Flint, MI—The Board of Education approved $1.5 million in teachers’ compensation earlier this month without a concrete plan to distribute the funds. The decision has led Flint’s teachers’ union, the United Teachers of Flint (UTF), to call for immediate follow-up action.

While UTF has been asking for Flint Community Schools (FCS) to restore teachers’ wages that reflect their years of service, or step advancements, union officials say the Board’s vote on the one-time funding doesn’t actually address their request at the moment, though it’s a move in the right direction.

Accordingly, Bruce Jordan, the Michigan Education Association UniServ director assigned to work with UTF, said the union is calling for the Board to allow Flint Schools’ administration to begin discussions with the union on using the funds to restore teachers’ steps and to clarify exactly what was voted on.

“The motion that was made last week in the Committee of the Whole Meeting was to move $1.5 million into a unique fund for teacher compensation,” Jordan told Flint Beat. “But nobody knows really what that means. Does it mean steps are happening? Does it mean that maybe they’re going to take that and put it right on the pay scale? Who knows?”

Bruce Jordan, the Michigan Education Association UniServ director assigned to work with the United Teachers of Flint, speaks during the Flint Community Schools Board of Education meeting at Accelerated Learning Academy in Flint, Mich. on Wednesday, May 10, 2023. (Michael Indriolo | Flint Beat)

At a Board of Education meeting on Wednesday May 17, 2023, Nadia Rodriguez, a teacher at Durant-Tuuri-Mott Elementary School and UTF’s chair of the Political Action Committee, urged the Board to take action.

“We need to be able to have those negotiations and we’re asking that you please authorize that as soon as possible,” Rodriguez said during public comment. 

The Board has yet to make a decision on the request. But after the vote on May 10 to authorize the $1.5 million, which was passed 5-2 with Treasurer Dylan Luna and Trustee Terae King Jr. casting the dissenting votes, the Board unanimously approved that night to hold a special meeting with Thrun Law Firm to discuss whether reopening the UTF contract is needed and the legal matters of setting aside $1.5 million for teachers’ compensation.

The meeting is planned to be held in June and the exact date has not been determined, according to Pam Beard, an executive assistant at Flint Schools.

Nadia Rodriguez, a teacher at Durant-Tuuri-Mott (DTM) Elementary School, writes notes on her Smart Board during class on Thursday, March 2, 2023. (Michael Indriolo | Flint Beat)

The first step freezes were put in place roughly a decade ago for Flint Schools’ teachers. Matthew Sylvester, a teacher at Holmes STEM Middle School Academy, said he has remained at the same step as when he first joined the district roughly four years ago.

“It’s made me feel like I’m not valued, and I still feel like I’m one of the lucky ones because I didn’t have to take any of the pay decreases I know other teachers had to take,” Sylvester said in an interview. 

Like Sylvester, Ryan Delaney’s been teaching in the district for four years or so. But Delaney told the Board on Wednesday that it’s become increasingly difficult to make ends meet over time amid the pandemic and inflation. 

Delaney, a teacher at Southwestern Classical Academy, further told Flint Beat, “The kids that I teach, they’re my family. But when it comes to the district, I don’t think they get it. I don’t think they understand [that] us teachers and staff …, we care for these kids as if they were our own. But we can’t take care of our own children being paid what we’re paid.”

Increasing pay, Sylvester added, would help address the shortage of teachers.

Matthew Sylvester, a teacher at Holmes STEM Middle School Academy, speaks to the Flint Community Schools Board of Education during the Board’s meeting at Accelerated Learning Academy in Flint, Mich. on Wednesday, May 10, 2023. (Michael Indriolo | Flint Beat)

“In my hallway alone, there are two positions that are not filled, two math teachers,” he said.

A long-term substitute has filled one of the classrooms since the start of the school year, and the other has seen a rotation of substitutes over time, according to Sylvester. 

Seeing their own classrooms with teacher vacancies is discouraging for students, Sylvester added. 

“It makes them feel like they’re not worth it,” he said. “It gives them time without order, time without solidarity, time without a chance to learn and grow.” 

In an open letter from UTF that was sent to the Board on May 6, the union estimates that there are 90 to 100 vacancies in Flint Schools. UTF officials say those numbers pertain to teacher vacancies, though Kevelin Jones, Flint Schools’ superintendent, told Flint Beat that the figures apply to all staff vacancies, with teacher vacancies being around 40 to 50 in the district. 

