DETROIT (AP) - A new contract imposed by a state-appointed overseer requires Detroit school teachers to pay far more for their dental care and reduces their life insurance benefits without a salary hike, a union leader said Tuesday, blasting the cost-cutting plan as a "farce."
Detroit Federation of Teachers president Keith Johnson told The Associated Press that the union is considering several options heading toward the Aug. 27 date when teachers are to report. While the district has a history of striking, he noted it's against state law for teachers to strike and declined to say whether that was a possibility.
The school district is one of three in the state that were assigned emergency managers who have authority to redo collective bargaining units as part of a law approved last year by the Legislature that seeks to improve the financial footing of struggling government entities. Four Michigan cities also have been assigned emergency managers, and the city of Detroit reached a last-minute deal with the state to avoid one.
But Johnson said that just because the school district's emergency manager, Roy Roberts, has the right to impose the changes without bargaining with the teachers doesn't mean he should. In a memo to union members, Johnson said the plan was so egregious that he would wait for Roberts himself to share most of the details with them.
"We will let the authors of this farce announce their own actions against you," Johnson said. "Had we been afforded the opportunity to engage in good-faith collective bargaining and to reach a mutual agreement, we would be eager to present the fruits of such collaboration to you. But that is not this situation."
Even before the contract was imposed, about 3,300 Detroit teachers were expected to return to the classroom this fall in a much smaller district.
Roberts, a former auto executive, was appointed in May 2011 by Gov. Rick Snyder. He has trimmed what had been a budget deficit of more than $300 million to $72 million by cutting spending, closing obsolete and underperforming schools and moving some of the city's more poorly performing schools into a new statewide education system.
Terry Stanton, spokesman for the state treasurer's office, said Roberts has the right to act unilaterally if "it becomes clear a desired labor agreement is not viable or workable."
But Johnson said there were no negotiations and that the union has shown a willingness to compromise "to work toward a financial recovery."
"It's strictly about power," Johnson added. "That's how it appears to me, especially in light of the fact that Mr. Roberts and I had three one-one-one lunch meetings; nobody else but him and me. We talked openly about working together toward an agreement."
The contract keeps in an already in-place 10 percent pay cut, forces teachers to pay for 20 percent of their dental coverage and reduces life insurance policies by $5,000 to $20,000 without cutting back the cost of premiums, Johnson said.
Teachers will pay $5 more for co-pays on generic prescription medications and only get unemployment compensation for time off work as a result of assaults by students or parents.
At least 4,100 teachers received layoff notices this spring. The layoffs are effective Aug. 24. The district has said the notices were sent to ensure it has the appropriate number of teachers in the fall. Its fiscal year 2013 budget is based on an enrollment of just under 50,000 students and 26 fewer schools.
"All of the actions Mr. Roberts has taken have been done in a manner to provide our families as well as our staff members the information they need to plan, much earlier than has been the case, and thus to establish a level of stability that our schools and children deserve," spokesman Steve Wasko said in an email. "This will additionally ensure a smooth start to the school year, with students in attendance and a highly qualified teacher in front of each classroom."
Johnson said the new contract may force some of the best educators to leave.
"You are really telling your employees just how much you think of them," he said. "Our best teachers are openly seeking an employer that respects them and values them. We stand to lose teachers we cannot afford to lose."
In 2006, Detroit teachers went on strike after rejecting a proposal for a wage cut and more health copays.
Whatever happens, Detroit students must not get lost in any battles between the administration and teachers, said Dan Varner, executive director of the nonprofit Excellent Schools Detroit.
"The potential certainly exists that the winds swirling around DPS can impact kids," Varner said. "At the end of day, the union, teachers in the classroom, the central office, adults all care about what's best for kids."
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