A news service for the people of Michigan from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy

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School District's Costly Decisions Protect Union Interests

Fruitport school union, board of education, cut deal that pushes more than $240K back on taxpayers

In less than a year, the Fruitport Community Schools Board of Education made two decisions involving union contracts that cost the district hundreds of thousands of dollars.

On the day before a state law would have mandated its employees pay 20 percent of their health care costs, the school board unanimously approved a teacher union contract that called for 12.5 percent health care contributions in 2011-12, and 15 percent to 17.5 percent in 2012-13.

If government union school employees paid the same amount toward their health care costs as federal employees in Michigan (27 percent), taxpayers would save at least $500 million a year.

Then, in June 2012, the school board agreed not to privatize its custodians, which cost $240,000, according to MLive.

At issue is a potential conflict many critics of government union collective bargaining say is widespread. Two members of the Fruitport School Board have strong ties to unions.

School board member Benjamin Gillette unsuccessfully ran for state representative in the 91st district in 2010 and had a laundry list of union support. The SEIU, AFSCME, AFL-CIO, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and several other unions were among his top campaign donors. Gillette has also been a featured speaker at Michigan Education Association events.

Board Member Steve Keglovitz is a representative of the West Michigan Labor Council AFL-CIO.

The National Federation of Independent Business is critical of such arrangements, saying it sets up a potential situation where union-sympathetic board members are approving union contracts in an "elect your own boss" scenario.

"The people who get left out are the taxpayers," said Michael Van Beek, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. "They don’t have a seat at the table."

However, Fruitport Superintendent Bob Szymoniak said Gillette’s and Keglovitz's "union orientation" did not affect the two deals.

Szymoniak said the motivation was not to force anything upon the union but to get them to work toward selecting a less expensive form of insurance.

By negotiating in good faith, "we were able to still make gains with an eye toward greater gain down the road."

Gillette said the school board wasn't involved with the negotiations and just got updates.

"If the union is in agreement and the administration is agreeing to a contract, it must be pretty good, right?" Gillette said. "I'm one of seven (board members). I have no extra power or influence."

The school districts broke even on the teacher’s contract despite not getting the teachers to pay 20 percent of their health care premiums because the union gave up other concessions, Gillette said.

"That move was a goodwill move with the unions and it wasn’t going to cost the district money because what we agreed to was going to give us a comparable savings," he said. "When it comes to making decisions on the board, to me it is students first."

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See also:

The Public Employee Union Problem

Coverage of School District Claiming Cuts

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