News Story

MEA President Inflating Public Pension with $200K Salary While Working for Private Union

Lansing School District keeps Steve Cook in public employee pension system

Steve Cook, the president of the state's largest teachers union, is also listed as the highest-paid employee of the Lansing School District. His annual salary is $20,000 more than that of the district’s superintendent.

The deal between the Lansing School District and the Michigan Education Association allows Cook to remain a member of the state’s pension system for school employees while working full-time as president of the private union. This lets him accrue pension benefits based on his $201,613 MEA salary, setting Cook up for a much higher post-retirement payout from the underfunded public school employees pension system.

The Lansing School District approved the deal, under which Cook is classified as an “educator on loan” from the district to the union. The district has said it was reimbursed by the union for all of the expenses of the arrangement.

According to the district, Cook works for the MEA and has no job responsibilities with Lansing schools.

The practice raises questions as to why someone serving as a high level executive in a private organization would be allowed to remain in an underfunded government pension system, leveraging his six-figure salary to garner a much higher pension payout.

A public school employee’s pension formula is based upon years on the payroll and the final three or five years of compensation, depending upon the plan. If the district is allowing Cook to substitute his $201,613 MEA salary for pension calculations – which the pension fund contributions it makes on his behalf suggest – this would greatly increase Cook’s annual pension payout. Cook spent 15 years in the Lansing School District as a paraprofessional.

In 2014, the Lansing School District contributed $51,976 on Cook’s behalf to the public school employee retirement plan, called Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System (MPSERS). In 2013, the average salary for a Lansing School District teacher was $64,814. The annual contribution to MPSERS by the district for a teacher of that salary would be $16,709.

The arrangement by which the district makes pension contributions based on Cook's six-figure MEA salary has been in place for at least four years.

The Lansing School District answered some basic questions about Cook’s arrangement with the district but refused to answer more detailed follow-up questions.

Robert Kolt, a spokesman for the district, said it had “already responded to your questions.” He added, “There is no reason for you to continue to ask the same questions again and again; you have answers. There is no need for you to email again.”

Yvonne Caamal Canul, district superintendent, was asked to explain the responsibilities that Cook has as an “educator on loan.”

“Mr. Cook’s responsibilities are determined by the organization to which he is being loaned,” Canul said in an email.

But the responses and refusals leave many questions unanswered. Cook was employed by the district as a “paraprofessional” (classroom assistant) for 15 years. He served as the president of the Lansing assistants union from 1981 to 1993. Cook became the secretary-treasurer of the MEA in 1991.

It is unclear how long Cook has been an “educator on loan” with the school district. It’s also unclear how the school district handled Cook’s involvement with the MEA.

The Michigan Education Association has not responded to emails or a phone message asking for comment on Cook’s arrangement.

Also unclear is whether any other public school district has ever “loaned” an employee to a private entity, as happened in this instance.

Bill DiSessa, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Education, said they use an “educator on loan” occasionally.

“Typically, we borrow an educator with the expertise we want for a special project. That educator remains employed at his or her district and retains their longevity and seniority. We reimburse the district for their costs. When the project is done, the educator returns to their district,” DiSessa said in an email.

“We use this process occasionally. Local districts and ISD also make use of this process, though we keep no data on it. It can be a win-win. For instance, if District A loses a teacher to maternity leave and District B has an under-used teacher, that teacher can help out temporarily in District A until its teacher returns from leave. This is just one example,” DiSessa said.

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.