News Story

Michigan Taxpayers Pay Union Officials Millions to Do Union Work

At least $3 million spent annually to carry union officials on school payrolls

The public school district in Taylor, Michigan is in big trouble financially. It is shedding students and has run significant deficits in recent years due to spending more than it takes in, requiring special oversight from the state.

But the district still finds the money to pay four union stewards to do union work on the taxpayer’s dime. More than $108,000 is given up so that the union can enjoy this privilege.

The practice is called “release time,” and school districts across the state do it. The arrangement allows union officials, typically the president of the union local, to be carried on the school district’s payroll but spend all or part of their time working on union business rather than teaching or carrying out other school functions. Taxpayers are on the hook for the expense.

At least 70 of Michigan’s 548 conventional public school districts offer some form of paid release time (see list below). Around 40 of these pay a union employee to spend more than half their time on union business. In more than a dozen districts, local union officials are carried on school payrolls and perform no school functions.

The direct cost to taxpayers statewide is at least $3 million annually. In some cases, the union reimburses the school district for some of the costs, but the $3 million figure is net of these reimbursements.

And these aren’t the only costs to school districts and taxpayers. The $3 million cost largely excludes payroll taxes paid on behalf of these union officials, and school fringe benefits they collect, including health insurance, pensions and other post-retirement benefits. Moreover, taxpayers essentially have to pay two people to fill one school job — one who works for the people and one who works for the union.

In Taylor, four school employees — the presidents and vice presidents of two separate union locals — receive time off to work on union business. The president and vice president of the American Federation of Teachers local are paid to spend half their time in the classroom and half working on union business.

The Warren Consolidated school district spends over $132,000 in taxpayer funds to carry two union officials on its payroll, even though they perform no educational functions for the district. Jon Fielbrandt collects the salary of a high school teacher, but in fact works full time as president of Warren Education Association, a year-round union job, not a nine-month school job. So the district pays for nine month’s of Fielbrandt’s $131,346 total compensation, or $110,302, and the Michigan Education Association local pays the rest.

Warren also pays one other school employee to do union work for an hour and a half every day with no reimbursement from the union: Union Vice President Bob Callender gets around $22,000 a year to do union business, which amounts to 20 percent of his $110,000 total taxpayer-funded compensation.

At the Lansing school district, taxpayer dollars pay nearly all of local union President Chuck Alberts’ salary, although he performs no school functions. Alberts’ total compensation, including benefits (salary, health insurance and pension), comes to $156,540 — and taxpayers cover more than $140,000 of that.

Chippewa Valley schools shells out more than $140,000 to carry union officials on its payroll. Local union President Maryanne Levine is on the payroll as a teacher, but does no teaching. Vice President Larry Schulte is allowed to spend 40 percent of his time on the school payroll doing union business.

Wayne-Westland Community Schools also carries local union President Donald Harris on its payroll as a teacher, although he teaches no classes. Although the union reimburses the district for his retirement benefits, taxpayers still spend around $100,000 annually to cover the union official’s salary and other benefits.

Grand Rapids schools pay $118,523 to union President Mary Bouwense. The Livonia district dishes out $97,000 to union President Joanmary Nenninger. Utica teachers union President Eliza Parkinson gets $90,000 annually from the public school district.

The school district in Berkley pays more than $128,000 for local union President Steve Lyskawa to do union work. He spends half his time working for the schools and half for the union.

The practice is not without its defenders. Berkley schools spokeswoman Jessica Stilger said the arrangement works for the district.

“It's an efficient use of everyone's time,” Stilger added. “The union president actively works with members to solve any issues during the afternoon and meets with district administration regularly during business hours. This arrangement saves taxpayer dollars by conserving administration time and staying on top of any issue before they could potentially become costly.”

But Michael Van Beek, author of several studies on Michigan's public school system and research director at the Mackinac Center for public policy, has a different take on the practice.

"Union officials on a school’s payroll are essentially ghost teachers," he said. "Taxpayers think they’re paying for teachers, but they’re getting union officials doing union business."

Note that “release time” as described here is not the same as the “educator on loan” schemes that have allowed the current and past presidents of the state’s largest teachers union to spike their school pension payouts by using their six-digit union salaries in the formula used to determine pension benefits.

Michigan Senate Bill 280 has been introduced to ban the practice of release time. Its sponsor is Sen. Marty Knollenberg, R-Troy, who is also vice chairman of the Senate Education Committee. (Knollenberg also sponsored Senate Bill 279, which would ban the pension spiking schemes referenced above.)

“Each dollar these school districts spend on union lobbyists is a dollar taken from classrooms,” said Knollenberg in a news release. “The last thing parents and taxpayers should have to worry about is whether money is being siphoned out of classrooms to pay for lobbyists.”

The figures cited in this report were gathered by the Mackinac Center and Michigan Capitol Confidential through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests sent to every Michigan school district.

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.