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 At best, they attempt to tweak the nearly identical, outdated contract model governing nearly every district in the state.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.