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Unions should lobby on their own dime

Jarrett Skorup

For years, unions across Michigan have used school districts as personal piggy banks to fund a pricey privilege known as “release time.”

Here’s how it works: The local union gets a school district to allow union officials to spend part or all of their time working on union business, instead of teaching students. These districts pay the salary and benefits for these officials in addition to having to hire an extra teacher to actually work in the classroom.

This release time scheme is nothing short of a rip-off from the perspective of taxpayers. Many of these union officials make six-figures, and taxpayers have to pay those salaries, even though the person earning it isn’t providing a public service.

The Taylor school district, which has run deficits year after year, spends well over $100,000 for four union officials’ release time. The president and vice president of both the teachers union and other administrative staff work part-time for the district and part-time for their unions.

At Chippewa Valley, the district spends $140,598 so that the union president can spend 100 percent of her time working on association business. The vice president of the union spends 40 percent of his time doing the same.

Not all of these arrangements are full time. Berkley pays $128,000 for its union president who splits his time, half with the union and half for taxpayers — each paying $64,000.

Warren ($132,352), Grand Rapids ($118,523), Wayne-Westland ($101,317), Livonia ($97,840), Utica ($90,726), Plymouth-Canton ($83,135), Northville ($82,106), Rochester ($74,133) and other school districts all dish out significant money so one or more union officials can essentially be on permanent leave from their teaching duties.

And Detroit Public Schools may be the worst offender. According to documents obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request, the district has seven union officials doing “other professional business” — hired by the district to work for schools, but instead spending their time on union business. Why is a bankrupt district spending money in this manner?

We sent FOIA requests to every district in Michigan and found that, statewide, about 70 districts have these types of arrangements at a direct cost to taxpayers of about $3 million every year. But that doesn’t include what districts have to spend replacing that employee in the classroom or the added health care or pension costs the taxpayers will be paying off for decades.

There’s a bill that would end this practice. Senate Bill 280, sponsored by Sen. Marty Knollenberg, R-Troy, passed the state Senate prohibiting these types of agreements. But the bill has been stuck in the State House since last November. It would be interesting to learn why so many House members, especially those who espouse prudent use of taxpayer dollars, think this is an appropriate use of money meant to be used for educating children.

Michigan citizens expect their money spent on schools to actually go toward educational purposes. If unions want to spend time lobbying or advocating, they are free to do so — but they should do it on their own dime.

Jarrett Skorup is a policy analyst at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.