Ann Arbor, Oak Park, Kalamazoo and others have provisions
At least five public school districts have language in their union contracts that could be in violation of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, which was passed in 2006 and bans discrimination in hiring based on race at public institutions.
Some school districts, such as Ann Arbor, have tweaked the language in prior contracts and now claim the revised language is legal. Others such as Kalamazoo say the contract language is constitutional because it must be read in conjunction with a federal court desegregation order.
And then there's Oak Park, which states the district wants to increase the number of racial minority teachers and "reaffirm" the district's commitment to affirmative action goals.
"To be that blatant is stunning," said Jen Gratz about the Oak Park contract. "It tells you who they are looking out for. It's not the kids. It's not the constitution."
Gratz, who led the way for the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative to be passed and founded the XIV Foundation, which advocates for equal treatment, said voters should be outraged such language exists.
"Talk about putting school districts, administrators and teachers between a rock and a hard place," Gratz said. "Union officials have negotiated race preferences in teaching contracts, but the state constitution says no race preferences in public employment, education or contracting. So if you are in one of these districts do you adhere to your contract or to your constitution?"
In its 2009-2011 teachers contract, the Ann Arbor Public School board agreed to this language:
The Board and the Association agree that affirmative action must be taken to recruit, employ, and retain ethnic minority group persons. Both parties agree that a highly significant part of the experience of children in today's society involves cross racial experiences. Part of that experience must be with ethnic minority group members who are educators. To the achievement of these ends, both parties agree that affirmative practices in hiring, initial assignment, voluntary re-assignment and the maintenance of minority staff in buildings shall not constitute discrimination within the meaning of Section 4.411. The parties also agree that it shall be their mutual goal to assign at least two African-American classroom teachers to each building.
That was changed in the current contract to this:
Staffing practices will reflect the Ann Arbor Public Schools and community's desire for diversity. The Board and the Association agree that action as allowed by law must be taken to recruit, employ, and retain ethnic minority group persons. Both parties agree that a highly significant part of the experience of children in today's society involves cross racial experiences. Part of that experience must be with ethnic minority group members who are educators. To the achievement of these ends, both parties agree that personnel practices in hiring, initial assignment, voluntary re-assignment and the maintenance of minority staff in buildings shall not constitute discrimination within the meaning of Section 4.411. The parties also agree that it shall be their mutual goal to assign at least two African-American classroom teachers to each building.
Liz Margolis, spokeswoman for the Ann Arbor Public Schools, said the language meets all legal requirements.
Gratz questioned the legality of mandating that two African-American teachers be in each building.
"That would be something that I would say is outright unconstitutional," she said. "I don't know why our government officials can't just understand that. The people have said that we want to be treated equally. Yet, these bureaucrats continue to do it and thumb their nose at voters. What is wrong with judging people on their character and their merit and letting the chips fall where they may?"
Oak Park's teachers contract states: "The parties to this Agreement are mutually committed to increasing the number of racial minority teachers recruited by and hired into teaching positions within the Oak Park Schools. The parties reaffirm their commitment to affirmative action goals and human relations."
Superintendent Daveda Colbert said the district sought legal counsel to make sure the contract provision is not illegal. She said she was told that affirmative action goals are still recognized as valid.
Colbert went on to say the clause in the contract "does not constitute a commitment for preferential hiring or the hiring of less qualified candidates," adding that the district intends "to strive toward our goal without discriminating against any groups."
Oak Park School Board President Marie Reynolds and Vice President Maxine Gutfreund did not respond to requests for comment.
The Kalamazoo teachers contract states: "It is mutually agreed that the District shall exercise the right and responsibility to hire minorities whenever possible to enhance the ethnic ratio of our staff."
Kalamazoo Public Schools Spokesman Alex Lee said the contract also states that minority hiring clause "cannot conflict with any court orders, and should these court orders be changed or modified in any way, this article will be open for renegotiation."
He said there also is a letter of agreement that does not establish any racial preference for hiring decisions, which are based on candidates' qualifications. As a precaution, Lee said the contract also stipulated: "The above is applicable to the extent permitted by law."
Gratz said instead of saying they will follow the law, districts should just remove the language that is no longer allowed by law.
"They start by saying, 'We are going to do everything in our power to hire racial minorities, but we are going to follow the law,' " Gratz said. "Why after it passed didn't they change their contracts? They say, 'We'll do it only to the extent the law will allow it.' The law doesn't allow you to do that anymore."
A recent study from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy found that up to 60 percent of the union contracts in Michigan's largest school districts could have illegal provisions in them.
Ferndale's current school board members include: Amy Butters, Kevin Deegan-Krause, Nancy Kerr-Mueller, Raylon Leaks-May, Jim O’Donnell, Karen Twomey and Jennifer LaTosch. The superintendent is Gary Meier, who, after 14 years in the district, announced he is retiring. His announcement came just days after Michigan Capitol Confidential broke a story about the school district having a clause in the union contract that gives preference to "non-Christian" teachers.
Mount Clemens school board members include Earl C. Rickman, III, Steven Gravlin, Michael Schichtel, David McFadden, Edward Bruley, Patrick Maceroni and Jeanine Walker. The superintendent is Deborah Wahlstrom.
Ann Arbor’s school board members include: Susan Baskett, Andy Thomas, Simone Lightfoot, Christine Stead, Deb Mexicotte, Glenn Nelson and Irene Patalan. The superintendent is Jeanice Kerr Swift.
Kalamazoo's school board members include Patti Sholler-Barber, Jennie Hill, Carol McGlinn, Martha Warfield, Craig Herschleb, and Mollie Peterson. The superintendent is Michael F. Rice.
Oak Park's school board members include: Terrence R. West, Sr., Marie Reynolds, Misty Patterson, Maxine Gutfreund, Menachem Hojda, Claudette Lunkins and Mildred Warren. The superintendent is Daveda Colbert.
(Editor's note: This story has been updated. The story originally said Oak Park Superintendent Daveda Colbert did not respond to a request for comment. However, she had sent an email before publication that inadvertently was left out of the original story. It has been added.)