Government and Higher Education

GR schools reward staff for work on enrollment

Unified bargaining agreement emphasizes district’s reinvestment in its employees.

November 7, 2014
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Teresa Weatherall
Teresa Weatherall Neal. Photo by Michael Buck

On the heels of a successful district-wide collaboration to retain and recruit students, Grand Rapids Public Schools is giving back to its teachers and support staff after posting the single best count day in 20 years.

Lead negotiators from GRPS, the board of education and four employee union organizations informed association members of a unified bargaining agreement incorporating a newly developed “enrollment-incentive-plus package” effective this December.

The new package builds on the initial enrollment incentive plan negotiated more than a year ago that entitles all employees across seven bargaining units a 2 percent increase based on the success of district-wide student retention and recruitment. As a result of the campaign, GRPS saw the best count day in two decades and beat a projected enrollment decline of 400 students by more than 300, according to the district.

Due to the successful student retention and recruitment, the district reported increased total revenue of $2.2 million for the 2014-2015 academic years and was able to allocate more than $1 million to the district’s fund balance.

John Helmholdt, executive director of communications and external affairs at GRPS, said with the count-day success and additional dollars it brings to the bargaining table, the superintendent and school board decided to develop an enrollment incentive for employees in the four associations to receive between a 2.5 percent and 7.6 percent pay increase.

“We worked with the lead negotiators for all four of the bargaining units, and indicated we wanted to pool the funds together to create the enrollment incentive plus,” said Helmholdt. “We were able to do a step increase, plus a percentage. That was a smart, very strategic investment in our talent to position Grand Rapids Public Schools to be more competitive in this educational marketplace.”

The four union organizations in the enrollment incentive plus package are Grand Rapids Education Association, Grand Rapids Education Officers Association, Grand Rapids Officers Association Personnel, and Grand Rapids Association of Child Care Workers, Employment Training Specialists, Non-Certified Teachers, Licensed Practical Nurses, Certified Occupational Therapist Assistants and Physical Therapy Assistants.

Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal said the agreement signifies unity in the district and momentum toward the same goal.

“Coming together in such a short time, I was amazed we were able to agree on (salary) step. People have been working in the system a long time and they wanted their step, and I think that is important,” said Weatherall Neal. “We were able to recognize the importance of the work our employees are doing. This also shows the Transformation Plan is working and we, in fact, did put $1 million in our fund balance … plus we gave the employees what they deserved.”

The enrollment incentive package is anticipated to begin with the first paycheck in December and includes a step increase across all four associations with an additional varying percentage increase from 1.5 percent to 3 percent. Although only four of the district’s seven bargaining units are included in the agreement, Helmholdt said a similar agreement will be offered to the remaining associations, which will result in all employees throughout the district benefitting by the end of the calendar year.

“It is specifically for the teachers and support staff, and we wanted to do it early to make sure they know it is tied to the enrollment incentive campaign,” said Helmholdt. “We really sent a message to our existing employees that this administration, this superintendent, this board of education are united in support of our talent, in support of all of our teachers, school leaders and support staff, and we are investing in them. We are investing for the growth and the stability of Grand Rapids Public Schools.”

Weatherall Neal noted in a letter to parents, staff and community members that enrollment declined by more than 7,000 students in the last 10 years, 25 schools and programs were closed, and roughly $100 million was cut from the budget.

The emphasis of bringing stability to the district was part of the feedback Weatherall Neal received when speaking with community members, and the initial enrollment incentive was an effort to re-establish consistency, according to Helmholdt.

“To bring stability, we had to really look district-wide as to how do we incentivize our army of 3,000 employees to become even more engaged in our enrollment and to be salespeople,” said Helmholdt. “We have 3,000 ambassadors — individuals who live, work and play here in the West Michigan region who can play a role in helping to retain the existing students and also recruit new students.”

The decision to reinvest in the talent within the GRPS district was an intentional investment consistent with the GRPS Transformation Plan, according to Helmholdt. Taking into account the bond rating from Moody’s, Fitch, and Standard and Poor increasing from negative to stable amid a recession and cuts, Helmholdt said it acknowledges the district’s financial stewardship.

Despite the success of the Transformation Plan, Weatherall Neal said it did not exceed her expectations, due to the reliability of the strategy that included community input.

“It was a very sound plan that was created and approved not only by all of the board members, but also members of this community, and I think we are a smart community,” said Weatherall Neal. “We all knew it made sense, it was very strategic, we stayed focused on the mission and it was almost foolproof. I was very intentional about the strategy, and I know that in this community we are willing to make those hard calls — and the Transformation Plan was hard.”

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