Friday, November 19, 2010

"Public Education Inc" Software Bugs

I know... it's been a while.

But after watching the Rochester school board emulate Nancy Pelosi and her "We need to pass the bill first, so that you can see what's in it" approach, I had to allow myself this distraction:

The Detroit News: Talk about teacher contracts openly (11/19/10)

This isn't about the contract, it's about the aristocratic approach of the school board.

They'll reveal the contract, immediately vote on it, and THEN "welcome" your comments. Of course, by that point, your views will be irrelevant.

I've pasted below the original piece that was submitted to The Detroit News.

==> Mike.

(P.S. Thanks to Laurie Puscas for tipping me off to the T.A. She runs her own blog,
found here.


Before Governor-elect Rick Snyder can implement his Michigan 3.0 vision, he must first accept that it’s entirely incompatible with an obsolete Public Education 1.0.

PE 1.0 is a school board developed subroutine that, when supercharged with an app called Union 2010, unapologetically consumes one-third of the entire state budget.

If Snyder is unable to debug PE 1.0, these rogue apps will just continue to demand more system resources, and overpower his fresh new program.

Just look at an all too common story that is happening in Rochester, but could just as easily be in any district around the state.

The school board hasn’t passed a balanced budget in at least seven years. This year it’s projecting a $4.9 million dollar deficit.

The actual magnitude of their deficit spending has been masked by the massive infusion of federal Obamabucks over several years.

They just increased the local tax rate by 30 percent. They are deferring building maintenance and technology updates.

Yet the board cannot even honestly face their problems.

Rochester claims to have reduced their budget by $13 million over the past three years. Perhaps in government-world, where a cut doesn’t really mean a cut, they have.
But in the real world, budget documents from the district website put 2007 spending at $160 million, and 2010 spending at $158 million.

Their biggest expense is labor, which consumes over 85 percent of their budget.
It’s quite significant then that the board just announced a “tentative” contract with their local teacher union.

But unbelievably, the agreement was developed in the proverbial “smoke-filled back room”, and in a move reminiscent of Nancy Pelosi and the health care bill, the board does not want to let the public in on the details until after they pass it.

This contract – this secret contract – is undeniably the single biggest determining factor in whether the district will ever balance the budget. It’s one of the biggest decisions the board will make in the near future, and they are making it with the least possible transparency.

It will help to determine how much pressure the board will put on Lansing – and specifically Governor-elect Snyder – for education funding.

The existing contract – which is more or less identical to contracts in all Michigan districts – is structured so that total compensation will increase by roughly 5 percent per year, regardless of performance and regardless of revenue. Healthcare and retirements costs are not capped in any way whatsoever.

The only hope for balancing the budgets and controlling costs is to work out new employee contracts that are reasonable, fair, and affordable.

Does this secret new deal change anything, or is it more of the same?

Will it save our schools, or instead doom them to more years of cuts to educational programs, increased pay-to-play sports fees, and perhaps even lead to a new sinking fund millage?

Will it allow the district to survive on projected state revenues, or will it require the board to pressure Lansing for more money, pleading “for the children”?

This agreement will have a profound impact on the district for years to come, and will affect parents, students, homeowners, and taxpayers alike. Therefore, they should have a reasonable opportunity to understand the contract, and provide feedback prior to a binding vote by their so-called representatives.

The aristocratic school board refuses.

Rochester is not unique. School boards across the state handle their negotiations in the same manner.

Snyder needs to find a way to hold school boards accountable for this sort of nonsense, such as requiring a two week public disclosure period before binding union contract votes are made.

Otherwise, school boards will continue to hold Lansing hostage, and will all but insure that Snyder’s software upgrades will crash.


Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Risky Bonds and Lazy School Boards

Most people don't know that school boards can raise your taxes without a vote of the people.

In Michigan, we are protected from large tax increases by the Headlee Ammendment, passed in 1978. But taxpayers have no protection against school boards.

Among other things, Headlee limits the total amount of taxes collected by limiting the total increase to the rate of inflation. But there is apparently some loophole that exempts school bonds, and school boards exploit it to the fullest extent of the law.

