Dear teacher: We want to hire you. Here’s a huge pay cut. Sincerely, unions.

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In Detroit, as many as 260 classroom teacher positions are unfilled in the state’s largest district, prompting a shortage so severe that substitutes last year were the full-time solution in more than 100 classrooms.

And with fewer new teachers are graduating from college every year, pressure is mounting to find qualified teachers. The situation has left teachers working harder in overcrowded classrooms for underwhelming pay –  they’ve seen their pay frozen and cut repeatedly in a district that’s beset with problems both financial and academic.

Yet in the face of a supply and demand problem, the Detroit teachers, like their peers in numerous Michigan school districts, have bargained for contracts that severely restrict the pay of the folks who could help alleviate the shortage.

In Detroit, Dearborn and Roseville, new teachers can only get credit for two years’ experience they accrued working in other school districts. In Grand Rapids it’s five years, in Lansing it’s eight.

It's difficult to gauge whether the restrictions affect teacher recruitment because they may scare away potential applicants. But for those who are considering a move, the impact is huge.

Say you’re a teacher with 10 years’ experience at Utica schools, which had layoffs last year. To work in Detroit, you’d have to accept nearly $36,000 less, going from more than $78,500 to just under $43,000 because eight years’ of experience wouldn’t count.

Detroit already pays less, with teachers topping out at $65,265 after 10 years, compared with well over $78,000 in most districts. But the restriction put in place by the teachers –  and agreed upon by the administration –  makes that cut even more steep.

Union rules

In a number of Michigan school districts, teachers have negotiated to limit the pay of new hires, ensuring they cannot get full credit for prior teaching experience. In other districts, those decisions are left to the administration. In most cases "max pay" refers to salaries of teachers with master's degree plus 30 additional hours of graduate education who have the maximum number of years of experience. Below are the 25 largest districts in the state. The restrictions were more common among the 21 districts that surround Detroit, with more than half calling for limits on credit for teaching experience.


District Maximum years of credit Years to top of scale Max pay
Detroit 2* 10 $65,965
Utica full 11 $89,563
Dearborn 2* 18 $82,006
Plymouth-Canton 5* 14 $81,049
Ann Arbor full 11 $80,769
Chippewa Valley full 12 $89,443
Grand Rapids 5* 12 $68,042
Rochester full 20 $86,420
Warren Consolidated full 12 $94,700
Walled Lake full 15 $90,362
Livonia 7 12 $84,595
Troy full 14 $92,400
Kalamazoo full 25 $76,881
Wayne-Westland 3* 14 $76,839
Lansing 8 22 $76,850
L'Anse Creuse full 16 $84,386
Farmington 4* 11 $86,830
Forest Hills full 28 $84,590
Traverse City full 20 $74,819
Waterford 8 15 $78,351
Huron Valley 5* 17 $75,915
Port Huron full 13 $69,831
Kentwood full 26 $80,403
Portage full 30 $88,808
Grand Blanc full 12 $73,588

*In some cases, the union contracts allow districts to acknowledge additional years of experience.


Source: Collective bargaining agreements.


There’s little wiggle room because the collectively bargained contracts set salaries exclusively by experience and education. Critics say the restrictions put teachers’ interests ahead of students.

“School districts that want to attract the best teachers… for their students would not want these kinds of policies,” said Ben DeGrow, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center, a free-market think tank based in Midland. It has been frequent critics of teachers’ unions.

Ivy Bailey, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said the language has been in the contract for years and acknowledges those teachers who’ve suffered through years of pay cuts and freezes.

“You have teachers who stayed here and endured it all,” she said. “They care about the children and they’ve stuck it out.”

Bailey said the contract allows the district more latitude when trying to hire teachers in critical areas such as special education. Those specialty areas can salary credit for up to eight years’ experience.

But if it’s not in a critical area, no dice. And that’s been a problem for principals wanting to fill vacancies such as Jeffrey Robinson, principal at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy on Detroit’s west side.

“On three separate occasions, we got people who got past the onboarding process, right to the point where they were ready to sign the contract. Then they took a better offer because the salaries are just not competitive,” Robinson told Detroit Journalism Cooperative reporting partner Chalkbeat Detroit recently.

