UP school board rescinds plan to boost classroom spending

Union intimidation cited as factor in 3-2 vote

A small rural school district became the battleground in August between a local school board and the Michigan Education Association (MEA) union when the school board approved parts of a "School Excellence Plan" designed to cut the district's costs and channel more resources into the classroom.

The latest skirmish came when union intimidation caused one school board member to call a special Aug. 17 meeting where the recently approved portions of the plan were rescinded on a 3-2 vote.

"This is a sad day for Arvon Township children," said Mary Rogala, president of Arvon Township Schools, a small one-school district in the Upper Peninsula's Baraga County. "The union does not care how many children are hurt as long as it means full employment and benefits for its members."

The Arvon Township district employs a staff of four, all of whom are MEA members. Three of the four work part-time, but all have a comprehensive health insurance package that costs the small, 15-student district nearly $9,000 per year per employee. The insurance is provided by the Michigan Education Special Services Association, a subsidiary of the MEA, the state's largest union of public school cooks, janitors, teachers, and bus drivers.

The approved parts of the School Excellence Plan called for the district to explore cost savings by requesting bids from private companies to provide non-instructional support services. After an open bidding process, the district found it could save 32 percent of its budget for transportation, food service, and janitorial services and dedicate $32,400 more to classroom instruction. Private companies had also agreed to hire two of the three employees who would be affected by the change.

At its Aug. 15 meeting, the board approved contracting for these services and voted to use the anticipated savings to increase the library fund from $300 to $5,000, to allocate $10,000 for foreign language and music instruction, and to use $5,000 to enhance the science and computer labs.

Prior to the meeting, union employees sent a letter to township residents accusing the school board of endangering children. The union also served the school board president with a lawsuit seeking an injunction against the School Excellence Plan.

Board members report that, after the meeting, when a majority of members approved parts of the plan, union operatives harassed at least one board member. This board member subsequently called the special Aug. 17 meeting to reverse his vote, thereby rescinding the new School Excellence Plan measures.

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, publisher of Michigan Education Report, assisted the school board in its decision to pursue these elements of its School Excellence Plan. Board president Rogala said the district will continue to evaluate its options in order to provide better learning opportunities for students.