Traverse City Record-Eagle

April 19, 2013

Alba school faces cash quandary

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — A labor dispute could have a major financial impact on Antrim County’s cash-strapped Alba Public School.

The single-school, 180-student district has an overall budget of about $1.6 million, but Superintendent Rich Satterlee said the district’s fund balance is nearly gone after years of using cash reserves to cover expenses.

School officials hoped to end the current fiscal year with a $75,000 fund balance, but that could be in jeopardy, pending the Michigan Employment Relations Commission’s decision on an unfair labor practice charge filed against the district’s board by employee union representatives. MERC is a three-member commission that administers Michigan’s Public Employment Relations Act.

“If the decision goes against us, we will have very little (in the fund balance),” Satterlee said.

Collective bargaining between the district and its employees started in July.

The Alba Public School Board of Education in December declared the two sides reached an impasse and without union approval OK’d cuts to employee compensation, including a five percent salary reduction and a 13 percent reduction to the cap on board-paid insurance premiums.

The Public Employment Relations Act allows public employers to unilaterally approve contract changes when a bargaining impasse occurs.

But the Northern Michigan Education Association denied the two parties were at an impasse. Union representatives in December also filed a petition for fact-finding, a process by which a MERC mediator makes public facts like the district’s available money supply and the price of other contracts in an effort to assist negotiations.

State law prevents public employers from implementing changes to bargaining topics after the initiation of fact-finding. The NMEA filed its unfair labor practice charge in January as a result, and filed a complaint in circuit court seeking an injunction against the Alba School Board.

Judge Thomas Power dismissed the complaint March 18 because the issue is pending before MERC, said Martha Marcero, an attorney for the district from East Lansing-based Thrun Law Firm.

William Young, an Okemos-based attorney for the NMEA, said a MERC hearing scheduled for May likely will be canceled pending a fact-finding session scheduled for June.

Both parties hope to reach a contract agreement through the fact-finding process, Young said.

“Hopefully we’ll get a contract,” Young said. “That’s the point of everything we’re doing.”

MERC officials could not be reached for comment.