MORE COVERAGE: Just another Tuesday for 37 first-graders with no music or art or gym 

Despite the obstacles in pay and a push by officials some to consider uncertified teachers, district spokeswoman Chrystal Wilson said the district “is committed to hiring certified teachers.”

Detroit is not the only district with restrictions. They are found in union contracts at districts large and small, wealthy and poor, urban and suburban and are the result of the anger stemming from pay cuts and freezes that have taken a huge chunk out of the earning power of teachers who have worked for years in troubled districts.

Not found everywhere

Bailey said it’s common for teachers who change districts to get less than full credit for their experience.

“We can’t do it when we go to another district, either,” she said. “Nobody’s going to give you all of your time.”

But a survey of teacher contracts from more than 40 districts around the state show that many allow district administrators to grant full credit.

In  Ann Arbor, Kalamazoo, Ferndale, Warren Fitzgerald, Warren Van Dyke, South Redford, Utica and others, a teacher could jump to the top of the scale without the teachers union contract prohibiting it.

In the Grosse Pointe schools, which pays among the best in the state, new teachers can be hired at the 13th of a 14-step salary schedule.

Yet in other places, teachers have put the brakes on salaries. Those that have are communities suburban and urban, wealthy and poor. In Oak Park, just north of Detroit, the teachers’ contract has a provision that says all new hires should be hired at beginners’ wages.

Hiring at higher levels “puts financial pressure on the district and creates an environment which disenfranchises staff currently restricted by contractual step freezes," according to the contract.

The Walled Lake schools in Oakland County, the 10th largest district in the state, had restrictions in prior contracts. But the union agreed to take them out a few years ago even though they continue to encourage the district to hire teachers at as low a step as possible.

Still, the union recognized the need to give the district more flexibility.

“It makes it really hard to have one blanket policy for every opening,” said Daryl Szmanski, president of the teachers’ union in Walled Lake. “As a teacher shortage looms, it’s going to be harder and harder to get good candidates.”

To be sure, restrictions on teacher pay for outsiders is hardly the only factor in teacher shortages in parts of the state. It’s difficult to say if it’s even a major factor. Stagnant state funding for education, a steep drop in enrollment in teacher preparation programs, and sometimes harsh public and political rhetoric directed toward public education almost certainly also play a role in the shortage. So too, there are far fewer substitute teachers available to fill in when permanent teachers are absent.

But for unions, the teacher shortage presents two bad choices: Be unhappy about crowded classrooms or be unhappy that new teachers make more money.

For the Mackinac Center’s DeGrow, the decision should be easy: Door No. 2.

“This kind of policy is just an obstacle for getting the best talent in the classroom,” DeGrow said. “The kids (in Detroit) are already as a disadvantage. Why would we want to make it harder to bring qualified teachers in?”

Need ‘best teachers’

Brad Banasik, director of labor relations for the Michigan Association of School Boards, said he’s not heard complaints about the contracts, but noted that he thinks “administrators would like the ability to hire some on the higher step (pay level).”

Some unions agree. Doug Hill is a veteran teacher who’s now president of the Rochester teachers’ union in Oakland County and he said he’s aware of the painful cuts at other districts.

Hill’s union decided in a recent negotiation to remove a restriction on pay for counselors who held teaching certificates. The district had seen positions go unfilled but now can hire teachers in at whatever level experience they want.

“I can see both sides of this,” Hill said, but added “we’re trying to get the best teachers to put in front of students.”

Union officials say they asked for –  and got –  the restrictions because they say without it their veteran teachers would be demoralized by having new hires, who had not endured the same pay cuts and freezes, make more money doing the same work.

It would be hard to determine how often these provisions have hurt districts like Detroit and Dearborn. If  teachers know they’d have to take a $20,000 or $30,000 pay cut, would they even apply? And they’d likely know: All Michigan districts are required to post their teacher contracts online; Bridge did its survey using this easily-to-access information.

“I think they’re very aware of what’s out there,” Rochester’s Hill said.

For Detroit and other districts, that may be a problem.

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Thu, 06/15/2017 - 9:01am

Enrollment in the schools of education at both a Eastern and Western Universities is down about 50%. This has more to do with state voted changes in teacher benefits and the impact of right to work legislation laws than restriction on transferring between districts. Expect teacher shortages to grow rapidly in the coming years.

Sandy Olsen
Thu, 06/15/2017 - 6:29pm

So true.

