News Story

Union President Blames State, School Officials for Problems at Buena Vista, Pontiac Schools

MEA President Cook turns a blind eye to union's role in districts problems

Michigan Education Association President Steve Cook blames the deficit problems at the Pontiac and Buena Vista school districts on a cut in state funding, according to a recent editorial he wrote for the Detroit Free Press.

"The true culprit in these scenarios is state policy that puts business tax cuts ahead of our kids and leads to massive underfunding of public education in Michigan," Cook wrote.

But total spending and recent contract agreements suggest that the fiscal problems for those two districts can be laid at the feet of the local school boards and unions. 

In Pontiac, the district spends about $16,400 per pupil, according to state records. In recent years, the district has lost 45 percent of its students — but the local school board and union negotiated a contract that caused the average teacher salary to jump 35 percent, from $56,781 in 2007-08 to $76,449 in 2010-11. 

In Buena Vista, the district had a 13 percent drop in students in a matter of months and was in debt when the school board approved a three-year teachers' union contract in 2011 that gave up to 6.8 percent raises and paid 100 percent of health care costs. 

While the legislature slightly cut overall state aid to schools a few years ago, there are fewer districts in deficit today than before the reduction in funding. This may be due to the legislature passing other reforms that helped school districts save costs, though many districts chose to not pursue savings.

Michael Van Beek, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said Cook was wrong in suggesting budget cuts led to the problems at the districts he highlighted.

For example, Buena Vista would need the state to pay them an additional $2,300 per pupil just to pay off its $1 million plus deficit. Buena Vista’s state foundation allowance was $7,776 per student.

To put that in perspective, it would cost taxpayers $3.5 billion to give every school district an additional $2,300 per pupil. But even that extra $2,300 per pupil wouldn't come close to wiping out Pontiac's $37.7 million deficit.

Pontiac would need an additional $7,261 per student to wipe out its debt, which is more than its 2013 foundation allowance of $7,021 per student.

Van Beek wondered if Cook was suggesting doubling Pontiac's state aid to pay off its debt.

In his column, Cook didn't mention that the Michigan Education Special Services Association (MESSA), which was created by the MEA, sued and won a judgment against the Pontiac School District for $7.8 million for failure to pay for health insurance. As the MEA president, Cook sits on the board of MESSA.

Cook blamed school officials, but didn't consider the union's role in the financial troubles. He wrote: "Mismanagement by administrators in Buena Vista and Pontiac schools has contributed to the crises facing these two districts. But before Snyder's massive cuts, districts like Buena Vista and Pontiac could at least stay afloat."

Van Beek said the loss of students in Pontiac and Buena Vista played a big part in the fiscal mess both districts find themselves in. But Van Beek said there were other factors than just a loss of students.

"Most other districts spend far less money per pupil and do not have these types of severe fiscal problems," Van Beek said.

Cook and MEA Spokesman Doug Pratt didn't respond to requests for comment.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.