A lawsuit filed by the state’s largest teachers union against
more than 30 public school academies was dismissed by an Ingham County Circuit
Court judge. If successful, the Michigan Education Association’s suit could have displaced more than 10,000 students who attend public school academies
authorized by Bay Mills Community College.
"The MEA has long opposed charter schools, and made no bones
about the fact that they wanted to close down all BMCC-authorized schools," Bay
Mills Community College President Michael Parish said after the ruling. "Perhaps
this time the MEA will finally comprehend what thousands of Michigan families
have known all along – that charter schools provide valuable educational
alternatives, and that educational choice is here to stay."
Judge Joyce Draganchuk dismissed one count of the lawsuit and
said the union lacked standing to bring three other counts. The suit named the
state superintendent of public instruction, the state Board of Education, the
state treasurer and the Department of Treasury as defendants. Bay Mills
Community College has been criticized by some since 2001, when the college,
located on the Bay Mills Indian Reservation in the Upper Peninsula’s Brimley,
began authorizing charter schools in Bay City and Pontiac. Community colleges
are allowed to authorize schools only within their immediate vicinity. Like most
charter schools, those authorized by Bay Mills are not unionized.
Complaints arose that Bay Mills’ actions were circumventing
the state’s 150-school cap on university-authorized charters and whether or not,
as a community college, Bay Mills was limited to the boundaries of its
geographic district for the purposes of authorizing charter schools.
Then-Attorney General Jennifer Granholm, in an opinion requested by state
legislators, ruled that as a federal tribally controlled community college, Bay
Mills was limited to its geographic boundaries. The boundaries in question,
however, are found in Article XI of the "Charter of the Bay Mills Community
College," which states "the district of the Bay Mills Community College shall
consist of the whole state of Michigan."
The MEA’s suit said Bay Mills should be limited to
authorizing charter schools only within its tribal boundaries, and that the
college had illegally delegated the oversight of its schools to a private
company. Assistant Attorney General Robert Dietzel told the court that the MEA
failed to show Bay Mills charter schools had caused the union any harm. Dietzel
said if the Bay Mills schools closed tomorrow, that did not mean all 10,000 plus
students, and hence the per-pupil state aid money for them, would revert back to
conventional public schools.
"There are lots of different options these students could
take," he told Draganchuk. "They could go to a private school, they could go to
another charter school, or they could be home schooled."
Although the judge granted summary disposition to Bay Mills
on three of the counts, she did say the MEA had standing on one count, that
being that the board of governors at the community college is not a public body
because it is not elected. That, the MEA argued, means the charter schools
authorized by BMCC are not public and should not receive public dollars.
Representing the state, Dietzel pointed out that the legislature, in passing the
charter school law, made sure to include provisions that recognize tribal
community colleges. The public schools authorized by Bay Mills also remain
subject to the state Board of Education, a publicly elected body, and they
therefore qualify for state funding.
The MEA has filed a notice to appeal the case.
Parental choice advocates statewide expressed satisfaction
with the judge’s ruling, calling it a major victory for schools, students and
"This ruling not only supports Bay Mills and 10,600 students
in its 32 schools, it upholds the fundamental freedom of all families and
communities to have high-quality public school options," Dan Quisenberry,
president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, said after the
court’s ruling. "The MEA has wasted thousands of dollars, including direct
taxpayer dollars, to harass charter schools with a frivolous case it knew it
would never win."
Richard Landau, an attorney representing a group that
includes Bay Mills, called the suit "naked, political self interest." Landau
also said "the MEA’s position is that this public money is their money, it’s
money their members are somehow entitled to."
Draganchuk’s ruling marks the second major court defeat the
school employee union has suffered this year. Last August, the Michigan Court of
Appeals rejected the MEA’s attempt to unionize teachers at Brother Rice High
School, an all-boys Catholic school in metro Detroit. After teachers expressed
an interest in union representation, the MEA brought an action before the
Michigan Employment Relations Commission, which scheduled a vote at the school
for August 2004. The school’s board of directors appealed and the vote was
postponed. The appeals court eventually decided MERC has no jurisdiction over
lay teachers in parochial schools, a decision the MEA chose not to appeal.