Earlier this year the reform board of the Detroit Public Schools (DPS), facing declining enrollment, cut administrative costs while putting more teachers in the classroom. They did so by eliminating two groups of managers: curriculum leaders, who had limited classroom duties, and curriculum coordinators, who were full–time administrators. These employees were promptly offered new jobs as classroom teachers. Out of 272 employees only five declined.

But two weeks ago an arbitrator ruled that these workers must be returned to their original bureaucratic jobs.

The reason: In its last collective bargaining agreement with the Organization of School Administrators and Supervisors (OSAS), DPS negotiators agreed to preserve existing contract rules. These rules set a minimum number of curriculum leaders and coordinators, depending on enrollment. The new move would violate these terms.

The incident highlights a common mistake that local boards of education make in collective bargaining: tying their own hands by negotiating staffing levels and other subjects that should be left to management.

Under the Public Employment Relations Act, school boards and other local governments are required to negotiate only "wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment." Michigan courts have ruled that, as long as public or worker safety is not endangered, staffing levels are not mandatory subjects for bargaining, and government officials may reject union requests that staffing rules be negotiated, without risk of an "unfair labor practices" charge.

In order to assure quality in education, boards will often find it necessary to say "no" to union demands. Because a shortage of curriculum leaders or coordinators is unlikely to put either teachers or students in physical danger, the Detroit School Board could and should have refused to negotiate minimum numbers of these employees. By agreeing to these staffing rules, the board made it more difficult to reduce overhead and adjust to a smaller student body.

As a consequence, the Detroit Public Schools are obligated to spend $18 million on administrators with limited classroom duties, at a time when the reform board wants to reduce costs and increase the number of teachers available. Without the contract, DPS would have spent close to the same amount on salaries, but would have had the freedom to put people where they were needed.

Mackinac Center for Public Policy research shows that staffing requirements are only one area in which collective bargaining agreements can tie school administrators’ hands. School board members and negotiators should review our report Collective Bargaining, Bringing Education to the Table, which is available at http://www.mackinac.org/791.

School boards, especially in Detroit, need to preserve their ability to manage themselves in order to make the most of limited budgets. That includes the ability to move administrators back into the classroom. Rectifying this mistake should be a top priority when DPS negotiates its next contract with the OSAS.

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Paul Kersey is labor policy associate for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. His most recent study is Proposal 3: Establishing a Constitutional Requirement Extending Mandatory Collective Bargaining and Binding Arbitration to State Government Employees, which is available at http://www.mackinac.org/4682.