News Story

Lansing Schools: MEA President Steve Cook's Deal Never Considered 'Long Term Thing'

Superintendent who signed 1993 deal says they are 'trapped' because of union president

In 1993, Steve Cook was a Lansing School District paraprofessional working 25 hours a week. That was before he made a deal with the district allowing him to go to work full time for the state’s largest teachers union but still rack up "service time credits" toward his school pension. The deal even allowed Cook to make his union salary the basis on which the eventual payout from his government pension would be based.

Nearly 25 years later that agreement has paved the way for Cook to collect a school pension estimated at $105,000 a year when he retires, despite working just 15 years in a part-time school position. In 2014 Cook collected a $201,613 salary as the president of the Michigan Education Association. The MEA reimbursed the Lansing School District for its costs, though it did not reimburse the state for the amounts it pays to "catch up" on past pension underfunding.

The former Lansing School District superintendent who approved that deal said at the time the district never envisioned Cook would remain on leave for decades. Richard Halik, who signed the 1993 contract, said that when he realized Cook wasn’t returning after the first three years he tried to change it so the district could opt out, but Cook refused to sign a new deal.

“We would have seen this as a short-term kind of thing of cooperating with the MEA,” Halik said last week in a phone interview. “We had an employee elected to a high post. We would have looked at it as short term. It wouldn’t have been in our mind to go on forever.”

Michigan Capitol Confidential has received a copy of that agreement in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

Halik said the contract provision responsible for the unanticipated outcome was the phrase “shall be renewed.” When the contract was up for renewal at the end of the first three years, the district approached Cook, who by then was a full-time union official, about changing the wording to “may be renewed,” but he refused.

“That one teeny word,” Halik said referring to “shall.” “We were kind of trapped, legally. A deal is a deal.” In March, the Lansing School District also said they looked into getting out of the deal but could not.

Halik said he recalls the Cook contract 22 years later because it was “a unique situation.”

He said Cook was a good employee who had a positive impact on the school and didn’t create problems while he served as the president of the paraprofessional union.

“The union comes to us as management, and it’s one of our employees who we like who has this opportunity,” Halik said. “They asked, ‘Would we cooperate and do this educator on loan?’ You want a positive relationship with the MEA. You pick the hill you die on. We were going to be cooperative.”

“No one would have ever dreamed this would be a long term thing,” Halik said. “Who would think he would be president of the MEA? He is not a certified teacher. We would not have intended this to be a long term thing. We would have never have been thinking of this issue of retirement. We wouldn’t have entertained an idea that he is going to be there 20 to 30 years and making much more than a superintendent makes and it would impact his pension.”

Robert Kolt, spokesman for the Lansing School District, said the district wouldn’t talk about the status of Cook’s contract because the district didn’t comment on human resources issues. Kolt said the district had no viewpoint or opinion on the contract.

Cook and the MEA didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.

The 1993 Cook contract was “embarrassing” for the school district, said Patrick Wright, senior legal analyst for the Mackinac Center for Policy.

“This was a backroom sweetheart deal that the Lansing School District likely hoped would never see the light of day,” Wright said.

Cook’s arrangement with the Lansing School District is legal under the Public School Employees Retirement Act of 1979, which mandates that school districts engage in collective bargaining with school employee unions. Under that law, school employees who went on a “professional services leave” before Oct. 1, 1996 were allowed to credit their time on the job with a professional service organization toward their school pension.

The state's Office of Retirement Services said as many as 14 individuals may be eligible for deals like Cook's.

Iris Salters, the MEA president who preceded Cook, had a similar arrangement with Kalamazoo Public Schools, where she was employed for 32 years. Salters left Kalamazoo in 1999 and began with the MEA before retiring in 2011. Her state pension is $140,000 per year, and like Cook's is based on the much higher pay she received as a high ranking union official.

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.