pointed to a part of the contract that reads: "If any provision of this agreement or any application of the agreement to any employee or group of employees shall be found contrary to law, then such provision or application shall not be deemed valid and subsisting except to the extent permitted by law, but all other provisions or application shall continue in full force and effect."
Lemire said providing wages at a greater amount than those in effect on June 30, 2012, the expiration date of the contract, is "contrary to law."
She said although this one portion of the contract is invalid, the district can follow contract language they are legally able to follow until the 2012-13 agreement.
Lemire also pointed out that the grievance should not even technically be processed since, according to the contract, "any grievance occurring during the period between the termination date of this agreement and the effective date of a new agreement shall not be processed."
"I asked myself, 'Should this grievance go to the board level because of what this contract language says?'" questioned Lemire. "But I believe that at least we need to be open and transparent about it and so therefore I allow for the grievance to be brought forth in front of you today."
She also explained that due to the two conflicting court outcomes of Bedford and Waverly, the school district's attorney said to side with the Waverly ruling which says to prohibit lane changes to comply with PA 54.
"We aren't a court of law," said Lemire. "It's not for this board to decide who was right - Bedford or Waverly. So you look at the effect. If the board chose to accept and to grant these lane change advancements, there stands a possibility that, according to our school district's attorney ... the board of education is doing an illegal act. It is not following the law. If the board sided with management and denies the grievance, our school district attorney would say ... that we followed the law."
Lemire said the question will likely advance in the court system and someone will ultimately make a decision. If it's decided that districts should pay for lane change advancements, Escanaba would be mandated to make payments to those teachers retroactively.
During discussion, trustee Marilyn Noble said she felt that PA 54 was not wrong, but that perhaps parts of it needed to be changed.
Board Secretary Nicole Dewar said the law made her feel "nauseous," saying that prohibiting the payment of lane change advancements is "horrible," but that she felt the law was clear and didn't give much flexibility. She also said she felt that if the law's language was intended to be applied toward step increases, she wished that the law made this clearer.
However, Dewar said she felt the grievance should not have come to them at all since the contract says any grievance during the period between the 2011-12 contract and the effective date of a new agreement should not be processed.
The board voted 4 votes to 2 to not hear the grievance, with Dewar, Noble, Board Vice President James Hermans, and trustee Willard Carne voting in support of the motion. Board President Cory Kuchenberg and trustee Jed Gagnier voted in opposition. Cathy Wilson was absent from the meeting.