By Seth Kinker, firstname.lastname@example.org
Members of the Chelsea Education Association (CEA), the teacher’s union in Chelsea, attended the Chelsea Board of Education meeting September 24 to convey their frustrations and disappointment with current contract negotiations between the CEA and the Chelsea School District.
In addition to an update provided by Superintendent Julie Helber during the meeting as an agenda item, community members spoke during the public comment portion of the board meeting. One of those that spoke was Renae Kempf, a 2016 graduate of Chelsea schools.
After the meeting Kempf and fellow 2016 Chelsea graduate and friend of Kempf, Anna Collins decided they wanted to host a public forum.
“We felt it was unfair teachers were unable to give their side of the story,” said Kempf. “We decided that that was important for them to be able to have that space to tell their side of the story, and board of education members were invited as well. We wanted the community to be able to have their questions answered because on the [Facebook] page we have a huge amount of people asking a lot of questions. It’s hard to get all the answers to them.”
The page Kempf was referencing was the Chelsea Residents in the Know, a Facebook page that she and Collins started so people could keep up to date on current happenings in Chelsea. Kempf and Collins made an event for the dubbed “Chelsea Public Forum.” It was to be hosted at Beach Middle School on Oct. 3. Chelsea Residents in the Know invited representatives from the CEA and the CSD to attend and be able to engage in discussion with community members about any question they had about the current contract negotiations, with the event being moderated by Brian Cowen from Breakfast with Bubba W4 Country radio.
After the Sept. 24 board of education meeting, Chelsea Residents in the Know invited both the CEA and the CSD to their public forum. Later in the week, the CEA accepted the invite and the CSD declined the invite.
“Since we are working through the processes established by the Michigan Employment Relations Commission it would not be advisable to circumvent these processes,” said Superintendent Dr. Julie Helber. “Accordingly, we will not be attending the community forum. The Board of Education is desirous of reaching an agreement with the CEA and I believe our latest proposal to make our teachers either the highest or among the highest paid teachers in Washtenaw County is evidence of the Board’s desire to reach a fair and equitable settlement,” she added in part of her response to the invitation.”
“The board couldn’t attend because it wasn’t properly notified about the meeting. I didn’t want that to create an issue,” said Ray Davis, of Thrun Law Firm and an attorney for the CSD. “And number two, I didn’t want our negotiating team attending because I didn’t want them to say anything that could be misinterpreted as an unfair labor practice charge. I directed the board and the negotiation team not to attend because of the legal risk. It’s not that we’re trying to avoid the public forum.”
On Oct. 3 four hours before the forum Kempf received a phone call.
“He asked if it was Renae Kempf, I said ‘Yup,’ he said, ‘This is Ray Davis from the Thrun Law Firm, I’ve got Dr. (Julie) Helber on the line with me,’” said Kempf. “Then he laid out about 3-4 reasons why they may or would take legal action against me (for hosting the public forum). The reason was misinforming the public because her name, Julie Helber, was posted on the agenda that I sent to (CEA President) Rick Catherman, Julie Helber, and CC’d all the board members in an email thread. I sent the agenda and her name was still on it after she had declined so she sent me a strongly worded email telling me to take her off. I promptly emailed her back telling her, her name had been taken off the final agenda. This gentleman on the phone said her name was on the published agenda, I instantly said back ‘If you’re going to accuse me of things you better get your facts straight because this is not published. Some of their accusations were unfounded, but just the fact I’m 20 years old running a Facebook page, really? You’re going to try and sue me? Are you kidding me?”
Davis told The Sun Times he did call Kempf, but to clarify things about the forum.
“Yeah, she received a call from Julie and me, that’s correct,” said Davis. “I told her she needed to make really clear to the audience that night that I’m the one directing the board not to be there. I think I told her, if she would, to convey three things. One that it would be inappropriate for the board to be there because there’d be an open meetings act violation and also it would be inappropriate for negotiation team to be there because our negotiation team could say something that could wind up being a para violation and the third thing I wanted her to make clear to the audience is that we were not involved in the scheduling of it. And that if she would have just called beforehand and talked with us so we knew the schedule that would’ve been helpful. It was kind of sprung on us the last minute. I got the call on a Saturday, looks like they’ve scheduled up a forum and were supposed to be there the next Wednesday? We can’t do that. She didn’t check with anyone, we let her reserve a room, but it was very inappropriate I thought the way she scheduled it, for them to do.”
“Let me say one other thing so there’s full transparency,” added Davis. “I know the Michigan Education Association shot me an email Friday suggesting I had threatened to sue Renae and my response to that was absolutely not and the MEA administer suggested I was unethical, and I told him that’s defamatory in my email. If there’s any suggestion I was acting unethical or threatening to sue those are gross inaccuracies and I notified the MEA late Friday afternoon that that was the case.”
There are no limitations as to how long the contract negotiations can carry on, but Davis expounded on the fact-finding aspect of the case that he said would be beneficial for both the CEA and the CSD.
“We’re pleased they filed for fact-finding because my guess is that both sides don’t have a common understanding of the financial picture of the district,” said Davis. “Fact-finding usually allows the parties to do that. In fact, usually allows parties to at least reach a common understanding of the financial position of the district. I think the district really wants to assure its teachers are compensated appropriately. I think they put an offer on the table to make the teachers some of the highest paid in the area if not the highest paid in the area. They especially want to invest in their more senior teachers because their senior teachers haven’t had a raise in a number of years. I’m surprised the association is running a crisis management plan in light of the proposal that’s on the table. As I understand the numbers the district has really extended beyond what they feel is financially prudent but they’re willing to do that in order to invest more in their senior teachers. That doesn’t mean mediation or fact-finding or after fact-finding, we can’t move the numbers around. The nice thing about meditation is the parties can sit down and talk and get together and move that pie around a little bit too. Maybe we’re not investing these dollars where they’d best be invested, and we could sit down and deliberate and debate it no mediation and hopefully find a mutually agreeable solution. That’s how I envision the process.”
After the call Kempf got in touch with Catherman, letting him know she wouldn’t be able to host the public forum. Catherman got in touch with the Crisis Team of the CEA and the forum was moved to Pierce Park and hosted by the CEA as a result of the phone call from the CSD’s attorneys.
Catherman spoke shortly at the start, telling attendees his and the CEA’s intention was to continue to respect the process, as a result, he wouldn’t be speaking much other than introductory remarks.
Chris Orlandi, a math teacher at Chelsea High School and member of the CEA, was the bulk of the forum, breaking down a printed-out PowerPoint on the numbers of the contract negotiations the CEA had printed after moving the forum to Pierce Park.
After the presentation, Orlandi and other members of the Crisis Team answered any questions from attendees.
The CEA passed out cards with information on the numbers in the negations as well as pre-addressed postcards to the superintendent and school board members while encouraging community members to again attend the next board of education meeting (10/8) in support of the teachers.
“If anyone from our board would have attended I swear to goodness we would have risked an open meeting, if our board would have been there, someone would have filed an open meetings act lawsuit,” said Davis. “If a member of our negotiation team said something out of school automatically would’ve gotten an unfair labor practice charge and I wasn’t going to risk that without legal expertise being there I’m not going to tell my client to be there. I told Renae that. I hope the parties play it professional (at the board meeting) tomorrow night because the reality is that I think the board really appreciates its professional staff. I know the board appreciates its professional staff. In fact, I think that’s why the board wanted to put so much on the payment. But we don’t want the community to have any other feeling than that.”