A lawsuit filed against the Harrison Community Schools by its
support personnel union might prove to be the test case of whether a public
school district can contract with a private firm to provide teacher aides.
The Harrison Board of Education voted 4-2 in July to
authorize Superintendent Christopher Rundle to investigate competitive
contracting for paraprofessionals, who currently are district employees and
members of the Harrison Education Support Personnel Association. But the
association, an affiliate of the Michigan Education Association, filed suit
against the board and the district, arguing that the aides in question are
instructional personnel and, under Michigan law, must be employed by the
district. State law requires instructional personnel to be district employees.
Clare County Chief Circuit Judge Thomas Evans granted a
temporary restraining order to the support personnel, halting the district’s
plans until he decides whether to issue a preliminary injunction in the case.
His decision was not issued before the deadline for this issue of Michigan
In briefs filed in the case, the school district argued that
the aides are support personnel who provide only limited supplementary
instruction at the direction of a teacher and therefore are not covered by the
"If we have to be the test case, so be it," Rundle told
Michigan Education Report. "I can’t see the paraprofessionals being
instructional. If they are, then we should be evaluating them as we would a
The legal firm representing the support personnel did not
return a request for comment. Wendy Heinig, the MEA Uniserv director in Houghton
Lake, told the Mount Pleasant Morning Sun for an article published in August
that the union’s stand is that the board did not want to bargain for a new
contract and that it acted illegally when members approved the privatization of
The district already contracts with private firms for
custodial, food and transportation services. The support personnel bargaining
unit now has about 38 members, most of them aides, according to Rundle. Their
duties include playground supervision, clerical work, preparing snacks and
sorting mail, and also supplemental tutoring of students under the teacher’s
The district wants to look at competitive contracting as a
way to save money. Hiring aides through a private firm could have saved the
district an estimated $294,000 this year, according to business manager Kelly
Hileman, or about $166 per student at the latest enrollment figure of 1,772
Most of the savings would be in health care benefit costs,
Rundle said. The district’s aides currently earn approximately $12 an hour, or
between $12,000 and $15,000 a year depending on their exact wage and work
schedule. Their contract also provides for Super Care health insurance benefits
through the Michigan Educational Special Services Association, a third-party
insurance administrator affiliated with the MEA. A full-family policy under the
Super Care plan costs nearly $14,000 per year, Hileman said. Employees pick up
part of that premium cost, or about $378 a month for the full-family option, he
said. Employees also can also opt out of the insurance plan and receive cash in
lieu of insurance equaling about $466 a month.
"In some cases (the value of) their benefits might exceed
their wages," Rundle said.
Rundle said the district is operating on a $14 million budget
this year with a $2.9 million fund balance. Enrollment has declined from about
2,250 students five years ago.
"People are leaving for work," he said.
The contract between the district and the support personnel
has been a point of contention for more than two years, involving mediation,
arbitration, filings with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission and a
separate court case over when the previous contract expired.
School district attorneys argued in the current case that
Michigan Department of Education regulations state that "school districts are
prohibited from allowing non-certified personnel to teach in the elementary and
secondary schools," but that non-certified personnel may be hired for such roles
as playground supervisors, library assistants, general student supervision and
assisting teachers during instructional activities in the classroom.
"Our argument is that aides are support staff and that’s what
they are intended to be," said Martha J. Marcero, an attorney with Thrun Law
Firm of East Lansing, representing the district.
The firm of White, Schneider, Young & Chiodini, P.C., of
Okemos, is representing the support personnel. They did not respond to a request