(Note: This commentary originally appeared as an Op-Ed in The Detroit News on Sept. 19, 2007.)

In the midst of a prolonged budget battle, the Michigan Education Association last week blocked the Legislature’s attempt to substantively reform school employee health benefits, a plan that could have saved school districts millions of dollars.

At the same time, ironically, the union was attempting to control its own bottom line by making changes to these same health benefits plans during contract negotiations with its own employees. These actions reveal a sad case of hypocrisy that every school board, local voter and state legislator should remember when school districts face similar dilemmas.

Many of the professional employees of Michigan’s largest school employees union are represented by the United Staff Organization. The USO and MEA had negotiated a contract that provided generous health insurance for working and retired employees. Like a majority of Michigan school district workers, MEA employees are covered by Blue Cross Blue Shield health insurance administered by the Michigan Education Special Services Association, an MEA affiliate.

But in August, the MEA reportedly took a tough stance on the cost of retirees’ health insurance known as "Super Care I," the most expensive plan administered by MESSA. The MEA held its ground, prompting its employees to seriously consider a strike. The MEA management recognized the costliness of providing insurance through its own middleman — often at least $4,000 more per family than the national average family premium — and attempted to control costs.

But its hypocrisy is egregious. When a school board proposes a similar change — or any change — to health insurance plans administered by MESSA, the MEA expresses moral outrage, arguing that any changes will be detrimental to employees and their families.

One West Michigan superintendent told us that during 18 months of bargaining, "99.9 percent" of the sessions "dealt with" MESSA. According to news accounts from the last year alone, the MEA has stalled negotiations over MESSA in districts from Howell to Coopersville and from Gladwin to Marquette. Although districts usually offer comparable benefits that would allow them to contain out-of-control costs and spend more in classrooms, MEA negotiators are consistently unyielding.

The MEA management apparently recognizes that its own affiliate is threatening the union’s financial welfare. If its employees are intransigent at the bargaining table, the MEA could follow the route of school boards and private businesses by contracting out for services provided by the attorneys, consultants and negotiators it currently employs.

MESSA already does this with health claims, outsourcing the underwriting to Blue Cross Blue Shield. Indeed, the union itself has contracted for food, custodial, security and mailing services, sometimes with nonunion workers.

Yet, the MEA vehemently opposes school boards that attempt to privately contract for major noninstructional services, further evidence that the MEA’s actions do not comport with its words. The MEA has even published manuals and trained employees on how to fight competitive contracting.

Now that the MEA publicly acknowledges MESSA’s costliness, school boards, parents and taxpayers should insist that the union set aside its recalcitrance and demagoguery when health insurance benefits are discussed in school districts throughout the state.

Following the MEA’s lead, school boards should name themselves the holder of their health insurance policies to allow them to attempt to find comparable coverage at a lower cost. Legislators should require MESSA to release anonymous group claims history data so districts can shop around for health insurance. And if a district fails to bring premiums in line with at least the state employees’ insurance plan, the state should reduce its portion of the district’s foundation allowance by calculating a per-pupil adjustment based on the total overcharge amount between the district’s more costly premium and the state’s premium.

Moreover, school employees should consider the damage done by their union’s strident, duplicitous stances on health insurance. Organizing at the local level and decertifying the MEA may protect or salvage school employees’ reputations in their communities, produce better results in negotiations and ultimately serve the interests of children. Teachers in the Upper Peninsula’s Burt Township school district recently took this step.

At the very least, the MEA should drop its inflammatory rhetoric over fringe benefits and discard bargaining tactics that prevent school boards from doing what the MEA is now attempting to do for its own employees — keep costs in check for the greater good.

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Ryan S. Olson, D.Phil., is director of education policy at 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.

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