Thursday, June 19, 2014

Why Play Nice, Play Fair? No Need In Right-to-Work (For Less) Michigan

Last week, a lot of bad stuff happened at the Ann Arbor school board meeting.

The two most disturbing actions?

1. The school board voted to outsource the custodians' positions to GCA Services (owned by the private equity firm Blackstone) effective July 1, 2014. Yup, that's a fortnight from now. (Trustees Lightfoot and Baskett voted against this.)

2. The school board voted that if the teachers didn't accept a salary freeze through a Memorandum of Agreement (union/board) by July 23, 2014 (that's Monday), the school board would terminate the union contract. This would have the effect of freezing the current wages and at the same time, when the contract was (presumably) renegotiated, many of the terms and conditions in the would not be allowed under the new work rules in Michigan--in particular, tenure and seniority rules. This measure was approved unanimously.

Welcome to the brave new world of school funding cuts and more cuts.
Welcome to the brave new world of a right-to-work state and union busting.
Welcome to the brave new world of taking our tax dollars and using them to fund for-profit, private firms.

State Funding

In better news: at the board meeting, Christine Stead did a nice job of explaining the vagaries of state funding (the conference committee budget basically hobbles Ann Arbor, Dexter, Saline, Ypsilanti Community Schools, and some others) and helps a few local school districts (the lowest-funded districts, like Milan, Whitmore Lake, and I believe Manchester). The state budget also sends a lot of money to for-profit charters and virtual schools, which get $175 in additional funding per pupil vs. $50 for Ann Arbor. [On Stead's blog, you can read about the AAPS presentation this week to the State Board of Education as well as some proposals for ways to improve school funding.] Their ideas--good ideas--are to have charter schools also have to pay state retirement, and to allow local school districts to ask for local tax levies for operations--currently that is not allowed under state law. And the district did join the superintendents of other districts in a press conference that day. Ann Arbor is a huge donor district (most of the taxes we raise go to support other districts) and yet we are getting the lowest increases in funding.


Anyway--back to the custodians.

In 2010, during another round of privatization discussions (we've been through this with food service and transportation, remember) I posted this on this blog:

At the budget meeting that I went to, several people at my table raised concerns about privatization. They wondered what the actual (not projected) savings were when the food service was privatized (the facilitator didn't know). They talked about how satisfaction (on the part of people who eat the lunches) had gone down. And they wondered about the effects on the "lunch ladies."
"Well," our facilitator said, "I believe that the new company hired everyone who wanted to be hired, for the same wages, and the only thing they lost was retirement benefits."
It's more than a little bit troubling to hear someone who makes more than $100,000/year (the facilitator referred to above is an AAPS administrator) talk about someone who is living on $25,000/year and say "they only lost retirement benefits." I'm pretty sure if I talked about yanking her retirement, she would be pretty upset, and she's not living near the poverty level.

Retirement costs, in fact, are the main reason for privatizing (since the custodians already gave major concessions a couple of years ago). Basically, if somebody is an AAPS employee, AAPS has to pay their retirement costs (state law)--and if they are not, they don't.

I found Jeanice Swift's letter to Ann Arbor parents about the custodian privatization to be disingenuous. [Read it here--with my comments.] I'm still not clear why she felt she needed to respond to the emails she and the board were getting about custodians losing their jobs and face pay cuts with "everyone gets an interview" and "pay cuts will not be as significant as perceived." An interview is not a job, and if you only make $25,000 a year and you get a 10% pay cut plus lose your retirement? I think that's pretty significant. Saying, "all the other districts are doing it too?" My parents didn't take that as a good reason to do or not do something. Speaking for myself, I'd prefer the honesty of  a letter that said simply, "this sucks and it's because of the state legislature's decisions, and we are trying to keep the cuts away from the classroom."

The other very disturbing piece of this has to do with the timing. The outsourcing was approved by the board as a special briefing. Any time you see the words "special briefing" you know that means that they are not following their own approved process. They are rushing things through. While I feel O.K. about that for ordering the Huron High School band uniforms, which would be done anyway and for which the money was already set aside (another item on the agenda), I'm not O.K. with that for decisions like outsourcing custodians. [I've written about this before in the Ann Arbor Chronicle. I'm starting to see a pattern here.]

The custodians had come to the school board with a proposal for a worker-owned co-op, and the board--with straight faces--tried to tell them that if they had only proposed that a little earlier...oh gee they really wished they could do it but their counsel told them that since the RFP had closed they couldn't...

Since it's a special briefing item, though, you know the board was working on a ridiculously short timeline. The union was told about the RFP and the agenda item less than a week before the RFP made it on the agenda.  The RFP was posted for only a week. How long do you think the top 3 companies knew that the RFP was coming? A different timeline could have led to a different result.

[By the way, teacher Chloe Root has started a petition out asking the board to reconsider. Sign it here.]


How about those teachers? 

We might describe the resolution passed by the school board as a Faustian bargain--on the part of the district.