Rochester's risky bond scheme just blew up, and now they are dumping on local taxpayers with a 30% tax increase, from 5.18 mills to 6.7 mills. There is another 15% increase on the horizon, up to 7.7 mills.

(Incidentally, they'll now be collecting $27.5 million in bond taxes, which translates into $1850 per pupil! That is IN ADDITION TO the $10,500 or so they receive into their general fund from all sources of revenue.)

I wrote about it last week in the Oakland Press:

Oakland Press: Poor management leads to school tax hikes (6/24/10)

What can you do about it? Absolutely nothing.

And don't think this is the end of their desire to tax.

For years the district as budgeted very little for building maintenance, assuming that they would just call for another bond issue, and fund maintenance out of special bond dollars, rather than consider them normal operating expenses.

That scheme has run it's course, and is no longer an option.

However, while they were operating this scheme, the board was underfunding budgets for building maintenance, instead funnelling every available penny to salaries and benefits.

So, they are no longer in a position to pass more bonds, and they have no money in the general fund for building maintenance.

My guess is that the school board will soon be looking for a taxpayer bailout, and they'll call it a "sinking fund."

They'll blame the state for "underfunding schools", and plead for this new tax. Taxpayers will be told they can approve this new tax, or instead watch the district's beautiful buildings fall apart.

I've pasted the full article below in case the link doesn't work.

==> Mike.


GUEST OPINION: Poor management leads to school tax hikes
Thursday, June 24, 2010

By Mike Reno

School bonds are ticking time bombs set to explode this month on unsuspecting taxpayers.

They were planted years ago by lackluster school boards.

Rather than attempt to disarm them and avoid a tax increase, boards will let them detonate, banking on another taxpayer bailout, with little regard for the collateral damage their hikes may inflict on struggling homeowners.

This serves as a lesson to those who ignore school board elections, and ignore the “fine print” when these bonds are promoted.

A school board typically markets a bond proposal by communicating the bond value and millage rate. For example, a district might ask for a $64 million bond issue, with a 5.18 mill tax rate.

However, the “fine print” reveals the millage figure might be a “low introductory rate,” subject to increases determined by your local school board.

This just happened in Rochester, where the 5.18 mill rate
increased by 30 percent to 6.7 mills. Taxpayers have no say, and most will probably remain unaware of the tax hike until they open their next tax bill.

It’s happening in other communities too, such as South Lyon and Royal Oak.

On the surface, plummeting home values are to blame. With housing assessments down, the amount collected by the current millage isn’t enough to make scheduled school bond payments.

Yet as much as school boards might wish to be seen as helpless victims of economic circumstances, there’s plenty they could be doing to relieve our school tax obligations.

Let’s start with the bonds themselves. In Rochester, the repayment schedule is based on the assumption home values would increase 6 percent annually — forever.

This is like taking out a home mortgage with monthly payments that increase annually based on the assumption that you’ll get a substantial raise every year — forever.

Who came up with this idea? A financial consultant who’s been awarded no-bid contracts since the 1990s and also hired a sitting Rochester school board member.

A consultant who now says raising taxes is the only option.

Perhaps a tax increase is inevitable. But rather than merely rubber-stamping it, our elected officials should probe everything, leaving no stone unturned in an effort to avert a tax increase.

Instead, none questioned a misleading board presentation. This increase is $152 per $100,000 of taxable home value, but the presentation attempts to fool people into thinking the increase will be much less.

After the deceptive presentation, and considering how this consulting firm put the district into its present “no option” predicament, the board was urged to go the extra mile on behalf of the taxpayer, and at least seek a second opinion. The board didn’t respond to the suggestion.

Someone then pointed out how the benevolent board has kept tax rates constant for the past decade, as if we should expect regular taxes increases and be grateful they’ve held off for so long. And it completely ignores the fact that 10 years ago the district collected $16.7 million in taxes, while next year they’ll levy $27.5 million.

In the end, the board made no effort to protect taxpayers, and voted unanimously for a tax increase. And there’s another 15-percent increase projected for next year, to 7.7 mills!