Grove Sandrock
Thu, 06/15/2017 - 11:09pm

I agree, the shortages will get worse as the legislature keeps attacking the teaching profession.

Fri, 06/16/2017 - 6:56am


Fri, 06/16/2017 - 8:42am

The teaching profession has been so demonized by politicians, the news media and various organizations and individuals with a axe to grind it is no surprise that there is less interest in teaching as a career.

Fri, 06/16/2017 - 6:08pm


Fri, 06/16/2017 - 9:52am

Show your survey results! I doubt many Ed majors even know what right to work means! Besides who's stopping anyone from joining your union?

Fri, 06/16/2017 - 6:12pm

Instead of trying to shout him down, why not try to refute his point? Why not look at the latest reports from each university in their college of Ed enrollment numbers? Where did he say anyone was stopping them from joining?? You've demonstrated precisely the reason that education enrollment is down: Unjustified and bloviating rhetoric.

Sun, 06/18/2017 - 10:48am

Max, pointing at dropping enrollment for ED programs doesn't prove his or your contention nor identifies any reasons to explain it, there is nothing to refute! Speaking of bloviation! Maybe students have just recognized meager questionable value of this major?

Sun, 06/18/2017 - 5:58pm

No, you are absolutely correct. (Sarcasm) Precipitous drops in enrollment in schools of education point to lots of young people WANTING to go into that field. (Again, sarcasm) The reasons that explain it have been public for over a decade: vilification of teachers; devaluing of the profession by those not in it (especially those that make laws regarding it); degrading workplace rights/protections; ever-expanding list of requirements/hoops-to-jump/ever-changing-test-targets; equating education with business model; cuts; pension abolition; RTWFL which was a major news story for quite a period of time. You make the assumption that those entering a profession don't take time to learn about its positives, negatives and laws/regulations?? And yes, they realize the meager return on investment because that too has played out in public in the budget cuts etc.

So, your meme like retorts sadly don't measure up to the original statement made by Tom, nor do they force mine to be bloviation. What you've done is expose probable ignorance on your part, and worse, what appears to be a willingness to hold dearly to that ignorance rather than gather the facts.

Sun, 06/18/2017 - 10:10am

You got that right...!!!

Kathleen A Kelso
Thu, 06/15/2017 - 9:02am

Restrictions on years of service to enter a new district have been in place for many years. That is not the main problem as to why there is a lack of teachers. Lack of respect, attacks by the legislature, and lack of acknowledgment of teaching as a profession have left present teachers and future teachers seeking a better way to make a living. Teachers have given for years for the sake of students. Many have nothing more to give financially. It has been taken away. Those who can afford to continue to give of themselves and suffer the financial consequences.

Thu, 06/15/2017 - 10:13am

Agreed. When I joined my district 17 years ago from another district where I had 10 years of experience, the max I could transfer was 5 years.

Thu, 06/15/2017 - 3:15pm

Perfectly stated!

Grove Sandrock
Thu, 06/15/2017 - 11:10pm

I agree.

Fri, 06/16/2017 - 6:57am

More truth.

John Darling
Thu, 06/15/2017 - 9:16am

Please don't make the Union the bad guy here. The bargainers are elected by their respective staff, and represent the feelings of the majority of their members. Having clear cut rules for granting credit for prior work experience is NOT opposed by staff. They primarily want clear and open rules for granting credit to all, not just a preferred person. (coach, spouse of an administrator etc.)

The real problem is that salaries for ALL teachers have taken a major step backwards as right to work legislation has been enacted and Unions slowly lose power. The stranglehold on collective bargaining is doing exactly as intended, driving salaries into the dumpster.

Our contract had extensive language long ago granting credit for experience. It was removed at the behest of the district administrators who did not wish to pay people for the experience they could bring to the district. Many administrators also felt badly about "poaching" the experienced teachers away from their neighboring districts.

How about we raise salaries for all teachers to make them competitive with the private sector? That is the underlying issue here. The legislative climate in Michigan has worked against and cut away at teacher benefits to the point where the mathematics of earning a degree in Education simply doesn't work any more. We have done nothing but dump on teachers for the past decade. Small wonder they aren't enlisting for that anymore.

Thu, 06/15/2017 - 10:48am

Well said.
Negotiations are two-way street; unfortunately this headline is poorly presented.