The union also projects that 41% of teachers in the next academic year are eligible to retire at any time, according to the letter. Jones said he isn’t able to verify the number at the moment. 

Even though teachers will move forward a step next school year, and another in the 2024 to 2025 academic year under the current bargaining agreement, UTF officials say that doesn’t go far enough to bring back the wages that truly reflect teachers’ years of service.  

Karen Christian, UTF’s president and a teacher at Potter Elementary School, said paying teachers competitive wages is key to recruiting and retaining the district’s educators. It’s about honoring teachers’ work at Flint Schools, she added. 

“Some of the people that have left this year have left because they’ve been offered pay raises in other districts,” Christian said. “You’re talking about all this experience and all the training that Flint has given teachers going elsewhere.” 

With respect to the union’s request to open up negotiations on the approved $1.5 million for teachers, Board President Michael Clack said “if it’s going to make them whole, I’m all for it.”

But Trustee Melody Relerford, who motioned for the $1.5 million to be set aside on May 10, said the funding “does not need to be negotiated.” Relerford believes she made the motion based on a recommendation from the union, she added. 

That recommendation, among others presented by UTF, was a “motion from the Board to move all teachers to their correct step commensurate of their teaching experience and make it effective July 1, 2023,” according to a March 16 email from Jordan addressing Relerford and Luna. It can be memorialized into a letter of agreement or memorandum of understanding without needing to reopen the contract, and restoring the steps would cost a rough estimate of $1.5 million, Jordan wrote. 

So, Relerford argues that no further negotiations on teacher restoration are necessary after the Board’s approval of the $1.5 million.

In response to UTF’s request to bargain on teachers’ compensation following the Board’s decision, Relerford wrote in an email dated May 11 addressing Jordan: “Bruce, Stop it. No opening of contracts will be approved. You and your open letters are very suspect in limited communication.” 

When asked about the Board’s decision to authorize the funding, Jones said in an emailed statement: “My administration is working closely with the Flint Board of Education to determine the best solution to responsibly designate the approved $1.5 million in teacher compensation.”

What’s key now is for all relevant parties to discuss and agree on how the funds should be distributed equitably, Jordan told Flint Beat.

Ryan Delaney, a teacher at Southwestern Classical Academy, speaks to the Flint Community Schools Board of Education during the Board’s meeting at Accelerated Learning Academy in Flint, Mich. on Wednesday, May 17, 2023. (Nicholas Chan | Flint Beat)

In the meantime, Luna reiterated his stance on the motion to dedicate $1.5 million for teachers. 

“In my opinion, without a reduction in operational costs as it relates to school consolidation and the sale, demolition and/or lease of vacant properties, this is fiscally irresponsible,” he said in an interview.

King echoed the Board treasurer’s concerns as he highlighted the importance of supporting teachers’ pay in a sustainable manner. 

“Of course, teachers deserve a fair wage. Teachers are superheroes,” King said, but he added that the Board has “to ensure this district is solvent and financially stable.”

While Clack voted for the $1.5 million, he said the Board should have done its due diligence prior to making the final decision. 

“I don’t take back that I voted for the 1.5,” Clack said, though he noted that “when people are saying, ‘Well, when are we gonna get it? How are we gonna get it?’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know.'” 

Clack, who was voted as president in January, emphasized his support for the teachers of Flint Schools. 

“It’s my first time being a president,” he said. “I make mistakes … Please don’t hold it against me, but my heart is pure in what I did. I want you guys to be compensated. You need to be compensated. We don’t want y’all to leave.”

As for Southwestern teacher Delaney, the father of four is hoping to remain in the district for as long as he can.

“I just don’t know how long I can,” he said.

Delaney, who taught at private schools before joining FCS, said he has stayed with the district thus far given the staff and students that he gets to work with at Southwestern.

“I moved from private school to public,” Delaney said. “I’ve gone from teaching the most privileged kids in the area, the southern Michigan area, to teaching the most underprivileged kids and the ability to help those kids gives me tremendous satisfaction.”

Nicholas is Flint Beat’s public health and education reporter. He joins the team as he graduates from Santa Clara University, Calif. Nicholas has previously reported on dementia and brain health, as...

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