Flint Board of Ed pledges to continue negotiations with Flint teachers after sickout, strike vote

By Harold Ford

A whirlwind day of intense labor relations in Flint Community Schools (FCS) on Wednesday, March 13, 2024 began with an early-morning “sick-out” by teachers that closed all 11 of the district’s in-use school buildings. (Holmes students are currently housed in a wing of the Southwestern building as renovations are underway at the Holmes campus.)

Later in the day, during an afternoon meeting at the Michigan Education Association (MEA) building, 121 members of the United Teachers of Flint (UTF) voted to authorize a strike. The vote was unanimous according to Bruce Jordan, MEA Uniserv Director who serves and represents nearly all public-school teachers in Genesee County.

A United Teachers of Flint demonstrator outside of the Flint Board of Education Meeting on March 13, 2024. Union members voted to strike earlier in the day after staging a “sick out.” (Photo by Harold Ford)

The early evening then featured a large and often noisy demonstration by UTF members at Accelerated Learning Academy, 1602 S. Averill Ave. prior to a Committee of the Whole meeting of the Flint Board of Education (FBOE).

Later in the evening, after returning from a closed board session that lasted nearly an hour, FBOE members voted unanimously to continue negotiations with the UTF about matters that spurred the sickout and strike vote earlier in the day.

However, the UTF and the board-administration team seem to disagree about exactly what issues divide them.

For the past two months, according to repeated statements by UTF members, the overriding divisive issue has been the FBOE’s unanimous rejection of a reported agreement in January to restore pay steps (increases) arrived at by UTF representatives and a negotiating team representing the school district that included three members of the FBOE.

“Give us our steps!” exclaimed UTF member Dena Ashworth a month ago at a Feb. 14 FBOE meeting.

The view of the FCS administration-board team is that, in fact, steps toward salary restoration have been made.

Thrun Law Firm’s Tim Gardner, chief negotiator for FCS since 2022, stated that negotiations with UTF restored some steps on Aug. 1, 2023 and will again on Aug. 1, 2024.

Gardner also reported a “really improved” wage scale and a sizable COVID relief bonus paid to teachers in 2021. According to Gardner, the divisive issues are actually UTF grievances about teacher preparation time and changes in the pay scale for new teacher hires.

Morning sick-out closes schools

An early-morning announcement sent to Flint area media by MEA’s Jordan at 4:20 a.m. about the UTF sick-out stated, in part, “Flint teachers are not showing up to work this morning.”

A sign on an entry door to Neithercut Elementary in Flint, Mich. on March 13, 2024. (Photo by Harold Ford)

A lengthier statement posted at the FCS website by Flint Superintendent Kevelin Jones announced “All school buildings will be closed today due to 119 United Teachers of Flint, MEA/NEA employees calling in sick… The District certainly does not appreciate how this unexpected school closure will impact our families. While the District understands that this school closure will hurt our scholars more than anyone else, the District hopes that UTF employees will return to work tomorrow, so scholars can be educated tomorrow.”

Simple signs at the entrances to some FCS buildings also announced the cancellation of school.

A sign posted at Neithercut Elementary read “No School Today, See You Tomorrow” in both English and Spanish. A sign at Freeman read “No School, Closed Today,” and at Eisenhower, a hand-scrawled sign simply stated “No School Today.”

Afternoon meeting produces strike vote

According to Jordan, a 3:00 p.m. closed-door meeting of UTF members at the local MEA office ended with a “unanimous” vote to authorize a strike.

Jordan and Karen Christian, UTF president, delivered public statements about the UTF-FCS impasse to a room packed with Flint teachers and Flint-area media.

“A few months ago the United Teachers of Flint and Flint Community Schools administrators collaborated on a settlement agreement with their attorney,” Christian said. “This agreement was painstakingly crafted word by word, number by number, with the help of a state mediator.”

She went on to say the agreement “addressed critical staffing issues that long plagued” FCS, including “teacher recruitment, retention, long overdue pay increases, and step advancements for school employees.”

Christian continued, “Neither side got everything that they wanted … But in a bizarre move, the Flint Board [of Education] rejected the agreement … Almost two months have passed … and there’s been nothing … We cannot sit idly by and let the local politicians on the Flint School Board harm our students by refusing to provide them with the quality educators they deserve  Enough is enough … We must act … The time is now.”

