Hartland Consolidated Schools has negotiated into its union contract a clause stating teachers will have to “give back” salary if the school’s funding drops.

Under Gov. Rick Snyder’s proposed school plan, Hartland’s per-pupil funding would go from $7,426 this year to $6,956 in 2011-12. That would be a 6 percent cut and would translate to a 3.6 percent reduction in salary for teachers. But those teachers would still be eligible for automatic yearly raises of 5 percent if they had under 11 years of service.

“The automatic give-back or concession is unique for a teachers’ union contract in Michigan and is beneficial for many reasons,” wrote Michael Van Beek, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy’s education policy director. “The most important benefit is that it enables Hartland to reduce employee costs when necessary without having to renegotiate a brand new contract, a process that unions generally delay as long as possible, especially when it’s likely to be concessionary.”

Hartland has taken some steps to reduce its costs beyond teachers’ salaries.

Five years ago, the school privatized its custodians and has saved a total of about $4 million, according to Superintendent Janet Sifferman.

But there are other areas where the district will see increasing expenses in teachers’ salaries and health care costs.

The teachers’ contract also calls for yearly automatic raises of 5 percent for teachers with 11 years or less experience.

Sifferman said those “step increases” are “very hard” to negotiate out of contracts.

“In fairness to the teachers, in other industries, there are other ways of working your way up the ladder, different job opportunities — you don’t have those opportunities in teaching,” she said.

The district also pays for 100 percent of the teachers’ health care premiums.

Sifferman said the health care cost for the district is $5.5 million a year, compared to $28 million for payroll.

Van Beek said districts can’t afford to pass up any opportunity for cost-sharing with employees.

“Nibbling around the edges isn’t going to get districts where they need to be financially,” Van Beek wrote in an email. “They can squeeze a lot of savings out of consolidating, streamlining and contracting out services, but until they deal with rising labor costs, districts aren’t going to be able to get their fiscal houses in order.”

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