Detroit school district and teachers union agree on tentative contract that union leaders are celebrating

An adult teacher with short dark hair and wearing a blue shirt writes on a dry erase board in a classroom.
A teacher at Earhart Elementary-Middle School in southwest Detroit. This week teachers will vote on whether to ratify a new two-year contract that union leaders have been working with the school district to solidify in record time. (Anthony Lanzilote for Chalkbeat)

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After several days of around-the-clock negotiations, including Saturdays, Sundays, and “pajama sessions,” the Detroit school district and teachers union have agreed on a tentative two year-contract, union President Lakia Wilson-Lumpkins told Chalkbeat Tuesday. The district and union have not come to a tentative agreement this early in the year since the mid-1990s.

Wilson-Lumpkins could not discuss the details of the agreement but described multiple victories on progressive issues.

She did confirm the contract puts more rights back into the hands of teachers.

It is the first time in more than a decade where the Detroit Federation of Teachers could negotiate key bargaining items restored by the Michigan Legislature and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last year, including seniority and transfers, evaluations, layoffs and recalls, discipline and termination, and payroll-deducted union dues.

Writing that language into the contract was a daunting task, she said. “We had very few examples in front us for how to bring this back.”

She said teacher salaries also reflect a win.

Detroit Public Schools Community District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has prioritized raising teacher salaries during his time leading Michigan’s largest school district. That meant condensing the teacher salary schedule so new teachers were bringing home some of the highest pay in the state. A new teacher with a bachelor’s degree, for example, made $51,071 last school year.

It was a coup for new teachers, but Wilson-Lumpkins said a condensed salary range did not leave as much room for experienced teachers to receive higher pay as they accrue more years on the job.

The new contract adds back multiple salary steps to address that, she said.

If union members ratify the terms in the coming days, it will mark the earliest time in roughly three decades when both sides have solidified an agreement.

Wilson-Lumpkins pointed to a few reasons for the accelerated pace of negotiations, including the school board’s early approval of Vitti’s contract in March.

“When the school board extended Vitti’s contract 18 months in advance, my negotiating team said, ‘Why not us?’” Wilson-Lumpkins said. It was a talking point the school district could not argue, she said.

But the pace with which the two sides have come to a tentative agreement is not the only notable aspect of negotiations.

During a recent Detroit school board meeting, Vitti described the fast-shaping contract as “the richest” one to date.

Now, with a tentative agreement in hand, Wilson-Lumpkins agreed.

“Some of this is going to shock our members. It shocked me,” she said.

Wilson-Lumpkins said they include items “we dreamed about at the negotiating table.”

These accelerated negotiations were also fueled by the changing climate in Michigan, she said, as the state begins to reprioritize education with its efforts to recruit and retain teachers amid an ongoing staffing shortage that is touching many parts of the nation. The Department of Education has issued recommendations to draw more teachers into the classroom and keep them there, such as raising teacher pay.

The progress Detroit students are making and the inextricable role teachers play in their success were a factor, too, she said.

The roughly 4,500 union members that belong to the Detroit Federation of Teachers will have time to study the new terms of the contract over the next few days with voting opening tomorrow.

Wilson-Lumpkins said the goal is to ratify the contract ahead of the current terms which expire on June 30.

The tentative deal follows conversations at the statehouse aimed at retaining teachers of color, especially in Michigan districts with high rates of poverty like Detroit — and as support for unions across the nation remains high.

This is a developing story.

Robyn Vincent is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit, covering Detroit schools and Michigan education policy. You can reach her at rvincent@chalkbeat.org

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