Ed Haynor
Thu, 06/15/2017 - 10:58am

I agree with Mr. Darling regarding his comprehensive response.
Also, in support of Mr. Darling, it appears as though the author of this article, Mr. Wilkinson has a computer-assisted background and is attempting to use his experience in an attempt to analyze union contracts through data collection to create some "cause and effect argument," in which case he lays the blame on the teachers and/or their unions. His cause and effect argument is like saying if those male teachers he met with in his study were all bald, he would assume that all male teachers in Michigan schools are bald; so much for cause and effect.
I doubt that Mr. Wilkinson has any collective bargaining experience, because if he did, he would have understood that union contracts are agreements between the teachers AND management and both are responsible for what they ask teachers to support and boards of education to approve.
Mr. Wilkinson does bring up a pressing problem, but conducting a data analysis of union contracts, then blaming the teachers or their union, is a total misapplication of his research model.

Mike Wilkinson
Thu, 06/15/2017 - 2:24pm

Actually, was in a union for over two decades and understand it is a two-way street. But in these cases, the union is asking for the provisions, not the districts. If they hadn't asked (and yes, some boards push back and say 'no' and some say 'ok'), they would likely not exist. Some districts also make it their policy not to give credit, but that's a management decision, not one of the union itself. 

Fri, 06/16/2017 - 7:10am

WHAT?! Our local wanted to guarantee a minimum of 5 years, more granted by Board approval. The school wanted to lower that mandated carry of experience, except with their approval. We pointed out that nepotism, friends etc. being hired will be the focus of scrutiny instead of well defined rules. I'd love to know what union you were in. Second, where in your searches of contracts do you find "the union is asking for this provision"?! I think that is a writer's Liberty there because in at least one case you are dead wrong.

Phil Fisher
Tue, 06/20/2017 - 8:10am

In the example of Detroit, the term "bargained" is a very loose interpretation of the word over the previous 10 or so years. Several contracts were imposed by state managers with very little negotiation with the union. My salary when I stopped teaching last year was lower than it was in 1999. Obviously the Union did not "bargain" for that to happen.

The example of a teacher leaving Utica to come to Detroit and lose tens of thousands of dollars a year in salary and take a lot less benefits is laughable and highly insulting bordering on idiocy. In my almost 30 years of teaching experience I never knew anyone who did that but knew many who left Detroit to go to better paying districts because they couldn't afford to stay.

Fran Darling
Thu, 06/15/2017 - 10:56am

Unions are not the issue - lack of union strength, bargaining tools (no strike option), and right to work --all put the district administration in the driver's seat. Yet they are the first to complain about the lack of qualified teaching staff.
Yes your article title and premise are very misleading.

Fri, 06/16/2017 - 7:11am

More truth.

Fri, 06/16/2017 - 7:03am

Bravo! Well said. Truth

Fri, 06/16/2017 - 3:01pm

"How about we raise salaries for all teachers to make them competitive with the private sector? That is the underlying issue here." John, I work in the private sector as a small business owner. If you think that you are getting a raw deal as a teacher, come spend a day in my shoes. No health insurance benefits, no dental coverage, no paid professional development days, no salaries over $70K-$80K with only 12 years experience on a 4-year degree with the summers off. I'm sorry. My wife works as a paraprofessional in our school district, and the teachers that complain the least seem to be the best teachers, and the teachers who give a half-hearted effort are the ones that gripe and moan about their pay and benefits the most. I believe you are naive about life in the private sector where we hire and fire based on your competency, effort, and results. The weak are weeded out because they provide no benefit in a capitalistic enterprise.

Fri, 06/16/2017 - 6:25pm

Not surprisingly anonymous comment. What I keep hearing "Anonymous" is that if you want to get rich you need to take charge of your own life start your own business and be responsible for yourself. IF you work hard enough you will get ahead, and you don't have to depend on the government." So, you did. You have no profit limit, no loyalty to your employee, not held responsible for others' actions--just your own. RDUCATION is not a business. Did you have to (mandated by the state) spend 5 years in college (or more) to get a degree and certification in order to start your business? Does the state direct every minute of your day, action, requirements and who comes in your door and how they must be treated? No? Didn't think so.

