TRAVERSE CITY -- Teachers in Traverse City's public schools believe administrators have created a "culture of fear" that has substantially lowered staff morale.

It's become so bad, several told school board members Monday night, that staff across the district are afraid to air their concerns in fear of being targeted.

Their comments mostly referenced ongoing contract negotiations, as teachers enter their 10th month without a new agreement. Staff carried signs outside the administration building on Webster Street in Traverse City prior to Monday's board meeting.

"I'm mad I'm here," Central High School math teacher Steve Lockman said. "I don't know if you can put the pieces back."

Board members did not address the teachers after they spoke, except for President Fred Tank, who thanked them after saying he was "rattled by the intensity" of their remarks.

Teachers worked all year under the terms of their previous contract, which expired Aug. 31, 2008. A mediator has been requested this summer to reach a deal.

Some teachers at Central High School won't work on their own time this summer to develop a new program for next year, in part due to the lack of a resolution, teacher Greg Farmer said.

Superintendent James Feil said later the teachers' comments were not a surprise, but added that he didn't know what caused their assertions of low morale.

Negotiations have caused stress, he acknowledged, but said part of the problem could be that teachers don't have complete information about the district's financial health -- a significant factor, to be sure, in contract talks.

The district is facing a roughly $3 million shortfall for next year, and future projections shown Monday indicate that deficit is expected to increase.

"We don't know what their leadership is providing them," Feil said later. "Staff could have stayed here tonight. They could have even had comments at the end."

Teachers are aware of the finances, union President John Scrudato said.

But, he added, if the district truly was in dire straits, administrators would have approached the union about needing to increase class sizes or lay off staff.

"I'm not lying to my membership," Scrudato said. "What's being used to grow the business is the employees."

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