The biggest problem isn’t the tax increase; it’s the sloppy way it happened. It’s been a lesson in poor governance, from the risky bond scheme to the conflict-of-interest consultant, to the deceptive presentations, and concluding with the downright lazy decision to skip a second opinion.

These school boards are their own worst enemy. Their behavior and mismanagement causes people to doubt their credibility, ultimately making it difficult to find tax dollars for worthwhile projects and justifiable needs.


Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Sports: The 3rd Rail of School Politics

High voltage electricity was once supplied to trains through the “third rail”. Over time, the phrase “third rail” became a metaphor denoting a political subject so highly charged that politicians who dared to discuss the subject – metaphorically touch the rail – would suffer greatly.

In school politics, athletics is a third rail, and some local school boards recently tested voltage. Sparks flew... and the boards backed down.

I wrote this piece a few weeks ago:

Detroit News: Bloated costs hurting schools (06/03/10)

As predicted, the school board is going to pull hundreds of thousands of dollars out of savings to subsidize sports.

They will spend about $900 per pupil for the 1800 students that play sports, and it comes at the expense of the 13,000 kids who don't play.

Meanwhile, they are slashing $1,000,000 out of the already underfunded building maintenance budget.

Keep all of this in mind when this board approaches voters in a few years to ask for a sinking fund millage. We'll have leaky roofs, and cracked parking lots, and they'll tell you that there is just no money to fix things. Remember their actions here when they trot out the "we have no choice" excuse.

==> Mike.

P.S. I've pasted below the article in case the link doesn't work.


June 3, 2010

Bloated costs hurting schools


For years, irresponsible school board spending set the stage for a financial meltdown. The economic crisis in Michigan accelerated the process, compelling boards to consider tough budget choices.

These choices have brought out competing special interest groups, claws extended, defending their turf, trying to push the cuts onto someone else.

Employee unions are the 800-pound gorilla in these fights, but the "athletic parent" is proving to be one tough mama grizzly as well. They view after-school sports as an entitlement, and attack anyone who threatens it.

This entitlement is being tested in cash-strapped districts, and fur is flying from Rochester to Romeo to Farmington.

In Rochester, student athletes
are assessed a $180 pay-to-play fee, which comes nowhere close to covering athletic spending.

Even after these fees, Rochester athletic spending exceeds $1.6 million dollars. That's nearly $890 for each of the 1,800 student athletes. Add together the school expenditures and student fees, and the average cost for after-school sports is $1,070 per participant.

Compare school spending to several private intramural football and basketball teams in Rochester. Some are recreational, while others are more competitive. They range in cost from $140 to $250 per child per season; up to 85 percent less than the school.

Beyond the annual costs, the district recently installed three artificial turf football fields at $1 million dollars each, as well as two middle school auxiliary gymnasiums "needed" to supplement the main gyms.

Ignoring costs, there's no doubt that sports are constructive for some students. Sports can teach leadership and teamwork, and help a child learn to humbly accept victory or graciously concede defeat. For some, athletics are the only motivation to do well in school.

But the fact remains that after-school sports aren't part of a school's core curriculum, and the costs come at the expense of the thousands of students who do not play.

The $1.6 million dollar athletic expenditure in Rochester is now being examined as the district faces a $14 million dollar deficit. One proposal considers increasing the pay-to-play fee to $450, and athletic boosters are marching on the board with torches and pitchforks.

Yet none of them comment on the layoff notices to 30 teachers and dozens of secretaries, or the reductions in library and special education support staffs.

Deficit reduction proposals consider maximizing the "contractual staffing formula." This is jargon for increasing class sizes to the absolute contractual limits. There hasn't been a peep out of parents.

The board proposes to reduce an already underfunded building maintenance budget, causing speculation they'll soon be begging taxpayers to pass a sinking fund millage. Parents have been silent on this issue.

But the board has received hundreds of letters from athletic parents "outraged" at the increased pay-to-play proposal.

Parents should be upset, but not at the fee. They should be upset that the school board let the cost of sports become so outrageously expensive. And they should be upset that the board continues to squeeze academic and athletic programs to feed unreasonable union demands.