IF you have it so bad and think teachers are overpaid or underworked, I CHALLENGE YOU to go spend a day in the shoes of a special education teacher, any class with students who are abused, neglected, made to care for younger siblings etc. IF you think that the jobs educators do is too well compensated, you are a hypocrite as your spouse is an aide? You have insights to the real profession yet spew "the good ones just bite their tongue while the bad ones complain" propaganda. Your misinformation and deflection is really sad. YOU are part of the problem with education (you judge educators, know nothing about the REAL profession yet want to judge) NOT unions. The writer of this piece is another problem, writes an opinion piece while trying to pretend it's factual, cause-and-effect (Union stops raises therefor fewer seek the profession) and not based in facts. I knew I should've not looked at the ignorance of some posts and let them get my ire. This should've been one of them.

Sun, 06/18/2017 - 10:16am

"How about we raise salaries for all teachers to make them competitive with the private sector?"....this is the heart of the matter.

Ann Jerome
Thu, 06/15/2017 - 9:19am

Great article! And teachers in the rural districts are paid even less. My husband has been working 21 years in a Van Buren County district with a masters degree and only makes $64,000 with higher insurance premiums each year and a $2,600 deductible. His district has not instituted raises for over 10 years and quite paying for steps a couple of years ago. When the state ties the hands of the union and the school board wants to buy new technological equipment, there's little hope for increasing teacher compensation.

Fri, 06/16/2017 - 7:13am

What's great?! This article blames the unions for your husband's plight. Horrible piece of 'journalism'.

Sun, 06/18/2017 - 10:17am


Rich Vander Klok
Thu, 06/15/2017 - 9:25am

I'm a Bridge supporter and a teacher. I can't believe this article has been posted. There are so many grammatical errors that it's almost unreadable. Even the author's bio has an error. Where exactly can you reach the author? Rather than focus on what a new-to-the district teacher is paid, how about exploring the $30K difference in what experienced top-of-the-scale teachers are paid in the districts cited? This quote makes it clear that this piece is an op-ed rather than an article: "It's difficult to gauge whether the restrictions affect teacher recruitment because they may scare away potential applicants." If there's no proof and only speculation that these contract provisions may be a problem, the purpose of the article is to disparage unions. Considering how poorly the piece is written, more teachers should have been consulted to at least help edit if not to corroborate the piece's premise.

Thu, 06/15/2017 - 11:06am

I noticed the same problems, esp this quote, which you referenced:
"It's difficult to gauge whether the restrictions affect teacher recruitment because they may scare away potential applicants."
So .. hardly a cause and effect relationship established there!
What is being missed in this article, and what I believe is an even more important issue, is the huge disincentive for teachers to move to other schools, since their pay will most definitely go down if they move. If the maximum incoming hire service credit is only 5 years and a teacher has already been teaching 10 years, then why move to another school and take a pay cut?
The implications for this situation are huge: When I taught in Great Britain for 12 years I saw that teachers are expected to move around and gain experience .. it would be strange if they stayed put in the same school for decades. Here they are positively discouraged (financially), which leads to isolation and lack of innovation, since nobody gets out of their little box to move on to fresh pastures and fresh ways of doing things.

Sat, 06/17/2017 - 4:04pm

Nobody was moving to teach in Detroit and nobody is now. Until the state gets real about what is needed to help the average Detroit student--including extended school days, quality materials, small class sizes, supplemental programs, health and food resources, after school programs, and all the amenities that Bloomfield hills enjoys, this is just an exercise in Teacher bashing. Nobody wants to be a low end, low pay worker with 100000 in debt. Get real. This isn't about teachers' unions. This is about underfunding.

Sun, 06/18/2017 - 9:53am


Richard Pipan
Thu, 06/15/2017 - 11:22am

Bravo! Good critique.
Blaming unions and teachers for eroding support for public educators is like blaming firefighters for fires in their community....

Sat, 06/17/2017 - 4:08pm

Maybe if we actually included trained education experts with degrees in education and experience teaching in the discussion of how schools need to be run and we recognized that economic inequalities affect students resources and understanding of life, we might actually be able to devise a school system that works. But while the private sector and businessmen with none of the above work out their schemes to suck money from kids, with voucher schemes and for-profit swindles, i don't think it's going to change. DUH. Putting Devos or republicans in charge of education is a hoot.

