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No new contract agreement yet for Detroit district teachers

The ongoing contract talks come as Michigan school districts face immense challenges, including a potential $1.1 billion state budget shortfall due to the coronavirus pandemic.

A week after a contract between the Detroit school district and the union representing teachers expired, there’s no clear sign that the two sides are close to a new agreement.

“We are currently in negotiations,” said Chrystal Wilson, spokeswoman for the district.

Wilson didn’t say whether the June 30 contract deadline was extended until a new agreement can be reached. Officials with the Detroit Federation of Teachers declined to comment.

In a letter sent to union members on July 3, DFT president Terrence Martin said that the union will push to secure a one-year contract, due to the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic. The most recent contract, ratified in 2017, lasted for three years.

“We are close on some items, but further away on others,” Martin said in the letter. “Nonetheless, we want to reach a tentative deal very soon.”

The union represents nearly 4,000 district employees. According to the letter, the union’s goals are to secure pay increases for members who are compensated at the top of the salary step scale, and increases for school employees who are not on the step scale. They’re also negotiating pay bonuses for all union members, including retirees and substitute teachers.

The ongoing contract talks come as Michigan school districts face immense challenges, including a potential $1.1 billion state budget shortfall due to the coronavirus pandemic. The district in June adopted a budget that Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said protected current wages, salaries, and jobs, despite the projected funding losses. Teachers may receive bonuses if a key tax vote is renewed in November, which has helped cover pay boosts in recent years, Vitti said.

The district is using a large chunk of the $85 million in funding it received through the federal coronavirus relief bill to address a projected loss in state funding. That loss would be due to steep state revenue declines because of the pandemic. The district is also using the money to pay for masks, sanitizer and other personal protective equipment, expand student technology, and hire more math and literacy teachers if class sizes are reduced.

Last year, the union and district ironed out an agreement on pay for the school year that just ended that provided a 4% pay increase for Detroit teachers at the top of the pay scale, and salary bumps for other union members. The agreement marked the first time district teachers saw higher earnings in a decade. When the district was under state control, emergency managers cut teacher pay 10%.

It’s unclear if concerns about COVID-19 and the reopening of schools is affecting negotiations. The district last month released a detailed draft of its reopening plan for the 2020-21 school year. Martin said in his letter to members that the union “will continue to advocate for what’s in the best interest of all staff and students.”

Some union members, including those affiliated with the activist group By Any Means Necessary, have pushed for school buildings to remain closed until it is safe for students and staff. The group said Tuesday it would hold protests this week in advance of the district beginning summer school next week.

Because of the heightened health and safety risks, Michigan teachers unions across the state are still pushing for district reopening plans to incorporate student, employee, and community feedback.

David Hecker, president of the American Federation of Teachers-Michigan, said most of the AFT’s employee contracts have already been settled, but he said reopening plans will affect wages, hours, and working conditions, which must be negotiated with unions. The Detroit union is affiliated with AFT-Michigan.

“Health and safety is a bargaining issue,” he said.

As for what usually happens when a contract expires, Hecker said both sides continue bargaining until an agreement is reached. In some cases, the two sides will agree to an extension.

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