In the end, politicians on the Rochester board -- lacking conviction -- will likely cave to the pressure, pulling more money from the district's rapidly dwindling savings account to subsidize after-school sports.

Rochester is the example, but extrapolating these numbers statewide suggest athletic spending might exceed $185 million annually. And sports may be the face of the debate, but other extra-curricular activities such as drama and choir are also at risk.

Sadly, no solution is in sight.

Rather than deal with economic reality, schools contend this is a "Lansing problem," issuing calls for "stable funding" (more education jargon for a tax increase).

A taxpayer bailout of irresponsible school board spenders is not the solution.

Schools must acquire the fiscal discipline necessary to get spending in line with reasonable benchmarks set by the private sector, not just in sports, but in all areas of their operation.

And boards must develop the communication skills necessary to help us understand why this is the time for shared sacrifice from employee unions, athletic parents, and other special interest groups.


Tuesday, May 25, 2010

School Boards to Parents: Talk to the Hand

The Rochester Community Schools board of education has determined that high school senior class valedictorian and salutatorian honors are no longer fashionable.

Moreover, class ranking - a designation which facilitates college admissions and scholarship awards - has also been given the boot by Rochester's school board.

Perhaps there's a good reason for their determination to abolish academic
ranking districtwide, but none of the current board members has been willing to explain their rationale to this parent. (Despite 2 trips to the podium and two detailed written communications.)

The sad fact is that community members who ask questions that challenge the prevailing position of the sitting board are given a stone-faced stare and a "Thank you for your comments" from the assembled dignitaries of Rochester's own "Mt. Rushmore".

Mind you, Rochester's "chosen ones" are not unique in this approach. I've attended plenty of board meeting in other districts, and it's the same story.

School boards tend to view parents and taxpayers as ATM machines, from which they can make withdrawals at will. Yet they offer nothing in return - certainly not meaningful answers.

So long as parents and taxpayers tolerate such dismissive arrogance from
public officials, local school boards will continue to practice "school
business" as usual.

Background on the valedictorian / salutatorian / class ranking issue can be
found here

Watch this short 90-second video, then tell me what you believe the
Rochester school board is trying to "communicate":

School boards claim they want to hear from you.

Go ahead.

Step right up to the altar and talk to their hand.


Friday, May 14, 2010

Trendy Schools Risk College Scholarship Dollars

Attention middle school parents: Is your school board making trendy policy changes that could cost Rochester students lost college scholarship opportunities?

There is a good chance that they are.

Is there a benefit to the students? Nobody knows.

The Rochester Community Schools board is changing the way it honors high-achieving graduates. The proposed changes will improve the recognition system. But ever-conscious of being trendy, the district will also inadvertently take aim at high-achieving students by removing honors and rankings that can undoubtedly help in admissions and scholarships.

I have yet to understand why we wouldn’t want to do everything we can to help in the competitive admissions process, and I’m dumbfounded why we would want to put potential scholarship dollars at risk.


The district currently has no mechanism for weighting grades. As far as GPA is concerned, an “A” in gym or salsa-making is equal in weight to an “A” in AP Calculus. As a result, you’ll have some of the “top scholars” consist of those that really busted their butts with a rigorous schedule, while others “not so much.”

So discussions on grade weighting began in 2006. With weighting, the grading scale is expanded; potentially offering extra points to the grades earned in rigorous AP classes. Instead of a 4.0 scale, the tough classes might work on a 4.5 scale. An “A” in AP Calc would be worth 4.5, while an “A” in Diet and Exercise would be worth 4.0. A “B” in AP Calc would be worth 3.5, while a “B” in Diet and Exercise would be worth 3.0. This would reward those students who took the challenging classes, and allow them to stand out. It might also provide an incentive for those who might otherwise shy away from AP classes for fear it would damage their GPA.

After several years of committee work, the board was presented with a proposal that looked at a different approach. Instead of adding weight to the grades of tougher classes, they were proposing to lower the grading scale. I wrote about that here in a blog entry entitled, “
Come to Rochester, our A’s are easier!


