Grand Rapids Public School Superintendent Bernard Taylor wants to use money pitched by the Obama administration to halt teacher layoffs. But Taylor plans to use the cash to pay for health care costs for existing district employees.
In August, the U.S. House of Representatives had a special session to approve a $26 billion jobs bill that the politicians said would save teachers from being laid off. At the time, some Republicans said it was a "giveaway to teachers' unions."
Taylor said at a recent school board meeting that he would like to use the $3.5 million his district will receive from the jobs bill to offset an additional 3-percent payment employees had to make this year for retiree health care.
Taylor said there were restrictions on how the money could be spent and wanted to make sure it could be done properly.
"A 3-percent decrease in wages during these days and times, is something that people have to adjust to," Taylor said. "If it is something we can rectify, we need to look at ways to do that."
Michael Van Beek, the Mackinac Center For Public Policy's director of education policy, said Grand Rapids teachers were already paying 5.5 percent of their salary toward health care costs and the additional 3-percent pushed the total to 8.5 percent. Overall, Grand Rapids teachers made on average a salary of $56,035 a year.
"This bailout was sold to American taxpayers as a way to keep teachers in classrooms and prevent further cuts to school programs," Van Beek said. "I doubt they'd approve of spending it all on retiree health benefits for teachers, especially when benefits of this kind have become virtually extinct in the private-sector."
Taylor called the 3-percent payments a "right to work" tax.
"But I do know that we need to take into consideration the fact that all employees now are paying what I call a right-to-work tax," Taylor said at the board meeting. "I know it is for health care. But the way that I look at it, if you don't retire in the state of Michigan, you basically are paying for the right to work here. Whether that is fair or not, I don't know the answer to that."
Leon Drolet, chairman of the Michigan Taxpayers Alliance, said the money was advertised to be used to improve the learning experience in the classroom. He said that could be done by using the money to retain teachers in danger of being laid off or by hiring more teachers to reduce the size of classrooms.
"That's not the response that leaps to mind for this superintendent or a great many government employees," Drolet said. "It's 'Let's take money and give us better salary and benefits.' That's what got us into this problem in the first place. And his response is what is going to make the problem worse for Michigan students and taxpayers."
John Helmholdt, spokesman for the Grand Rapids Public Schools, didn't return a call.