Mike Wilkinson
Thu, 06/15/2017 - 2:26pm

Can you point out the grammatical error in the bio?

Also, it's not an op-ed but I welcome your feedback.

Mike Wilkinson
Thu, 06/15/2017 - 2:29pm

Richard, if you're trying to reach me, it's or 313-815-7068. Feel free to call or email.


Fri, 06/16/2017 - 7:15am


Sun, 06/18/2017 - 10:19am

" the purpose of the article is to disparage unions. "...Agree

Donna Fisher
Thu, 06/15/2017 - 9:30am

Blaming the teachers or their unions is lame! Were it not for Unions, teachers would not earn a fraction of what they need to make just to survive! Blame idiotic Republicans who think teachers do not deserve fair living wages to begin with while they themselves suck the government teat and some live for free in government housing called "Governor's Mansion". SERIOUSLY. Every community needs to put its head back on straight and start budgeting more responsibly to attract and keep qualified teachers. An uneducated country cannot prosper.

Thu, 06/15/2017 - 1:08pm

How much is it the union, how much is it the teacher, how much is the student that determines if the student learns?
Which one of those three have the greatest impact on how much the student learns?

What does the union do that makes the student learn?
What does the teacher do that makes the student learn?
What does the student do so they will learn?

The problem with all of these comments and articles they don't talk about the value/impact each role has in the learning process. Simply saying more money is needed is no longer enough. People [the taxpayers and others] need to understand the value of each role they are paying for and how they are delivering the learning results we all expect.

Fri, 06/16/2017 - 7:24am

WHAT?! What are you saying? Is pay too low, too high, is it the Union's fault? That's the thrust of this article...experience matters of course. Who ever said "A teacher MAKES a student learn" doesn't know squat about education. Teachers inspire, lead, and enhance educational opportunities. The problem isn't unions saying treat all as equals, in hiring, experience etc.. The problem is the decade long devaluing, degrading and demonizing of those willing to become educators. Sadly the terrible teaching environment created by the Republicans is driving people away from the profession. Even the best educators aren't encouraging young people to pursue the profession regardless of the entry level pay.

Fri, 06/16/2017 - 4:45pm


You fail to read the question. There was no judgement there is was simple weighting of impact on learning rather than on money. If we understand how and who impacts learning we can better value those having the impact and how they can impact more successful learning.

You remind me of old joke about a small boy who asks his Dad 'where did I come from, and the father explains [with a bit of discomfort] conception and birth and at the end the small boy said to his Dad, 'Billy's from Pittsburgh, where did I come from." I have use that many times in my professional work. You over analyze and don't seem to understand that people build their understanding through simple and straight forward questions. If one thing I learned in dealing with people is don't assume or presume what they are thinking, they have a different perspective then you so their question is addressing something they are trying to learn.

Fri, 06/16/2017 - 6:29pm

Duane, then it seems that that you'd also realize that generic questions lobbed into a conversation that has already begun need clarity not room left to be interpreted in multiple ways.

Some of your questions leave nebulous impressions, and under my interpretation I answered them as generically.

By the way: It appears you do NOT come from education ;-)

Sat, 06/17/2017 - 11:45am

It is how you define education. My formal education is science and math based, my work has include as a core activity helping people develop necessary knowledge and skills, very early on it involve technology , risk management, and decision making, risk management tools and decision making has been a theme through out including those within the workplace and those outside of it. My employer did see the importance of learning throughout the organization so they develop an internal group for education that both trained us, assisted in the development of special emphasis training program, and in how to integrate learning into a dynamic and non-traditional setting [an operating process control room].
The disconcerting part is that what I learned there was taken home and used with our children in supporting their learning.
I am still learning today because the value of learning was something a few 'good' teachers taught me oh so many years ago, the process I learned later.

Fri, 06/16/2017 - 7:17am


K. Gillan
Thu, 06/15/2017 - 9:47am

Blaming the teachers and unions is a cheap trick.
Pay the Detroit recruits and all of their staff at the Grosse Pointe and West Bloomfield levels and I am sure that their will be no objections to paying all teachers according to experience levels. But unions for years fought veteran district staff decreases in pay and benefits in order to fund higher salaries for new staff; hired because of nepotism, cronyism and sexism.

Thu, 06/15/2017 - 10:49am