Meekhof, Snyder butt heads over DPS bailout details

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan’s Senate leader sparred Thursday with Gov. Rick Snyder on whether interim Detroit Public Schools emergency manager Steven Rhodes has the power to negotiate and approve a new union contract for Detroit teachers.

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, said he doesn’t think Rhodes, a former bankruptcy judge, has the authority to approve the tentative deal announced Monday and is discussing the issue with staff members.

The proposed agreement would give Detroit Federation of Teachers members a one-time pay boost that would vary by salary level and college degree attainment. In a press release, the teachers union said the new contract would run through the end of December and then “through June 2017 — unless the newly elected school board wants to renegotiate.”

“Well, I have some questions because I thought that was up to the new school board and the new superintendent (and the) Financial Review Commission,” Meekhof said Thursday. “I didn’t believe that the interim manager had the ability to do collective bargaining.”

In June, the Republican-controlled House and Senate approved bailout legislation that requires elections Nov. 8 for a new school board that would assume power on Jan. 1.

Gov. Rick Snyder spokesman Ari Adler said Rhodes does have the authority to sign a new contract for unionized teachers.

“But he cannot bind the next administration,” Adler said Thursday. “So if the elected school board comes in and wants to open up negotiations for a new contract, they have the authority to do so.”

The disagreement marks another point of contention between Republican legislative leaders and the GOP governor over the impact and implementation of the $617 million Detroit school district bailout legislation.

Meekhof spokeswoman Amber McCann said there are lingering questions about whether the terms of the contract have changed after Snyder signed the bailout package creating the new, debt-free district known as the Detroit Public Schools Community District. Meekhof wants to be sure that anything Rhodes approves does not differ from the contract the district is currently operating under “because he has no authority to negotiate for any change of contract,” McCann said.

The proposed contract required final approval by the Financial Review Commission, which was created during the city of Detroit’s bankruptcy and oversees city and school finances.

Earlier in the week, Meekhof and Speaker of the House Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant, disagreed with a legal opinion cited by Snyder’s office about how quickly Detroit’s worst public schools could be closed.

Meekhof said he may ask Attorney General Bill Schuette in a meeting Thursday afternoon if he will issue an advisory opinion about whether 47 of Detroit’s failing schools can be closed prior to 2019.

Cotter declined to address the contract negotiation issue in a statement.

“We are still trying to resolve the first misunderstanding of this bill package before we tackle any other issues,” Cotter said.

mgerstein@detroitnews.com

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Twitter: @MikeGerstein