Snow days forgiveness feud thaws for summer break

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Xiao England of Rochester skateboards with her dog Freyja around Rochester Municipal Park.  "She was getting bored being inside so I thought, why not" comments England about skating boarding with her dog Frejya on a sunny yet still freezing Friday afternoon.  After several days of sub-zero temperatures, people are getting outside to enjoy the above zero temperatures on a sunny Friday after noon in Rochester, Michigan on February 1, 2019.

Lansing — Summer vacation can proceed as planned after the Michigan Legislature finalized plans to forgive school districts for snow day cancellations during a record winter cold spell that prompted a state emergency declaration.

The Republican-led state Senate on Thursday unanimously approved — and gave immediate effect to — snow days legislation after Democrats effectively caved amid a dispute over compensation guarantees for hourly school employees who would have worked but for the cancellations.

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.

Michigan already provides weather-related wiggle room for school 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, headed to Whitmer for likely signature, would forgive up to four additional days during the state emergency that also forced state government closures. Districts would not need to seek a waiver for those days and could instead count them as instructional hours that qualify for state aid.

Senate Democrats had voted for the plan on Tuesday but refused to give it immediate effect for implementation during the current school year after Republicans stripped union-supported provisions that would have guaranteed compensation for hourly workers.

Two days later, Democrats again approved the legislation and gave it immediate effect without the compensation language they had fought for.

“That was unfortunate, but it was something we couldn’t get,” said Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint. “We voted on what was the best available option in front of us."

Republicans argued the pay provision was unnecessary because school districts already have authority to compensate hourly workers for cancelled classes, and many have contracts that address the issue.

Three Democrats again opposed immediate effect, which requires a two-thirds majority and was granted in a 26-3 vote.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, had accused Democrats of siding with unions over school kids on Tuesday. But he adopted a more congenial tone after Thursday’s final passage.

“What you just witnessed was the magic and marvel of the legislative process that sometimes is unpredictable but oftentimes just comes together,” Shirkey said after the vote. “So I’m just happy to be a part of it.”

Ananich introduced school day forgiveness legislation in February and was frustrated when the Republican majority refused to include the pay guarantees for hourly workers in the final version. But he acknowledged that “a lot of districts will cover that anyway.”

In denying the legislation immediate effect on Tuesday, Democrats flexed some of their newfound power in the Senate. While still outnumbered by Republicans, Democrats picked up five seats last fall and are no longer a small minority in the upper chamber.

Ananich said he does not regret blocking immediate implementation earlier in the week, noting Senate Democrats had hoped the legislation could be improved in the House before it was sent back again.

The final version does include one change Democrats had sought to forgive snow days “upon request” of a district rather than automatically grant them, which Ananich said could have punished districts that already made up the missed days.

“I think we wanted to show that we’re going to work together to get things out of here, or it’s going to be a long four years,” he said of the Senate dynamics. “I think we showed that, and we’ll continue to show that on really important issues that matter.”

Shirkey told reporters he did not personally talk to Democrats before they changed their mind on immediate effect, but he praised the final product now heading to the governor’s desk.

“It’s a great outcome. It’s all for the kids and giving schools plenty of notice so they can do the proper planning," he said.

The Michigan Education Association urged Whitmer to sign the legislation but also called on schools to “do right” by hourly workers. The union released a template letter for potential agreements between districts and support staff, including bus drivers, custodians and food service workers.

“The fact is, school districts don’t need the Legislature to tell them what is right — they can make that choice for themselves,” MEA President Paula Herbart said in a statement.

“With this legislation, districts will be receiving the same level of funding they were otherwise expecting — which means they have the money to pay these hourly workers what they would have made, without any budgetary impact.”