A news service for the people of Michigan from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy

A single school board member votes and a contract is approved 1-to-0. That might sound incredible, but it could happen as the result of legislation that was passed last year and enacted into law.

The idea behind Senate Bill 1051 was so compelling that nearly every lawmaker in the Michigan legislature voted for it. Under the measure, school board members are prohibited from voting on union and other contracts if a family member has an interest in a contract or works for the school district, including a spouse, child, parent, sibling, nephew or niece, etc.

Senate Bill 1051 was passed by the Senate on Nov. 8 on a 31-6 vote. Then it was overwhelmingly passed by the House on a 108-1 vote on Dec. 13.

However, on Dec. 13 when the House took up the bill, an amendment offered by Rep. Douglas Geiss, D-Taylor, established that if a majority of a school board’s members were disqualified from voting for a contract by the bill's restrictions, then the remaining members would constitute a quorum and be authorized to approve the contract. The amendment, which could potentially allow a quorum of one, was approved by voice vote.

Passage of the amendment showed that lawmakers foresaw scenarios in which the sort of conflicts of interest the bill was designed to guard against could affect a majority of members on a school board.

At the time, Rep. Geiss argued that the amendment was needed because of the potential that in very small school districts a high percentage of prospective board members could be disqualified due to family ties.

However, Jack McHugh, senior legislative analyst for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said he thinks the danger of another type of tie is applicable to the amendment.

"The Geiss amendment triggers images of school boards with just one member not beholden to the union," McHugh said. "Of course that’s an exaggeration, but the fact that it was considered necessary illustrates how much our conventional public school system has been co-opted by unions — too often to the detriment of taxpayers and the children it’s supposed to serve. This is yet another reminder of the deeply problematic policy of allowing government unionism at all."

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Joe Hune, R-Hamburg Township, said if the measure has the affect he was striving for when he introduced it, the quorum of one scenario will never take place.

"The purpose behind the bill was to prevent the conflicts of interest from ever arising in the first place," Rep. Hune said. "In my original bill, immediate family members of those with an interest in the contract or employees of the district wouldn't have been eligible to be on the board. But, with that approach we quickly ran into constitutional problems. So, instead, we drafted legislation focused on who could vote for contracts."

Rep. Hune said Senate Bill 1051 stemmed from a situation that took place in his district.

"A school board voted for a contract that put the district in the red, with some members knowing that they had relatives who would directly benefit," Rep. Hune said.

"I thought the bill we passed last year (Senate Bill 1051) got watered down in the process," he said. "We will be working more on these conflict of interest issues this year and next year."

Rep. Bill Rogers, R- Brighton, the only House member who voted against Senate Bill 1051, said he did so because of the same concern the Geiss amendment was supposed to address. However, Rep. Rogers didn't see redefining quorums as the solution.

"Sure, I remember that vote," Rep. Rogers said. "There aren't going to be that many votes taken in which you're the only one out of 109 members who votes 'no.' I remember the House Floor Leader coming over to me and asking: 'Are you sure that's the way you want to vote?' In response, I just said, 'Look at the board, this is what I'm doing.' "

Rep. Rogers said he thinks the bill was too narrowly drafted and could have unintended consequences in very small school districts.

"I completely agree with the concept behind the bill," Rep. Rogers said. "But my interpretation of how it was drafted was that it could potentially affect people down to the fifteenth cousin. There are small districts where large areas can consist of farm after farm that various members of the same family might own.

"I think the bill needed more work," he said. "It's the old problem of trying to write policy that fits every district, from small one-room districts to Detroit."

Rep. Hune said he was surprised when the Michigan Education Association didn't appear to get active regarding Senate Bill 1051. If Rep. Hune was right about the MEA not being engaged, that could explain why Democrats felt free to vote for the bill.

The MEA did not respond to requests for comment.

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