For his part, Jordan noted the UTF had requested “several meetings” with the district over the last few months, adding that those requests “were either ignored or were denied.”

He said that the teachers had not made the decision to call in sick on March 13 lightly.

“It was probably one of the hardest, most difficult, most stressful decisions they’ve made,” Jordan said. “Our priority is and has always been student-driven. The families and students are just as tired of the mismanagement and conduct of this district … The
district flat-out refuses to talk about the issues at hand … [We] are left with no other option but to walk.”

Jordan criticized documents provided to the public by FCS officials as inaccurate, assembled by employees new to the district, the result of continuous turnover of central administrators in recent years.

As to a strike date, Christian said, “There is a date but we’re not sure yet … I need the Flint School Board to give me a date to sit down and have a conversation about this and talk true numbers … I need real numbers from their audit … Their numbers are completely off.”

Christian said she was disappointed in FBOE candidates that swept all incumbents from their positions in the last election and were replaced by UTF-endorsed, first-time board members.

“The next time there’s a board election, there’ll be different questions that will be asked [of candidates] because we won’t make this mistake again.”

United Teachers of Flint members pack a Flint Board of Education meeting on March 13, 2024. (Photo by Harold Ford)

Evening demonstration at school board meeting

Some 200 UTF members and their supporters carried picket signs and chanted slogans prior to the 6:30 p.m. start of the FBOE meeting at ALA.

As Joyce Ellis-McNeal, board president, made her way to the FBOE meeting through the crowded parking lot, UTF members targeted her with a call-and-response chant: “Hey, he, ho, ho; Flint School Board members have got to go!”

Dozens of motorists on Averill Ave. and Lapeer St. (the intersection at which ALA sits) honked their horns in obvious support of demonstrating teachers.

Once inside the ALA building, nine speakers – mostly UTF members – lined up to support the UTF, often excoriating the school board.

UTF member Joelle Jordan said she was pink-slipped, or told she would not be rehired, seven of her 18 years in the district and was assigned to eight different elementary schools.

“I’m moved like a chess piece to another school,” she said. “We do a disservice to our families … in a community of students that need stability.”

Former FCS student and now UTF veteran Krissy Gatz said the pay cuts and freezes teachers have taken for years had cost her “a great deal,” personally.

“I’m not sure how much longer I can choose to call Flint my home,” she said.

Both Flint teachers were emotional and teary-eyed as they spoke.

Board votes 7-0 to continue bargaining

Following a closed-door session to discuss the impasse with Flint teachers, FBOE members voted unanimously to continue bargaining with the UTF about their grievances.

The motion to restart talks was made by Michael Clack, FBOE vice president, and seconded by Claudia Perkins, FBOE secretary.

UTF leaders charged that their efforts to restart stalled negotiations had been ignored by the district’s board-administrative team for the previous two months. Gardner indicated that two unresolved issues that were the subjects of UTF grievances – prep
time and pay scale changes for new hires – are headed to arbitration in April and May.

Board members then voted 7-0 to have Richard Ziegler, Michigan Employment Relations Commission mediator, present at future meetings that involve UTF contractual issues.

In their closing comments, FCS leadership seemed to signal the need to better compensate the district’s teachers.

“None of us … at this table believes the teachers are making the proper compensation,” Jones said. “We need to look further beyond this district to get funding and money to support the work of this district.”

Dylan Luna, FBOE treasurer added, “I’m not discouraged by the demonstrations because … I’d probably do the same thing… I’m not mad at the union … I will continue to believe that we’re partners in addressing this issue.”

“This board is … is the most labor-friendly board the school district has ever had,” claimed Laura MacIntyre, FBOE assistant secretary/treasurer. “[Teachers] are being heard, are being listened to.”

Clack, a former Flint educator, ended the meeting with a statement aimed at the district’s teachers: “We hear you; we need you; we respect you; and we value you.”

* * * * *

Future meetings of the FBOE are scheduled for Mar. 20; Apr. 10 and 17; May 8 and 15; June 12 and 19. Meetings start at 6:30 and are held at Accelerated Learning Academy, 1602 S. Averill Ave., Flint. Meetings can also be accessed through the district’s YouTube channel.

Author: East Village Magazine

A Non-profit, Community News Magazine Since 1976

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