GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) - Union leaders told 24 Hour News 8 if they don't get a contract before the March 27, Right to Work deadline there will be "in-fighting" that "destroys the district."
Teachers turned out in full force to Monday evening's Grand Rapids Public Schools Board of Education meeting, telling the district they need a better contract.
They are speaking out now, after going six months without a contract, because Michigan's new right-to-work legislation goes into effect March 27. District leaders say they are not focused on that deadline. But the union says they need a contract now.
"It is true that our teachers are the lowest paid of the 10 other school districts in Kent County. That's a reality," said GRPS spokesman John Helmholdt.
Helmholdt says the district wishes it could change that reality, but Grand Rapids Education Association President Paul Helder said he doesn't buy it.
"You're saying if it was up to Teresa Neal and the administration they would pay us more, which means what the board is saying no?" he questioned.
Helmholdt says the district is doing what it can, but with declining student enrollment and cuts from state funding, GRPS has to pinch pennies. At this point, the district says, it can't predict what it will have in the bank a year or two from now.
"As much as Mr. Helder likes to claim that there's this hidden cash, the reality is there is not," Helmholdt said.
"It's not a financial problem," said Helder. "It's an issue of simply playing the same song they play every year which is, 'Whoa is us, the district's in financial crisis, let's all go have caviar.'"
Helder says teachers deserve more money and that should be a priority. He said there's no reason a 5th-year teacher should be eligible for food stamps.
"I think everyone is going to see how much they care about the teachers and that is precious little," he said.
"It really is unfair for some to characterize as if the superintendent, if the Board of Education, I or this administration doesn't care. That's just flat wrong," said Helmholdt.
Teachers also said that too much money is being taken out of their paychecks.
"Literally my take home pay doesn't take me home anymore," one teacher told the school board. "I did not earn enough to make my house payment and my car payment."
Teacher after teacher shared their story. One common issue was that more money has been coming out of each paycheck for insurance costs. In one case, for example, about $300 was taken out of a $1,400 paycheck.
"This is the new law of the land. The state legislature passed PA 152 that specifically requires all public employees, not just school employees but government and municipal employees, to pay a portion of their health care," Helmholdt explained to 24 Hour News 8 Tuesday.
But the fees are actually more than the state law actually calls for. That's because GRPS teachers are paying retroactively now for about five months of fees they didn't pay in the first place. The district says those fees were put off because it thought a union agreement would have been reached before now and that any new costs would have come along with a new contract.
"The angst and the frustration should not be with the administration of this district," said Helmholdt.
Helder says the union plans to hold a public assistance forum on March 14, particularly for younger teachers to let them know what kind of state aid for which they may qualify.
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