Michael Van Beek sent an email to our staff that sounded unbelievable. The director of research for the Mackinac Center had been looking into union contracts when he found a clause in the Ferndale contract that gave non-Christians special preference in hiring.
Van Beek’s March 17 email set off a flurry of exchanges, mostly wondering, “How could this be true?” I quickly sent emails on March 17 and March 18 to the top administrators at the school district as well as the school board members. There was no response.
Van Beek had worked with Audrey Spalding, the Mackinac Center’s director of education policy, in going through hundreds of union contracts and finding language that was illegal under new reforms passed by the Legislature in 2011. Those findings led to numerous stories in Michigan Capitol Confidential. But none had the immediate and national impact of Ferndale’s situation.
On March 19, Michigan Capitol Confidential published its story about the Ferndale contract.
By 11 a.m., March 19, while driving, I got a phone call from a Ferndale spokeswoman. She thanked the Mackinac Center for alerting the district to the clause, which she said the district was unaware of and may have been in the contract for decades. But it had now been removed, she said. The story was updated.
Within hours of the story being posted,the spokeswoman said the “non-Christian” language had been removed. That’s normally a process that can takes months of negotiating.
The traditional media quickly followed our work, but now were forced to play catch up.
The Washington Times ran a story on March 19.
On March 20, the Detroit Free Press ran its own story of the contract provision. The Detroit News also did its own version March 20. The Associated Press did its own story and that was picked up by national media outlets such as Fox News.
MLive did a story March 22 looking at a state politician asking for an official review by the State Board of Education President John Austin.
The story went viral with dozens of news sites running the story.
For the person who discovered the illegal language, there was a bigger issue looming than just one clause in a union contract.
“There are a lot of school boards, superintendents and their hired attorneys who don’t actually review the actual contracts that they sign that deal with their employees,” Van Beek said. “That’s the biggest takeaway for me. No one defended this clause. And that to me shows if everyone agrees that it is bad, why was it in there? Well, the only reason was they didn’t read it.”