TEMPERANCE - Two years after finishing one of the most contentious labor agreements in recent memory, officials from the Bedford Public Schools and all but one of its unions will sit down this month to negotiate the terms of another contract.
But this is no ordinary time for Bedford, or any other public school district in Michigan for that matter. The district just pink-slipped 19 certified staff members, and other layoffs and cuts loom on the horizon.
State education spending has been frozen for three years, the costs of health care have continued to skyrocket for employers nationwide, and longer life spans and falling markets are making pension plans far more expensive than was previously calculated. Couple those considerations with an anemic national and local economy that still hasn't fully rebounded and high unemployment, and you're left with a series of talks that neither side particularly wants to have.
"My way of thinking is that this should be the shortest negotiations we've ever had," said Wes Berger, the district's assistant superintendent for human resources. "There is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow here. When we sit down and negotiate, there isn't a lot to fight over."
While Colleen Jan, president of the Bedford Education Association, acknowledges that the district may be in a financial crunch, she said the hue and cry she is hearing from the administration building is quickly becoming a familiar tune.
"It seems that anytime we get ready to negotiate, the district is poor," Mrs. Jan said. "We've engaged the services of a [certified public accountant] this time, because there are those in the administration who seem to feel that we don't have the ability to read a budget."
Mrs. Jan said she and her members are willing to negotiate in good faith, but she said she would like to see the district stop wasting money on unnecessary expenditures and unemployement benefits for laid-off teachers.
"They're making sounds of being more conciliatory, but then they turn around and squander money on things that we feel shouldn't be priorities. They should be conciliatory with actions, not words," Mrs. Jan said.
The talks to replace the BEA's labor agreement that expired in 2001 ran almost a full year into the new three-year successor agreement before they were concluded in April 2002. There were charges and counter-charges traded between the two sides at the time in a long-running labor war that played out largely in public.
The agreement ultimately resulted in wage increases for Bedford teachers - who are among the lowest paid of all teachers in Monroe County - of 3.2 percent, 3 percent, and 2.75 percent in the three years of the deal.
The resulting increases took the top pay for a teacher with a master's degree plus an additional 36 credit hours of classes to $64,983 this year and the starting pay for a teacher fresh out of college to $32,244.
The pay increases came at a cost for members of the Bedford Education Association, who were forced to eat higher health care deductibles, while the district had to find a way to pay for any increases in the overall costs of providing health-care coverage during the agreement.
But the often acrimonious talks weren't all about money; the district and the teachers' union made more than 50 changes in contract language during their 2001-2002 talks, wide-ranging discussions that Mr. Berger said should make this year's negotiations easier.
"We had maybe two grievances [from BEA members] in the last year, so we have a contract now that we both seem able to abide by," Mr. Berger said.
"We're going to have to explore some things collaboratively with all [the unions representing Bedford's employees]. This is a time for us to explore some different ideas," Mr. Berger said. "Of course, we're probably going to end up disagreeing about what those different ideas are."
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