Fortunately the committee moved away from their “lower the bar” initial proposal. But sadly, they abandoned the whole concept of rewards and incentives for rigorous classes. Ironicially, the "grading committee" did nothing about grades! :-)

But they did come back with something pretty good.

Rather than the time-honored tradition of summa cum laude, magna cum laude, and cum laude, which is generally based solely on GPA, the district will now implement
a more expanded set of requirements:

GPA: 3.9 – 4.0
Four AP Courses
ACT Composite of 32 or higher

GPA: 3.8
Three AP Courses
ACT Composite of 28 or higher

GPA: 3.5
Two AP Courses
ACT Composite of 26 or higher

It’s got a few warts (like no requirement to take the AP exam), but overall I like this proposal because it will acknowledge those that really applied themselves, and showed measurable success.


However, in the process of creating this new proposal, they tossed in a few footnotes. No grade weighting, the elimination of Validictorians, Salutorians, and the elimination of class rank.

They did not explain why.

At one point while I served on the board there was some talk that class rank (and Val/Sal recognition) served as an excuse for not talking rigorous classes. Kids would not want to risk their GPA or class rank position.

This is an unsubstantiated theory. There has not been a meaningful discussion in public on this. And if there were some way to prove it, then one could argue that grade weighting could solve it.

I wrote about this a few years back ("
Academic Achievement Deserves More Recognition, not Less!").

To be fair, there are some highly selective, top achieving schools that have eliminated class rank. These are schools where many students are taking rigorous classes, scoring well, only to find themselves barely making the top 25%. That is not the case in Rochester, where less than 40% of the graduates can pass all four ACT College Readiness Benchmarks.

On it's website, The College Board states:

According to a March 2006 New York Times article, some college admissions officers disapprove of the trend away from reporting class rank, because, they say, it forces them to "make less informed decisions or overemphasize results on standardized tests."

They go on to say:

Most large state universities, however, still require applicants to report class rank (as do many scholarship programs), and rely on it to help sort through the high volume of applications received.

Eliminating class rank, and vals/sals seems to be a solution in search of a problem.


By eliminating class rank, and vals/sals, the school board is putting at risk some scholarship money. Scholarships for vals and sals are quite clear in the requirements. No val/sal, no money. And some scholarships specifically incorporate class rank into their formula. No class rank, no money.

If we are going ruin the opportunity for some students to earn scholarships, then we must have a good reason, right?

I asked that question in a letter to the board. The response: “Thank you. Please provide your home address when corresponding with the board.”

So, I waited around for three and half hours at a school board meeting to ask them in person. Check out the robust board discussion in this clip:

Is it any wonder people avoid school boards like the plague?

I followed-up with yet another letter, and finally received a response. The response did not explain WHY the honors are being eliminated, but does offer a defense that argues our kids will not be negatively impacted because Rochester will join a growing list of high schools that does not report class rank.


The response was thoughtful, but the arguement was weak. It was quite illustrative of the typical debates that happen all the time in education.

For example, one might argue that the trend is moving away from class rankings, and as a result colleges have adjusted their admissions policies to adapt. Therefore, we should follow the trend.

The opposing argument would note that over half of the colleges still consider class rank to be considerably or moderately important. Therefore, we should retain class rank to give an extra boost to the high achievers.

If you were to ask a college, “Do you value class rank?”, the answer would mostly like be “Yes. It’s helpful”

If you ask that same college, “Can you live without it?”, the answer would probably be “Yes. We must, because some schools don’t report.”

In the end, if both sides of a debate can site the same reports and sources as support for their argument, then does it even matter?

Yes, it does.

Schools should be preparing our children to be adults. Competition is part of life. Shielding them from competition is not doing them any good. It spoils them. Pampers them.

We’re comfortable ranking them as athletes, but not as scholars? We’re comfortable naming a winner in a race, but not in overall academic achievement? We can line the gym walls with athletic records, but won't honor our scholars in the same manner?

Our children are entering a world that is highly competitive. College admissions and scholarship awards are highly competitive. A good class rank, not to mention val/sal designation, is not going to be a deciding factor for a college or a scholarship board. But it would help.

