News Story

MEA Skips Testifying on Bill Ending Its Pension Spiking Arrangements

Past MEA presidents spiked their public pensions using six-figure union salaries

When the opportunity came to give testimony on a “Steve Cook” bill prohibiting public school pension spiking scheme benefiting its current and past two presidents, the Michigan Education Association remained silent.

The state's largest teachers union chose not to testify during a legislative hearing on a bill forestalling such schemes in the future. The hearing also considered a second bill closing the door on the practice of paying school and government employees for time spent doing union business.

At the same hearing, however, the state’s other major teachers union, a branch of the American Federation of Teachers, talked and talked — but not about the pension bill.

The Senate Education Committee took up Senate bills 279 and 280 on June 9. Both bills are aimed at prohibiting schemes that require taxpayers to pay for work done by real or putative school employees on behalf of unions. Senate Bill 279 would outlaw pension spiking of the type MEA President Steve Cook used to pad his taxpayer-funded pension.

Michigan Capitol Confidential broke the story about how Cook was permitted for decades to accrue higher benefits from the school employee pension system, even though he took a job as a full-time union official. The arrangement lets Cook use his $201,613 MEA salary as the basis for calculating the benefits of his public pension.

Sen. Marty Knollenberg, R-Troy, the sponsor of both bills, opened the hearing by reading a letter in which Richard Halik, superintendent emeritus of the Lansing School District, urged support for Senate Bill 279.

In his letter, Halik explained that when he approved the 1993 deal under which Cook ultimately managed to spike his own pension, he believed it was just short- term arrangement. A May 18 Michigan Capitol Confidential interview with Halik first documented these circumstances.

After Knollenberg read the former superintendent's letter, the committee took testimony on the bills. The pension bill was sidestepped by union representatives, who focused on objections to Senate Bill 280, the bill banning government and school employee union contracts that contain “release time” provisions that pay some employees for time they spend on the job conducting union business.

Most of the unions represented at the hearing wouldn’t be affected by the Steve Cook bill. However, teacher unions, such as MEA and the AFT, would. Nonetheless, the MEA declined to testify at all, instead opting to turn in a card that noted its opposition to both bills. Julie Rowe of AFT Michigan provided ample testimony but appeared to only want to talk about Senate Bill 280, while offering no verbal opposition to the Steve Cook bill.

Rowe argued that school districts can benefit from paid release time, and that the issue should be left up to the collective bargaining process between individual school districts and unions.

“This is a further erosion of local control,” Rowe said. “If they decide to have release time, it is in the interest of the school district. What that means is that they (the union) probably gave something else up at the bargaining table.”

Sen. Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair, the chairman of the committee, suggested that paid release time seemed to be a bit like “double-dipping.”

Rowe contested that.

“Release time is usually for those in the unit (union) to have a voice at the table,” Rowe said. “It is often used for things like disciplinary hearings and grievances. These matters should be left up to those who know best. No one is getting paid twice.”

Knollenberg said he has no problem with the concept of release time — as long as taxpayers aren't paying for it.

“I’ve had conversations with parents who are concerned about how much money is actually going to the classroom,” Knollenberg said. “That’s why the issue here is that taxpayers are paying for this time off away from working for the school.”

Sen. David Knezek, D-Dearborn Heights, said the legislation is just about attacking unions.

“Of course parents are frustrated about how much money gets to the classrooms,” Knezek said. “But do we even have any idea how much money this is costing? It sounds like it could be really small, one employee one day a week or a couple days a month. At first I wasn’t sure whether this was just anti-union legislation; now I’m pretty sure that’s all it is.”

Sharon Irvine, human resources director with Warren Consolidated Schools, testified against Senate Bill 280.

“Warren Consolidated Schools enjoys comparatively low administrative costs,” Irvine said. “If it weren’t for leave time we’d have to take that money and spend it on hiring more staff, which would cost even more.”

Representatives of other unions pointed out that Senate Bill 280 would affect all government unions, not just teacher unions.

"We have Lansing City Hall employees and Ingham County employees," said Tim Hughes, legislative coordinator with the UAW. "Leave time is a smart way of using time, not the other way around. The model is used a whole lot in the private sector."

Knollenberg said that private sector agreements between employers and unions didn’t involve taxpayer dollars.

Shawn Lewis Lakin, superintendent of the Royal Oak School District, testified in favor of Senate Bill 280.

“I’ve been a union member; my daughter and daughter-in-law are teachers and both members of the MEA,” Lakin told the committee. “Our district was paying $470,000 for leave time and now that’s down to zero dollars.”

“We ... the administration and the union, are finding time to do these things outside of the workday,” Lakin continued. “If you talked with a lot of superintendents and asked them: ‘Do you want to eliminate district paid leave time?,' many would say, ‘absolutely.’”

Knezek asked Lakin if he had taken a personal day off to come to Lansing and give his testimony.

Lakin responded that he hadn’t but that he’d be back at the school before noon and work until about 8 p.m.


See also:

'Steve Cook' Bill Would Prevent Private Union Employees from Spiking State Pension

MEA President Inflating Public Pension With $200K Salary While Working for Private Union

MEA Union President In Line for Six-Figure Government Pension

Lansing Schools: MEA President Steve Cook's Deal Never Considered 'Long Term Thing'

'If It's Not Illegal, It Should Be'

How Steve Cook's Pension Will Cost Taxpayers

MEA Charging Members Extra to Cover Retirement Liabilities For Union's Employees

Second MEA President Used $200,000+ Union Salary to 'Spike' Public Pension

Teachers Union Presidents Extract Lucrative Benefits From Schools - For Themselves