The Kent Intermediate School District approved a one-year agreement with its unions that would halt privatization even though school administrators acknowledge it is not enforceable.
The Mackinac Center for Public Policy received the contract between the Kent County ISD and its unions this week through a Freedom of Information Act request.
There is a provision in the agreement dated March 8 that all districts that approve the contract agree not to privatize for "the life of the agreement."
This conflicts with Michigan's Public Employment Relations Act, Sec. 15, subsection 3(f), which states that privatization of "noninstructional support services" may not be the subject of a collective bargaining agreement so long as the district allows the school employee unions providing such services the opportunity to enter as a fair participant in the competitive bidding process and make their case for keeping the contract.
Privatization is a hot topic in schools because it has become a way for school districts to save money.
James Hohman, a fiscal policy analyst for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, testified before a state legislative hearing in favor of SB 1074, which would require school districts to start bidding out either custodial or food services by June 30, according to the MIRS news service. The Mackinac Center estimates that $268 million could be saved.
"The key reason districts contract out is to save money," Hohman said in MIRS.
Hohman said that the Center surveyed the state's 551 school districts and found 44.6 percent with some privatized services last year, up from 31 percent in 2001. On average, districts saved $268,000. While some districts are paying more, he said, "by and large, districts are happy with the service provided."
Coni Sullivan, assistant superintendent for human resources and legal services for Kent ISD, said both the school districts and bargaining units understood that the "no privatization" clause was unenforceable.
"We can put that provision in there, but it is not enforceable," Sullivan said. "The districts knew it was unenforceable. The MEA knew it was unenforceable."
Sullivan said it was inserted "in the spirit of collaboration."
Any schools that would be considering privatization during the year the contract was in force were told not to move forward on the agreement, Sullivan said.
"It's entirely voluntary just for one year," Sullivan said.
But Paul Kersey, director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center, said it may not be that simple once the provision is inserted into a contract.
"Even if it is not enforceable, the language gives the union a powerful propaganda weapon that it can use against the school board if it changes its mind," Kersey said. "The school board can't assume that they will be able to remove this from future contracts without a fight."
David Blanchard, president of the Michigan Employment Lawyers Association, questioned why the state would inject itself into a situation that is not disputed.
"I don't know what the state is trying to do with this provision," Blanchard said. "They are interfering with employers and employees that both want to agree on the same thing. I don't understand why the state would interfere with that."
Blanchard said as long as the agreement is fair and done through reasonable negotiations, "the government shouldn't get in the middle of it."