(Note: This commentary originally was published in The Flint Journal on Dec. 31, 2006.)
The Beecher, Grand Blanc and Goodrich school
districts are engaged in negotiations with teachers unions to resolve expired
contracts. These prolonged negotiations are a reminder of the fact that while
school boards may have the statutory power and responsibility to manage schools,
they often lack the practical power to make decisions that benefit the public
and the schools in the face of union opposition.
Michigan law does establish
collective consultation between school districts and their employees regarding
the terms and conditions of employment, but unlike unions in the private sector,
a teachers union has no right to strike, and the union can have contractual
terms imposed upon it. Indeed, the law clearly states, "A public school employer
has the responsibility, authority, and right to manage and direct on behalf of
the public the operations and activities of the public schools under its
So why is it so difficult for
school boards to come to terms with teachers unions? Don’t the elected school
boards rule the roost? The answer lies not in a lack of board power provided by
law, but in the dynamics of imposing private-sector industrial-style
union-management relations onto publicly elected officials.
The problem is that public school
employee unions understand that school board members, unlike the CEO of a
private-sector company, achieve their positions through public elections.
Because of mandatory dues, the teachers unions have plenty of cash to influence
these elections through get-out-the-vote drives, issue campaigns, etc. But more
than that, they also know that their teachers have a special relationship with
the voting public that can be utilized in the political arena. Accordingly,
elections and recall petitions can put intense political pressure on a board
member to capitulate to union demands.
Even the livelihood of school board
members can come under assault. This was the case in Muskegon County, where
flyers appeared last April calling for the boycotts of businesses where
Reeths-Puffer board members work after the board voted to competitively contract
custodial work. Such tactics, whether legal or not, understandably intimidate
many board members and effectively grant to the unions what the law does not:
the ability to pressure a school board into positions that benefit employees,
but not necessarily students, taxpayers or the district as a whole.
The system works to the unions’
advantage as most taxpayers do not have the time to understand an issue so
thoroughly that they can resist the emotional plea from those who teach their
children. Who has time to sort out the complexities of contract negotiations?
Take, for example, the issue of
health insurance that is in dispute in the Goodrich School District. According
to published reports, Goodrich administrators would like to switch employee
health insurance from the Michigan Education Special Services Association to a
different provider in order to control costs. MESSA is
a subsidiary of the state’s largest teachers union, the Michigan Education
Association, and the change is being resisted by the MEA at the bargaining
The desire of Goodrich
administrators to provide similar health coverage at a lower cost is not
unreasonable. Many local teachers unions have made similar choices. In Pinckney,
for instance, teachers voted 97 percent in favor of replacing MESSA with a plan
provided directly by Blue Cross. Ninety-one percent of the teachers in the
Kearsley school district voted to do the same. Savings in these cases are
Contract disputes over MESSA are
complicated by its relationship with the MEA. In fiscal 2005, the union received
nearly $4.8 million from MESSA, according to an MEA form submitted to the U.S.
Labor Department. In addition, MEA leaders and board members occupy a majority
of the seats on the MESSA Board of Trustees. Further complicating matters is the
fact that MESSA does not underwrite health insurance coverage for MEA members —
it merely acts as a third-party administrator of Blue Cross Blue Shield plans.
It would appear that the school boards
simply are trying to be responsible with their education resources. Indeed, if
intermediate school districts throughout Michigan could secure health insurance
coverage more in line with the private sector, the savings could be as high as
$400 million annually, according to Frank Webster, a former executive director
of MESSA and a health care adviser to the Mackinac Center. That savings could
finance a lot of educational priorities.
School boards are elected by the
public to act as their representative in managing the public schools. In the
face of political pressure and complex issues, they are to be commended for
trying to do their job when the odds are stacked against them.
Thomas W. Washburne is director of
labor policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and
educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in
whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are