Mexicotte is president of the Ann Arbor school board, Carter president of the Ann Arbor teachers’ union. But hopes for either a public confrontation or a public reconciliation at a July Democratic Party meeting were dashed by the Michigan Employment Relations Commission. The district and the teachers have filed complaints against each other with MERC, and “they felt it was too contentious for them to appear together,” says county party chair Chris Savage. “And since the commission imposed a gag order, it takes off the table the battle between the teachers and the administrators.”

Battle is the word. Asserting the union’s contract has to change to reflect new state laws and seemingly permanent funding cuts, the schools declared it expired. The union argues it should remain in force until the district repays the teachers for the raises they lost during a five-year wage freeze. Recent school board meetings featured angry speeches by teachers and parents plus behavior so disruptive the board ended its last meeting of the school year early.

Nothing like that happened at the meeting at the Ann Arbor Community Center. The audience, including sixteen teachers and board members Susan Baskett and Simone Lightfoot, instead listened attentively as state rep Jeff Irwin explained how relations between the board and teachers got so bad.

“What’s driving this conflict is the Republicans’ comprehensive assault on public education,” said the two-term Democratic rep. “Michigan used to be in the top ten states for public education. We were thirty-seventh last year. In the last ten years, state school funding fell 25 percent.

“Republicans have eliminated the cap on [the number of] charter schools,” Irwin continued. “It was three hundred. Now it’s unlimited, and in this year’s horrible budget, the charter schools are getting $250 more per pupil, while Ann Arbor schools are getting [only an additional] $25.”

Irwin said policy also fuels the conflict, citing the legislature’s declaration of so-called “prohibited subjects.” By law, school boards can no longer bargain with unions about teacher evaluation, staffing, placement, layoffs, or firing.

“When you take all that off the table, the only thing left to talk about is wages, so of course that’s contentious,” Irwin said. “Republicans don’t know about the carrot. They only know about the stick.”