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GOP bills take aim at school union reps

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Republican legislative leaders have fueled another fight with the labor movement by proposing to eliminate taxpayer-funded union representatives in Michigan schools and curtail a perceived pension-spiking scheme involving the head of the state’s largest teachers union.

The Senate sent the House legislation this month to prohibit school districts and other government agencies from letting employees have paid time off to perform union-related work.

Michigan’s larger school districts have a decades-old practice of granting teacher union presidents up to full-time leave of absence from the classroom to handle employee grievances and negotiate working conditions during normal business hours. Most of the arrangements are baked into union contracts.

A second bill pending in the House would bar educators on paid leave for union business from contributing to the state’s retirement fund and gaining years of service toward their pensions.

That legislation is in response to an arrangement Michigan Education Association President Steve Cook has with the Lansing School District. Cook’s pension is based on his $200,000 annual salary as president of the teachers union, instead of his previous salary as a classroom paraprofessional.

Through an “educator on loan” agreement, the MEA reimburses the Lansing school district for Cook’s $51,976-a-year pension contribution, the free-market-oriented Mackinac Center for Public Policy reported in February.

Upon retirement, Cook’s pension will be worth $105,000 annually — more than three times what a paraprofessional can earn at the top of the pay scale in Lansing schools at $16.52 per hour, according to the Mackinac Center.

“I think it’s a pension-spiking situation,” said Sen. Marty Knollenberg, R-Troy. “The taxpayers are essentially subsidizing in a huge way his retirement benefits.”

Cook said he personally pays more than $20,000 toward his pension and that the arrangement involves no use of tax dollars because the union pays his salary and employer contribution to the Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System.

“I find it difficult to believe that they would pass legislative action to deal with just one person,” he told The Detroit News.

Cook points out that Knollenberg’s proposed elimination of pension credit for union representatives could end up depleting the state’s school employee pension fund by nearly $1 million annually.

The nonpartisan Senate Fiscal Agency says the legislation would cost the school employee pension fund $900,000 a year because unions pay for those retirement benefits.

The “stranded cost” to the Public School Employees Retirement System would be shifted to the School Aid Fund and spread across the payments all school districts make toward employee pensions, according to the fiscal agency.

“If I’m no longer paying in, I have the liability that’s in the system that eventually MPSERS is going to have to pay for,” Cook said.

Cook and other union leaders have long contended the retirement fund has been destabilized by the contracting out to private firms of school support services and the rapid rise of charter schools that have eliminated thousands of public school employees who no longer pay into the retirement system.

The Public School Employees Retirement System was 60 percent funded at the end of the 2013 fiscal year, according to the most recent data available.

Knollenberg is undeterred by the cost-shifting argument and contends the overall package produces a net savings for taxpayers.

“Certainly those who are receiving these benefits like Steve Cook and union officers aren’t going to like it because they’re benefiting from it,” the Troy lawmaker said.

Knollenberg’s main bill ending taxpayer-funded leave time for public-sector workers serving in union leadership positions would save 67 school districts an estimated $2.7 million in payroll costs, shifting the responsibility for those salaries back to the unions. The bill applies to all public-sector unions except those that represent police officers, firefighters and prison guards.

“If they’re doing union business, the taxpayers shouldn’t pay,” Knollenberg said. “I would argue that’s why you pay union dues.”

The union dues may not be enough in smaller school districts to pay the salary of a full-time representative, Cook said.

“Many of these locals just don’t have that kind of money,” he said.

Cook said eliminating release time will force union representatives to meet with administrators at night or on weekends. He predicts there will be more workplace disputes that end up in costly arbitration.

“You’re going to see more blowups without a full-time officer there to deal with them,” Cook said. “You can call it an adversarial relationship, but more often than not you’re just trying to keep the trains running on time for the education of children.”

Legislative supporters counter that most private companies don’t pay for release time for union representatives.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, said Knollenberg’s legislation — Senate Bills 279 and 280 — would create more school management burdens for administrators and employees.

During a recent Senate floor speech, Ananich called the legislation a “vindictive” effort by the Republican majority to hinder labor unions.

“This is nothing more than another bill in a long line of bills attacking collective bargaining,” Ananich said. “That’s all it ever was.”

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