By BROOKE KANSIER
Capital News Service
LANSING – A Republican-backed bill targeting public union officers could end up leaving schools suffering, say some education experts.
The Michigan Education Association (MEA) and Michigan Association of School Boards both oppose a bill they say would hit collective bargaining and is a state overreach into decision-making by local school districts.
The bill would prohibit school personnel and all other public employees except police officers, firefighters and prison guards from having union officers with full-time union duties on their payroll. That’s something normally decided between employers, unions and employees.
Employers like school districts would also be unable to pay part-time union representatives for time spent on union duties like meeting with school boards and coworkers.
Jarrett Skorup, a policy analyst for the Midland-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said the legislation is needed.
“Money being paid by taxpayers should go to public services,” he said.
The bill, which backers call a cost-cutting measure, is awaiting action by the House Commerce and Trade Committee after a close 20-17 passage in the Senate last month.
MEA President Steve Cook said it’s little more than an attack on teacher’s unions. The MEA is the state’s largest union of teachers and school personnel.
“It’s not necessary, it’s not needed, they have not built a case at all – they haven’t even tried to,” Cook said, speaking of bill sponsors. “It’s another slap at teachers.”
Joel Gerring, assistant legal counsel for the school boards group, said the legislation is overreach into what has historically been a local decision.
“Every district should be able to negotiate that independently, and every district has a little bit of a different situation and a unique set of circumstances,” Gerring said.
“For some districts, maybe this is a good rule. Maybe they’d bargain that into the contract and they wouldn’t want their teachers to have compensated leave. But for the vast majority, it’s better to have the option,” he said.
The bill’s main sponsor is Sen. Marty Knollenberg, R-Troy. Co-sponsors include Sens. Goeff Hansen, R-Hart; Tonya Schuitmaker, R-Lawton; Darwin Booher, R-Evart; Dave Hildenbrand, R-Lowell; John Proos, R-St. Joseph, and Judy Emmons, R-Sheridan.
In a school district, a union representative’s main duties include handling employee grievances and representing coworkers during negotiations on matters like benefits. In some cases, reps also help their district in areas like millage campaigns. Part-time reps maintain their primary role, such as teaching, while those on full-time release from their district serve primarily as liaisons between staff and school officials.
Cook said a union officer on full-time release “is almost a quasi-administrator, but hired by the local members.” He served as a full-time representative at the Lansing School District for 12 years.
“My job basically entailed putting out dozens and dozens of brushfires around the district to make sure that district business didn’t get hung up on this problem over here, or that problem over there,” he said.
Terms for the representative positions are generally negotiated and written into the union contract. For many districts, that’s been routine practice for decades, according to Gerring.
The Mackinac Center’s Skorup said, “There are some districts or unions who’ve said that they help out with other things – they deal with employee relationship issues or something like that. But if that’s the case, then the district should hire that person into some type of administration position.”
Skorup said trimming union representatives from the public payroll would give school districts significant savings. According to the Senate bill analysis, the proposed changes could save districts $2.7 million annually.
“At the very least, the school districts would be saving the couple million dollars they’re paying now, and probably much more than that,” Skorup said, referring to costs like substitute teachers who must be hired when union reps are involved in occasional negotiations.
But Gerring and the school board group said savings might not be so clear-cut.
“In general, the unions were paying the district back for those salaries anyway, so it wasn’t actually costing the district money, and having that option in place meant that we could resolve a lot of those issues during the work day,” Gerring said.
“I think many school districts not reimbursed by the unions would feel that, with being able to have those kinds of discussions and flexibility in terms of scheduling them, the benefits outweigh whatever it was that was costing them,” he said.
ADDITIONAL RESOURCES FOR CNS EDITORS
Senate Bill 280: http://www.legislature.mi.gov/%28S%28ffvrngotdhwfkv0hdhfc0yd3%29%29/mileg.aspx?page=getobject&objectname=2015-SB-0280
By BROOKE KANSIER