Respect My Authoritah!!!

Can school districts contract out or can't they?

We’ve noticed an odd and disturbing trend recently — novel interpretations of labor law being used to thwart the privatization of non-educational services by school districts. State law prohibits collective bargaining over the privatization of non-instructional services (such as transportation, lunch programs or janitorial services), but school districts are getting mixed messages about union authority in this area.

At least two districts in northern Michigan have been advised by the MEA that the recent “Race to the Top” legislative package effectively removed the ban on bargaining over privatization. Based on some admittedly rather turgid language in one of the bills (intended to ensure that unionized employees could submit bids but not to give unions a veto over privatization), the union apparently is taking the position that districts must get union approval on the details of the bidding process.

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Officials from at least two school districts in western Michigan refused to accept information on possible savings from privatization that was offered to them by a local company because district officials were operating under the belief that to accept this information prior to soliciting bids would open them up to an unfair labor practice charge.

School districts throughout the state have turned more and more to outsourcing and often found substantial savings. To give just one example, Troy public schools saved $2.7 million by contracting out for custodial services. But privatization often means teachers unions lose members and the dues that go with them. The teachers unions have a lot at stake, and it is in their best interests to prevent privatization wherever they can.

Confusion over state law can serve their purposes when it discourages school districts from taking steps that allow them to save taxpayer funds. While labor law can be complicated and intimidating, school districts and the public should take a union’s claims about its own authority with a proverbial grain of salt.