If you were to walk into Miller Auditorium on August 28, 2017, you would have seen a sea of black-clothed teachers sitting silent in solidarity.
Every year the Kalamazoo Public Schools District adopts a budget for the upcoming fiscal year. From this budget the district then adopts a teacher salary contract, which is negotiated with a group of teachers called The Bargaining Team.
Normally, this negotiative process remains private between teachers and the district. This year the issue of teacher salary negotiation was made public and gained the attention of multiple news media outlets in Kalamazoo. The Kalamazoo Education Association (KEA) decided to go public when they disagreed with what the Kalamazoo Public Schools (KPS) proposed for the 2017-2018 teacher salary schedule.
According to the teacher salary schedule, every year teachers in the district are slated to receive a salary increase up to their 15th year due to how many years they have worked in the district; this is called a pay step. This year, the district proposed a 1.38 percent employee salary increase which was later changed to 1.8 percent without the contractually obligated step raise.
“Approximately eighty-four percent of spending is in employee compensation. Accordingly, it is impossible to avoid impacting employees when making financial decisions,” said Gary Start, Deputy Superintendent of Business for Kalamazoo Public Schools.
The step raise would be frozen, so for example, five year teachers would still be paid as four year teachers this year, and then next year they would be paid as fifth year teachers and so on, continuing to be paid a step below where they truly are for the rest of their careers in KPS. Without the step increase teachers could lose up to $20 thousand over the course of their career.
“That [the step freeze] would cost almost a year of tuition for my daughter,” said government teacher Michael Wright.
For younger teachers the step freeze could have had more immediate effects. English teacher and member of the KEA Joint Crisis Committee Brianna English said, “Personally, as a younger person I have a lot of expenses. Each dollar on my paycheck makes a difference. This pay check would effect me now and for future years.”
Many teachers such as English and Wright found out about the possible step freeze in June of 2017 from a mass KEA email. However, most initial reactions weren’t angry or frustrated, but rather disappointed and shocked. Enrollment and test scores have been consistently going up over the past ten years which means the District should be endowed more money from the state.
“It felt like a punishment for something we didn’t do or weren’t aware we did,” said English and drama teacher Paige Carrow.
Teachers and staff of KPS then began to take action.
“Knowing that a district I have put a lot of time into, my life into, [it] felt like they were devaluing me by not giving us our contractually promised paycheck,” said English.
English followed a similar path to many other teachers in the district. She attended the District’s school board meeting on on August 3, 2017 where teachers voiced their frustrations with the proposed contract. The District recited a pre-prepared statement. Which included, “Continued inadequate state revenue to local school districts has greatly restricted the ability of local districts to compensate employees.”
“It [the statement] made me feel powerless,” said English.
After the meeting, English joined the Joint Crisis Committee, which informs union members about future plans to push forward the goals KPS teachers have set forth.
Carrow, along with social studies teacher Jay Peterson, took a different approach, they reached out to family, students, and other union members about the district’s intentions and asked them to attend the August 3rd meeting. Carrow, who took notice that many of her colleges were leaving the district due to these relationship conflicts wanted to encourage students to join the cause.
“When teachers they [the students] care about leave because they are treated unfairly it disrupts the learning environment. Students want to have their teachers backs just as the teachers have theirs,” said Carrow
An agreement was finally reached on August 25, 2017. The teachers would receive their step increase after seventeen days of the school year. Many teachers believe the agreement is fair but are still frustrated with the conditions under which the agreement was reached.
“I feel damage to the relationship between teachers and administration has been done, but I hope we can rebuild that relationship,” said Peterson
It was because of this strained relationship that the Joint Crisis Committee encouraged union members to wear all black to the annual Miller Auditorium District Meeting on August 28, 2017. According to an eyewitness, roughly 70 percent of teachers showed their support for the cause.
Contrary to what other news media outlets portrayed, for many teachers this issue isn’t as much about pay as it is about how the KPS district treats its employees.
“I hope in future years the district finds better solutions to solve budget problems than cutting teacher pay and benefits as those are essential to recruiting and retaining quality teachers,” said English
When reaching out to the district about this issue, Start, a member of the negotiation team said that teachers make the schools what they are.
“District decision makers, including the superintendent, the school board and me, greatly value our teachers. Without our teachers, we wouldn’t be the high quality school district that we are,” said Start.
As the school year has already started, and now that teacher are receiving their pay step again hopefully teachers and district administrators can begin to create a more transparent and open relationship.
“It’s going to continue to be a struggle to provide appropriate compensation for teachers with our current political climate, and it’s my hope that the district is willing to work with the teachers union more collaboratively and earlier in the negotiation process in years to come,” said Peterson.