In 2007, Chetly Zarko played a hunch when the citizen journalist thought teachers union officials in Howell Public Schools could be using the school computers for union business.
Zarko filed a Freedom of Information Act request for e-mails generated by three Howell High School social studies teachers over a three-month period. He had no idea this covered a total of 20,000 e-mails (spam not included).
Zarko's battle to see the e-mails may end up in the Michigan Supreme Court. In January, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled e-mail sent by teachers union officials on school computer systems is not public and therefore not subject to FOIA. Zarko can appeal.
But his inquiry has raised questions about the daily activities of teachers with union duties and whether this involvement impairs their teaching responsibilities.
Lynn Parrish, the Howell interim superintendent, said this week she had no idea the initial inquiry had uncovered that the three high school teachers had received or sent 20,000 e-mails from Jan. 1, 2007, through March 31, 2007.
"Does that seem possible to you?" Parrish asked. "I don't even know how to react to that. It seems so completely outlandish. I can't give you an answer on that one. You have to read the e-mail before you can respond, for heaven's sake."
Michael Van Beek, director of education policy for the Mackinac Center For Public Policy, said it's not uncommon for union officials to use school time and resources to conduct union business.
But the Howell e-mails raise the question of just how much teaching is going on in some schools.
"The taxpayers are paying them to teach, not represent their members. The union members should be footing that bill," Van Beek said.
The high school teachers were Doug Norton, who served as president of the Howell Education Association, Jeff Hughey, vice president for bargaining, and Johnson McDowell, vice president for grievances.
Parrish said Norton has since retired from his teaching position. Norton could not be reached for comment. Hughey and McDowell didn't return e-mails requesting comment.
Parrish said teachers at the high school are assigned five classes a day, with each class lasting 55 minutes. The teacher serving as union president is allowed "relief time," the equivalent of two class periods, to work on union issues.
It's unclear just how many of the estimated 20,000 e-mails are union-related, because the Howell Education Association filed suit to stop the release of the e-mails.
Zarko only received 400 e-mails from Hughey before the process went to court. He said almost all the e-mails from Hughey were sent and received during normal business hours.
"It is not like you see all those e-mails only from 11 to 12," Zarko said. "It is spread out during the whole work day."