(Note: This commentary originally was published in The Flint Journal on Dec. 31, 2006.)

The Beecher, Grand Blanc and Goodrich school districts are engaged in negotiations with teachers unions to resolve expired contracts. These prolonged negotiations are a reminder of the fact that while school boards may have the statutory power and responsibility to manage schools, they often lack the practical power to make decisions that benefit the public and the schools in the face of union opposition.

Michigan law does establish collective consultation between school districts and their employees regarding the terms and conditions of employment, but unlike unions in the private sector, a teachers union has no right to strike, and the union can have contractual terms imposed upon it. Indeed, the law clearly states, "A public school employer has the responsibility, authority, and right to manage and direct on behalf of the public the operations and activities of the public schools under its control."

So why is it so difficult for school boards to come to terms with teachers unions? Don’t the elected school boards rule the roost? The answer lies not in a lack of board power provided by law, but in the dynamics of imposing private-sector industrial-style union-management relations onto publicly elected officials.

The problem is that public school employee unions understand that school board members, unlike the CEO of a private-sector company, achieve their positions through public elections. Because of mandatory dues, the teachers unions have plenty of cash to influence these elections through get-out-the-vote drives, issue campaigns, etc. But more than that, they also know that their teachers have a special relationship with the voting public that can be utilized in the political arena. Accordingly, elections and recall petitions can put intense political pressure on a board member to capitulate to union demands.

Even the livelihood of school board members can come under assault. This was the case in Muskegon County, where flyers appeared last April calling for the boycotts of businesses where Reeths-Puffer board members work after the board voted to competitively contract custodial work. Such tactics, whether legal or not, understandably intimidate many board members and effectively grant to the unions what the law does not: the ability to pressure a school board into positions that benefit employees, but not necessarily students, taxpayers or the district as a whole.

The system works to the unions’ advantage as most taxpayers do not have the time to understand an issue so thoroughly that they can resist the emotional plea from those who teach their children. Who has time to sort out the complexities of contract negotiations?

Take, for example, the issue of health insurance that is in dispute in the Goodrich School District. According to published reports, Goodrich administrators would like to switch employee health insurance from the Michigan Education Special Services Association to a different provider in order to control costs. MESSA is a subsidiary of the state’s largest teachers union, the Michigan Education Association, and the change is being resisted by the MEA at the bargaining table.

The desire of Goodrich administrators to provide similar health coverage at a lower cost is not unreasonable. Many local teachers unions have made similar choices. In Pinckney, for instance, teachers voted 97 percent in favor of replacing MESSA with a plan provided directly by Blue Cross. Ninety-one percent of the teachers in the Kearsley school district voted to do the same. Savings in these cases are substantial.

Contract disputes over MESSA are complicated by its relationship with the MEA. In fiscal 2005, the union received nearly $4.8 million from MESSA, according to an MEA form submitted to the U.S. Labor Department. In addition, MEA leaders and board members occupy a majority of the seats on the MESSA Board of Trustees. Further complicating matters is the fact that MESSA does not underwrite health insurance coverage for MEA members — it merely acts as a third-party administrator of Blue Cross Blue Shield plans.

It would appear that the school boards simply are trying to be responsible with their education resources. Indeed, if intermediate school districts throughout Michigan could secure health insurance coverage more in line with the private sector, the savings could be as high as $400 million annually, according to Frank Webster, a former executive director of MESSA and a health care adviser to the Mackinac Center. That savings could finance a lot of educational priorities.

School boards are elected by the public to act as their representative in managing the public schools. In the face of political pressure and complex issues, they are to be commended for trying to do their job when the odds are stacked against them.

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Thomas W. Washburne is director of labor policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.