Snow day forgiveness plan hits snow bank in Michigan Senate

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Kyle Stewart plows through drifted snow while trying to clear a sidewalk outside a Lansing-area shopping mall on Thursday, January 31, 2019. The walks had been cleared recently, but blowing and drifting quickly closed them again.

Lansing — A snow day forgiveness plan hit a snow bank Tuesday in the Republican-led Senate as Democrats refused to give the measure immediate effect so it would apply this school year.

Democrats voted for the unanimously approved bill but prevented immediate implementation after Republicans stripped language seeking to guarantee pay for hourly school employees who missed time during an unusually high number of snow days this winter.

The move sends the legislation back to the House for additional consideration and – Democrats still hope — a bipartisan compromise. But Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, told reporters the legislation may be dead. 

“Evidently my partners on the other side of the aisle decided that unions were more important than kids,” Shirkey said after the vote. “We were doing our best to give schools as much advance notice as possible so they could plan.”

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, downplayed the legislative maneuvering after Republicans rejected two Democratic amendments that sought to make sure districts paid hourly employees who would have been on the clock but for the snow days.

“Obviously we wanted to give (school districts) relief,” said Ananich, who introduced a similar snow day forgiveness bill earlier this year. “But I also think the lunch lady that gets paid an hourly wage, we should also be considerate of them too. We can do both.”

Ananich and public school groups are urging continued consideration in the House, which had approved a version with hourly worker pay language requested by Democrats. But House Republicans criticized Tuesday's move by Senate Democrats and have not pledged to take another stab at a consensus deal. 

"The speaker is disappointed," said Gideon D'Assandro, a spokesman for House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering. 

Under the legislation, K-12 districts would not need to make up class time missed between Jan. 29 and Feb. 2 when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer declared a weather emergency amid a so-called polar vortex that brought record cold temperatures to much of the state.

Michigan already provides weather-related wiggle room for districts, which are generally required to provide a minimum of 1,098 hours of instruction over 180 days.  The state usually forgives up to six school days for emergencies, and districts can seek waivers for three more.

The proposal would automatically forgive four additional days during the state emergency that also prompted Whitmer to close state government. Districts would not need to seek a waiver for those days and could instead count them as instructional hours that qualify for state aid.

The House approved the plan earlier this month after adding hourly worker pay language the Senate stripped. Shirkey called similar Democratic amendments “meaningless” because districts already can use state payments to reimburse hourly workers for time missed during snow days.

“It looks to me like it’s done,” he said of the debate, suggesting Democrats killed the plan. “We tried our best. We tried to pay attention to the kids and the schools and the teachers and the calendar, and but for putting a couple amendments on that meant nothing, we’re standing where we’re at now.”

Democrats were a small minority in the Senate last session but picked up five seats in the 2018 elections, giving them a large enough caucus to deny immediate effect to bills, which requires two-thirds support.

Tuesday was the first time Senate Democrats used their clout, but Ananich said he they could revisit the vote if leaders negotiate a bicameral agreement that all sides can agree on.

“If they don’t want it to get over to the governor and get it signed, that’s up to them,” he said. “We’re going to keep talking about things.”

Shirkey had initially resisted the snow day forgiveness plan, citing concerns about the impact of decreased instructional days. But he put the measure up for a vote to give districts certainty as the school year nears an end, said spokeswoman Amber McCann.

 “Now that we don’t have immediate effect, the bill doesn’t do anything,” she said. “At this point, the Democrats have successfully held hostage the school calendar for most districts by choosing not to give us four votes.”

State Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, also proposed a failed amendment that would have ensured districts are able to complete their school years by June 14, which he said may be difficult in some Upper Peninsula communities where snow days are more frequent.

The legislation would only apply to the current school year, not 2020 or beyond. It does not include additional forgiveness days for schools in Ionia County that missed class because of February flooding that also prompted a Whitmer emergency declaration.

Education advocates are still hoping for a resolution.

“I think we’re obviously disappointed this didn’t move forward in the way we had hoped, but it’s given us an opportunity to make sure the language is working,” said Peter Spadafore of the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators.

In most cases, school district contracts already address the hourly worker compensation question, Spadafore said, questioning whether it needs to be written into state law.

But a representative for the American Federation of State, County Municipal Employees union said inserting worker pay is a matter of fairness.

Thousands of Michigan school workers "shouldn’t have to worry about losing several days or even a week’s pay, putting them and their families in financial jeopardy, because of a situation where it might be -40 degrees with 18 inches of snow on the ground and it’s too dangerous for anyone to be outside," said Steven Rzeppa, political and communications director for Michigan AFSCME Council 25.

Ananich acknowledged some districts are already contractually obligated to provide snow day pay to hourly workers if they receive state aid for those days.

Democrats sought more assurances and wanted to make sure the state does not “punish” districts that already decided to make up the snow days in question, Ananich said.

He declined a direct response to Shirkey’s accusation that Democrats put unions ahead of students.

“It’s really a molehill,” he said of the dispute. “We intend to keep it that way.”