Jacques: MEA boss scores hefty state pension

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Here's something you probably didn't know — the president of the state's largest teachers union is headed toward a pension fit for a one-percenter thanks to a sweetheart deal he enjoys with the state teacher retirement system.

If that sounds a little odd, that's because it is. Steven Cook, who's headed the Michigan Education Association since 2011, hasn't worked directly for the Lansing School District for two decades.

Yet Cook maintains an arrangement with the school district, and through that agreement, he still contributes to the Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System. Last year, the Lansing district contributed $51,976 to the system on behalf of Cook, even though he has no official responsibilities in the district. The MEA reimburses the district for the unusual provision that allows Cook to collect a much larger pension than he would otherwise get.

No surprise, Cook makes a whole lot more now as president of the teachers union than he did as a paraprofessional with the district. The payments the MEA contributes to the system now on his behalf are far greater than what he once made and have served to nicely plump his pension benefit.

According to the MEA's LM-2 report, which unions file with the U.S. Department of Labor, Cook made a comfortable $203,144 in 2014. The average public school teacher in Michigan earns about $55,000.

Cook could collect a state pension of up to $105,000 a year once he retires.

The union boss says his relationship with Lansing schools is not unique, and that since the 1960s all statewide officers with the union have had similar so-called release agreements with their home districts.

But they all haven't had this same pension deal, and that's the issue. State law changed in the 1990s to prevent future union leaders from exploiting the practice, but Cook was grandfathered into the system.

"We reimburse the district," says Cook, regarding payments into the pension system. Cook also maintains that he's not receiving a pension through the MEA, even though the union runs its own system.

That may be true, but given that the teacher retirement system is underfunded by $26 billion, it's not as if taxpayers are being held harmless.

And even though Cook's agreement with Lansing Public Schools doesn't appear to be illegal, it's a relationship that should end.

"It's a pension spike," says Patrick Wright, vice president of legal affairs at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which has investigated Cook's pension deal in recent weeks. "The outrage comes from this."

Some lawmakers are taking notice, too. Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, is miffed about the arrangement, and says he's discussing a legislative fix.

"An MEA employee shouldn't have the same benefits as a state employee," Meekhof says.

That's a good point.

Cook's agreement with the Lansing district is reminiscent of the MEA-backed practice of districts granting release time for local union leaders. These educators receive a taxpayer-funded salary to do union work, rather than teach. The Legislature attempted to end the practice a few years ago, but the bill died in the Senate.

The union should fund its union work, just as it should be solely responsible for its pension obligations for direct employees.

The current agreement should make everyone involved, from taxpayers to teachers, feel uneasy.

As Wright asks, "Why are you helping the union president make a lot of money? How does that make sense?"

Ingrid Jacques is deputy editorial page editor

of The Detroit News.