Editorial: Unions should pay for union work

The Detroit News

Among the fiscally smart measures Republicans failed to address during the eight years they held control of state government is ending the practice of taxpayers footing the bill for teachers who do union work while on the clock. They have another chance in lame duck, and they should take it.

The bill that would prevent the practice of so-called release time is getting traction. It passed narrowly out of the Senate this week. Its supporters aren’t sure what reception it will face in the House, which was less eager to take up the matter last session.

Kids in class at Madison Elementary School.

Release time is a provision that’s embedded into school district union contracts throughout Michigan. It places a burden on already strained school budgets to fund work that doesn’t directly benefit students.

In some cases, schools pay a full-time salary and benefits to an employee who does no actual work related to teaching or other academic duties.

Sen. Marty Knollenberg

Sen. Marty Knollenberg, R-Troy, has tried to end release time for years — starting when he was in the state House. This is his last chance, as he didn’t win his bid for a second term.

“I don’t think that taxpayers should pay for the time spent doing union business,” he says. “For me, it’s purely economics.”

He says there’s a lot of misinformation about the legislation. Knollenberg isn’t trying to keep teachers from doing union-related work. He just thinks that work should be paid for with union membership dues.

Similarly, the Senate passed another bill Knollenberg introduced that would stop something known as “pension spiking.” That bill would prohibit public schools from giving pension credits to union officials who remain on their payrolls but who are working full-time on union business. It’s a trick that’s been used to pad the pensions of top Michigan Education Association officials, including several past presidents. That’s something else taxpayers shouldn’t have to cover.

Jarrett Skorup, director of marketing and communications at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, estimates release time costs school districts a combined $3 million for salaries, but it gets much more expensive when benefits are included. Districts must also cover additional costs for absent teachers, including paying for their classroom substitutes.

In 2015, at least 70 school districts paid union officials half- or full-time salaries, according to the Mackinac Center. And a newer analysis found 177 school employees received some sort of release time.

Most of the state’s 538 traditional school districts don’t use release time. Even the largest, the Detroit Public Schools Community District, doesn’t participate.

In those districts, unions cover the cost of union work. And that’s how it should be statewide. 

Both these bills look out for taxpayers, and the House should find the gumption to pass them.