A lawsuit filed against the Harrison Community Schools by its support personnel union might prove to be the test case of whether a public school district can contract with a private firm to provide teacher aides.

The Harrison Board of Education voted 4-2 in July to authorize Superintendent Christopher Rundle to investigate competitive contracting for paraprofessionals, who currently are district employees and members of the Harrison Education Support Personnel Association. But the association, an affiliate of the Michigan Education Association, filed suit against the board and the district, arguing that the aides in question are instructional personnel and, under Michigan law, must be employed by the district. State law requires instructional personnel to be district employees.

Clare County Chief Circuit Judge Thomas Evans granted a temporary restraining order to the support personnel, halting the district’s plans until he decides whether to issue a preliminary injunction in the case. His decision was not issued before the deadline for this issue of Michigan Education Report.

In briefs filed in the case, the school district argued that the aides are support personnel who provide only limited supplementary instruction at the direction of a teacher and therefore are not covered by the state mandate.

"If we have to be the test case, so be it," Rundle told Michigan Education Report. "I can’t see the paraprofessionals being instructional. If they are, then we should be evaluating them as we would a teacher."

The legal firm representing the support personnel did not return a request for comment. Wendy Heinig, the MEA Uniserv director in Houghton Lake, told the Mount Pleasant Morning Sun for an article published in August that the union’s stand is that the board did not want to bargain for a new contract and that it acted illegally when members approved the privatization of teacher aides.

The district already contracts with private firms for custodial, food and transportation services. The support personnel bargaining unit now has about 38 members, most of them aides, according to Rundle. Their duties include playground supervision, clerical work, preparing snacks and sorting mail, and also supplemental tutoring of students under the teacher’s direction.

The district wants to look at competitive contracting as a way to save money. Hiring aides through a private firm could have saved the district an estimated $294,000 this year, according to business manager Kelly Hileman, or about $166 per student at the latest enrollment figure of 1,772 students.

Most of the savings would be in health care benefit costs, Rundle said. The district’s aides currently earn approximately $12 an hour, or between $12,000 and $15,000 a year depending on their exact wage and work schedule. Their contract also provides for Super Care health insurance benefits through the Michigan Educational Special Services Association, a third-party insurance administrator affiliated with the MEA. A full-family policy under the Super Care plan costs nearly $14,000 per year, Hileman said. Employees pick up part of that premium cost, or about $378 a month for the full-family option, he said. Employees also can also opt out of the insurance plan and receive cash in lieu of insurance equaling about $466 a month.

"In some cases (the value of) their benefits might exceed their wages," Rundle said.

Rundle said the district is operating on a $14 million budget this year with a $2.9 million fund balance. Enrollment has declined from about 2,250 students five years ago.

"People are leaving for work," he said.

The contract between the district and the support personnel has been a point of contention for more than two years, involving mediation, arbitration, filings with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission and a separate court case over when the previous contract expired.

School district attorneys argued in the current case that Michigan Department of Education regulations state that "school districts are prohibited from allowing non-certified personnel to teach in the elementary and secondary schools," but that non-certified personnel may be hired for such roles as playground supervisors, library assistants, general student supervision and assisting teachers during instructional activities in the classroom.

"Our argument is that aides are support staff and that’s what they are intended to be," said Martha J. Marcero, an attorney with Thrun Law Firm of East Lansing, representing the district.

The firm of White, Schneider, Young & Chiodini, P.C., of Okemos, is representing the support personnel. They did not respond to a request for comment.