We should not be taking away tools that can help.

And school boards should welcome discussion about this, not ignore it.


Friday, May 7, 2010

Of Bucks and Boards: The MEA extends its tentacles

Witness the power and influence the union can wield during May elections.

The MEA's website (found here) brags about local school election victories -- apparently satisfied the union will reap its rewards during future contract negotiations -- yet ignores the full impact of union interests trumping those of students and taxpayers.

The MEA will often funnel money into elections (as shown here), but they usually do so quietly. More often they attempt to influence behind the scenes, with the union providing "soft" backing during elections.

The claims they make are nothing short of outrageous. Look at how they connect the dots: Electing pro-union candidates equates to a pro-education mood? Electing pro-union candidates equates to support of "quality of life"? Where was the ballot question on "unstable funding" that voters reportedly recognized?

In Warren, they claim to have unseated an incumbent. Check out the vote results here. 78,042 registered voters. 7,443 bothered to show up. That's 9.53%. Rest assured that a good portion of them are MEA members, family of MEA members, etc.

In Durand, the famed epicenter of the "wake-up call... for the working class", had some 800 votes cast. I tried to lookup the vote totals, but I'm not even sure where Durand is located! I found Durand votes in Genesee County (found here), where a whopping 7.90% of the registered voters cast ballots.

These local board members live in anonymity, yet collectively control one-third of your state budget -- some $13 billion dollars -- as well as billions in local property taxes and billions in federal tax grants.

You don't think it's happening in your district? Think again.


Election results: Schools win at the polls

Will Lansing get the message?

May 6, 2010 - Voters statewide sent a strong message at the polls this week, approving taxes to pay for education and public safety, electing union-backed candidates, and unseating scores of school board incumbents.

“It’s about quality of life,” said Jim Ward, a media specialist at Forest Hills Northern High School. “The voters are supportive of activities that they define as quality of life – and that’s public service and public education. This broke the whole ‘cut, cut, cut, don’t talk about taxes’ approach. We need to support essential services.”

Hopefully, legislators will get the message: Enough is enough!

Voters support their schools – and other vital public services – and recognize that unstable funding hurts students and communities.

From St. Joseph to Adrian to Bessemer, voters were in a pro-education mood Tuesday.

In Durand, a school custodian whose job was outsourced to a private company in December, won a contested school board election. Paul Mayers, a former union president who now works for the private company, is one of two union-supported candidates who won in Durand.

“I hope it’s a wake-up call,” Mayers said. “This is a victory for the working class.”

Other election victories included:

  • In Warren, voters unseated incumbents in favor or Sue Jozwik, a job recruiter with MEA support, and Elaine Martin, a retired school secretary.

  • The Petoskey News-Review trumpeted election results – the headline was “Big night for millages in Emmet, Charlevoix” – as voters passed several millage proposals in the area.

  • Holland voters OK’d $73 million in school bonds to pay for better buildings, computers, and athletic facilities.

  • In St. Johns, voters passed a $64.3 million proposal to fund high school improvements, new buses, and technology upgrades. Funding requests were also approved in Stockbridge, Portland, Bath, and Ionia County.

  • In Ironwood, two of the three school board races went to candidates recommended by the MEA affiliates there.

  • St. Joseph voters approved a $38 million bond issue for renovations, additions, and equipment upgrades including replacing aging computers.

Despite these positive results, much work remains to secure adequate funding for public education and other necessary services.

MEA is part of a coalition – A Better Michigan Future – that advocates a four-point priority plan to help Michigan. If you’d like to learn more about the coalition and its work, go to

You are also encouraged to take five minutes to contact your legislators and Gov. Jennifer Granholm. Tell them to support efforts to provide adequate, stable and equitable funding for education!

And, finally, to learn more about MEA’s “Enough is enough” campaign, a strategic action plan, go to

April 27, 2010


Thursday, March 11, 2010

End School Board / Union Negotiations

It's hard for a conservative like me to believe that government can be the solution, but when it comes to schools, it's even harder to picture it getting any worse.

During my five-plus years serving Rochester Schools, the school board did not pass one single budget that was balanced. Every year they approved deficit spending.