Last year, with Superintendent Pat Green, the AAEA (teachers' union) agreed to a salary freeze, advertised as "one year only." At the time, I wondered about that--figuring that the state's school aid fund probably wasn't going to look better next year, so why make a one-year only plan? But Pat Green was on her way out, and I believe she only cared about getting the budget out the door, whatever it looked like. I don't know what the teachers' union was thinking.

In any case, Jeanice Swift walked into a situation where now she had to ask the teachers to again take a salary freeze, and my guess is that the teachers' union was not too happy about that. There is, really, an alternative to a salary freeze though--and it's having larger class sizes. Parents wouldn't be too happy about that, we already know it is one reason people have left the school district, but it exists.

Apparently, the teachers' union has not been all that willing to concede the salary freeze again. And yes, it's true that the teachers have had many types of cutbacks for many years. So after going into executive session, the school board came out and voted--unanimously--to terminate the teacher contract unless the teachers agree to having a total wage freeze, as agreed to by a Memorandum of Agreement by this Monday, June 23d. Under termination, teachers still get the a wage freeze, but lose some of the items in the contract.

And here's where Faust comes in--maybe. Several things have changed in state law in the past couple of years, including right-to-work and some changes in the teacher tenure law. There are items in the contract that cannot be retained if the teachers' union loses this contract and starts a new contract--primarily around tenure, seniority, and right to work/union dues.

So the school board--and the Superintendent--are essentially bullying the teachers and forcing the teachers to say "uncle." But that's at the risk of having much worse relations with the teachers in the future. Could this have been avoided?

Maybe it's not such a risk. I have a perception that the teachers' union is dispirited and disorganized. Expect the number of retirements to rise...


Let's Privatize the Teachers

Now if you are wondering: why don't they just privatize the teachers? Could they privatize the teachers? That's what the charter schools do. Retirement costs are the main driver of the reason to privatize, right? The districts  have already outsourced the substitute teachers, the food service workers, the school bus drivers... Everybody knows the "first they came for the Socialists" passage by Pastor Martin Niemoller, right?

They would, probably, if they could--and maybe soon they will be able to.

But for now, they can't. I had to ask Steve Norton of Michigan Parents for Schools about this--and it turns out that he had been wondering too, and had looked it up (thank you Steve for being an education policy wonk!!). This is an excerpt from his email, and my takeaway is that "the devil is in the details."

Under current law, school districts must hire teachers directly - i.e., teachers must be direct employees of the school district. The language is a consequence of this part of the revised school code:
380.1231 Hiring of teachers; teachers' contracts generally.Sec. 1231.
(1) The board of a school district shall hire and contract with qualified teachers....
Unlike other sections that cover background checks, etc, this section does not mention or include public school academies (charters). In the sections that create charters, they are given explicit permission to hire outside individuals or firms to provide comprehensive services to and operate the charter. Thus, outside management companies may be hired by charters to run the schools, including hiring teachers.
In an attorney general opinion from 1997 (? I think), the AG determined that direct employees of any school board, including the boards of charter schools, MUST participate in MPSERS. However, contract employees MAY NOT participate in MPSERS. 
Since charters are allowed to contract out instructional services, they can avoid paying into MPSERS on those employees. Local school districts are not allowed to do that, and so they must therefore pay into MPSERS for teachers and all direct employees. 
This is the reason that even "self-managed" charters like Ann Arbor Learning Community technically "lease" their employees from a private firm, which allows them to classify teachers as contract employees and thus avoid paying into MPSERS on their behalf. Very, very, few charters participate in MPSERS. 
By the way, the original version of the charter uncapping bill, SB 618 of 2011, included a new section (section 1231A), which would have allowed local school districts to contract out for teachers. That provision was not removed until the bill got to the Senate floor, as part of a compromise to get it passed. (Emphasis added.)



I dream a world, where those same cuts need to happen, but the district shares the possibility with the custodians that this might happen three months in advance. Then the custodians have time to organize the employee-owned co-op. They lose their retirement, but they get to maintain their dignity. We get to keep our money from going to fund yet another for-profit business. That requires the timing to be different, and I believe it could have been different.

I dream a world, where the district asks the teachers' union to find those same cuts as a salary freeze or in some other way, and gives the union time to figure that out.

I dream a world where the district's timelines for working with employees are more reasonable, and where the district doesn't try to hide things from the public, or push important items through on special briefings...

Wait--that's not my REAL dream.

In my REAL dreams, all schools are adequately funded, Michigan is not a right-to-work-for-less state, AND the school board uses reasonable timelines.

That first set of dreams? They could be a reality, if the school board and the superintendent would decide to treat their employees with respect, and not as commodities.


Lingering Question

Was this a conscious choice on Jeanice Swift's part, to shorten timelines in order to keep the public and the employees out of the process? Or did everything take longer than she thought it would and with a new finance person and her first budget, everything got done at the last possible minute?

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  1. Do the two actions go in effect in July of 2014 or 2015? The post currently says 2015 but I think it's 2014