News Story

State Board of Education Member Interjects Herself Into Negotiations Between Union, Charter School Operator

Michelle Fecteau is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers

A State Board of Education member is using her influence and getting involved in a local dispute between a union and charter public school operator.

Not only do board guidelines suggest this is outside the scope of the board's job, but the member, Michelle Fecteau, is an officer in a union connected with the group negotiating with the school.

Cesar Chavez Academy in Detroit is one of the largest charter public schools in the state. The staff voted to unionize earlier this year as an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. Fecteau is the executive director of the Wayne State University chapter of the American Association of University Professors, which also is affiliated with the AFT.

She did not return a request for comment regarding the potential conflict of interest or to answer questions about whether the letter, which was sent using State Board of Education stationary, was appropriate.

The Leona Group and the Cesar Chavez Academy Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff are negotiating but don't yet have a contract.

In the letter, Fecteau wrote: "The State of Michigan grants certain powers and responsibilities to the CCA Board to ensure that the district complies with state and federal laws … I urge both the Board and the Leona Group to work with the Michigan Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (the union) to resolve all issues at the district — especially those that have resulted in [labor complaints]. All parties have an obligation to the students and families of Detroit to participate in the decision-making process and ensure conflicts are resolved at the bargaining table, not at the NLRB." 

She then asked the group to contact her by Dec. 16 so she would "know how the Michigan Board of Education can help make CCA the best possible school community."

Another State Board of Education member said he disagrees with Fecteau getting involved in the issue.

"We board members tend to give each other broad discretion in pursuing particular concerns, offering help, etc., but in offering the board's help, she gives the appearance of speaking for those of us who may not share her view of the issue," said Board Member Richard Zeile.

He added that he thinks State board members should be "referees" rather than active "players" in the educational game.

Zeile's concerns were echoed by Javier Garibay, a regional vice president with The Leona Group.

"I find the attached letter particularly disturbing since this elected official should concentrate on the business of improving state standards and strengthening financially insolvent school districts," Garibay said. "Since when is an elected State Board of Education official obligated to interject him/herself in the negotiation process?"

Alicia Urbain, Vice President of Government and Legal Affair with the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, said they are "disappointed" with the letter.

"We understand that Cesar Chavez and the Leona Group are currently in negotiations with the charter school subsidiary of the AFT," Urbain said. "While we take no position in the ongoing negotiating process, we are disappointed and surprised to see the anyone from the SBE would try to add what appears from this letter to be undue influence in the process."

According to the Michigan Constitution, the state board is in charge of "general supervision" of public schools in the state. It does "general planning," advises the Legislature and appoints a superintendent. According to its latest "Mission and Priorities," adopted in June 2013, the board sets and advocates for general educational guidelines. It does not appear to have gotten involved in specific local issues in the past.

State Board President John Austin said it should have been made more clear that Fecteau was acting on behalf of herself and not the board.

"[Board members] are often engaged and active in trying to encourage educators and parents at various levels to work through issues in the appropriate manner — and at the appropriate level," Austin said. "And we do often talk with each other about how to best be helpful in a particular situation  or ask our MDE staff to investigate further the situation if that is appropriate."

Editor's Note: This article has been updated with a comment from State Board President John Ausin.

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.