Of course, there was plenty of hand-wringing, but the facts speak for themselves.

Even today, the board is in negotiations with their local teacher's union, and have been for nearly a year. Yet despite losing some $900,000 per month this year -- and projecting a $14 million dollar deficit for next year -- the board continues to plod along with no sense of urgency, passing contract extensions again and again.

Rochester is not unique. I know many "rebels" on school boards across the state, and their experiences are nearly identical.

The current system fails students and taxpayers alike.

Local control is currently "out of control." With local control comes responsibility and accountability. School boards have shown none.

I wrote the following editorial proposing a reduction in school board responsibilities, which ran today:

Detroit News: Let state negotiate teacher contracts (03/11/10)

I've pasted below the article in case the link doesn't work.

==> Mike.

Let state negotiate teacher contracts


Michigan spends more than $13 billion -- roughly one-third of the state budget -- on K-12 education, with an estimated 85 percent going to salaries and benefits.

Most of that $11 billion is doled out in piecemeal negotiations between a well-financed and organized Michigan Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, and more than 500 school boards around the state. When school boards square off against the MEA, they are out of their league.

Local boards lack financial acumen. I should know; I used to serve on one. At best, they attempt to tweak the nearly identical, outdated contract model governing nearly every district in the state. Even with innovative alternatives, boards lack the resolve or skill to bargain them into practice.

This mismatch could be fixed by removing the amateurs and putting state negotiators at the table with the MEA and AFT Michigan to create a single statewide teacher contract.

The illusion of "local control" is a fallacy. Union locals get their bargaining script from regional MEA Uniserve directors, who are well-financed, seasoned negotiators with a bargaining vocabulary dominated by "gimme" and "no." School board members are an often-changing group of elected community volunteers.

To further taint the process, the teacher union sits on both sides of the bargaining table. It influences local school board elections with a tangled web of state and county political action committees and gets union allies elected. It conducts membership training seminars titled, "Elect your Own Boss."

When negotiations stall, mediators and so-called "fact finders" intervene, the result is often the status quo.

Even state laws have become meaningless. In 2008, Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Kathleen Macdonald refused to hold striking MEA Wayne-Westland teachers accountable for their illegal actions. Another Wayne County judge let Detroit teachers illegally strike for 11 days before ordering them back to work in 2006. The Detroit school district failed to file a complaint with the state, so the union and rank-and-file members were never fined for their apparent violation of the law.

"Local control" is the euphemism that is supposed to make us feel good about this unbalanced contest.

The state already sets school funding, retirement plans and tenure laws. They're setting the framework for teacher evaluations. They've tinkered with the school calendar. Why not add labor negotiations?

It would be far more productive and honest to pit state negotiators against the MEA. It'd be a complex undertaking, requiring a multi-year, phased-in approach. But it would be more efficient, transparent and more equitable to teachers statewide.

Local superintendents and administrators could focus more on education and less on negotiation. More local education dollars could be shifted from negotiators, lawyers and human resources personnel back to the classrooms. Significant savings could be found by consolidating business functions, such as payroll.

Perhaps the biggest improvement would come from making the state responsible for establishing affordable commitments to our teachers and then being accountable for funding those promises.

The bargaining process needs to change, in part, because educators receive exceptional benefits, including premium health care coverage and a defined-benefit pension plan. A step system contractually guarantees significant annual raises for newer teachers without regard to merit or funding. They receive various stipends, longevity pay and even accrue sick days, which they can cash in at retirement.

While there was nothing inherently wrong with offering this level of compensation in the past, these contracts are now unaffordable. Anticipated revenue cannot keep up with the guaranteed cost increases.

Health care costs increase 7 percent or more annually. The blended affect of "step system" pay raises increase payroll costs by 4 to 5 percent a year. The generous pension system is funded by a payroll tax on schools, and it just increased from 16.94 percent of payroll to a staggering 19.41 percent.

Local school boards don't have what it takes to address a problem of this magnitude. As scary as it sounds, the state may be our best hope for achieving fair and affordable school employee contracts that balance the interests of children, teachers and taxpayers.