Jessica Flood, academic services provider, works with students at the Bahweting Anishnabe School.
The superintendent of an American Indian school in the Upper Peninsula said
the school community is relieved that a vote on decertifying the local teachers
union is over and "we can move forward." The teacher who served as president of
the short-lived union described the atmosphere as unsettled.
Teachers at the Joseph K. Lumsden Bahweting Anishnabe School in Sault Ste.
Marie voted 19-13 in January to decertify the Michigan Education Association as
their bargaining representative. Teachers joined the union in 2005, an act that
led to a year of controversy between the teachers and the local Sault Tribe of
Chippewa Indians, which said the union presence was a danger to tribal
sovereignty. Superintendent Nick Oshelski told Michigan Education Report that
the school administration is reviewing employment policies as a way to resolve
some of the issues that originally led teachers to certify the union.
The district has formed a staff policy committee of school board members,
teachers, support staff and office staff who are reviewing the current staff
handbook, he said. When the revised handbook is finished, it will go to the
school board for adoption and, if approved, will serve as the written terms of
employment for teachers, he said.
"Everyone will have a say," Oshelski said of the committee process. "This is
their time to speak."
He said the handbook will cover things typically found in a public school
teaching contract, ranging from dress code to leaves of absence to grievance
procedures. Grievance policies were one area of disagreement between teachers
and the previous superintendent, according to Chris Gordon, a language and
culture teacher at the school who served as the union president until January’s
Gordon said that teachers in past years were asked to leave without just
cause or proper documentation of alleged poor performance, calling those acts
the "primary reason" the teachers looked into certifying a union. Another issue
is that each teacher is employed under an at-will, one-year teaching agreement.
At-will agreements allow either side — the teacher or the school — to end the
teacher’s employment at any time.
Oshelski said the school also is reviewing use of those agreements. "We’re
hoping to be able to review the agreements and offer a three-year contract based
on satisfactory job performance," he said.
Asked to describe the atmosphere in the school since the vote, Gordon said,
"Questioning, pretty much. Nobody knows what’s really going to happen." The
committee process is "something you can try. The problem is those policies are
only as good as the people who follow them.
"When you have a binding contract, you have legal action as a backup," Gordon
added. "Until you have a just cause policy ... and a binding contract, I don’t
think much will change yet."
About 65 percent of the 339 students at Bahweting Anishnabe School are
American Indian children who belong to a registered tribe. Enrollment has not
been affected by the union debate, Oshelski said; the K-8 school currently has
waiting lists in several elementary grades. The school is a federal Bureau of
Indian Education grant school, which means it receives money for those children
who belong to registered tribes. The Bureau of Indian Education operates within
the federal Office of Indian Education. It also is a charter public school
authorized by Northern Michigan University and receives per-pupil funding from
the state. The combined funding allows the district to spend more per student
than other conventional public schools in the area.
Sault Tribal Chairman Aaron Payment said in a prepared statement after the
decertification vote that, "This will pave the way for developing a stronger
relationship with our teachers and allows the school to address these issues as
a unified group and not as adversaries."
The Sault tribe does not operate the school, but it does own the school
building. The tribal board at one point said it would not continue leasing the
building to the school if the union remained. It also had suggested it would
withdraw from the charter agreement and operate strictly as a tribal school,
significantly reducing the school budget.
Gordon said the vote to leave the union was a reaction to the tribe’s actions and not to the union itself.
"If the tribe hadn’t threatened us so much, it wouldn’t even have been
close," he said.
Oshelski said the school offers many benefits to teachers and students,
including a maximum class size of 20, a full-time paraprofessional in every
classroom, money for teaching supplies and salaries at least comparable to local
conventional public schools. Busing is available for all students, and funding
is available for extra expenses like field trips and instruments for the
school’s string orchestra.
"I’m not going to say it’s all negative," Gordon said. "We’ve got a lot of
things here a lot of public schools can’t offer." But teachers also have a
longer instructional day and are expected to take on extra tasks like serving on
committees. "Some people say, ‘Just be happy you have a job.’ Well, I am happy.
Does that mean I shouldn’t try to correct things I think are wrong?"