News Story

School Board Member Also MEA Union Official

‘This is 100% character assassination’: response to questions about conflict of interest

An elected school board member in Macomb county also works for the union that represents its teachers in labor contract negotiations.

Is that a conflict of interest?

Board member Elizabeth Pyden, one of four Uniserv directors for the Michigan Education Association's Local 1, says it is not. Further, she said, inquiries about the arrangement are part of a character assassination effort being undertaken by a group trying to get her and three other individuals recalled from the Chippewa Valley school board.

The MEA describes its regional Uniservs as field teams involved in “bargaining, representation and other employment issues.” Chippewa Valley school employees are members of MEA Local 1, which is also Pyden's employer, but she is not part of the team that acts directly as their agent in bargaining and contract matters.

Pyden, when asked about her employment and position on the school board, said the matter had been reviewed by legal counsel and “they found no conflict of interest.”

But she declined to provide a copy of the legal opinion, or identify who rendered or requested it.

That Pyden works for the MEA as a representative for a region that includes Chippewa Valley appears to be unassailable. She is listed in the union’s personnel directory as the director for Armada Area Schools and an assistant in several other districts (but not Chippewa Valley).

The MEA’s latest annual report to the U.S. Department of Labor, covering the period from September 2019 through August 2020, says the union paid her $98,525 that year.

School district records indicate that on August 10, 2020, Pyden voted to approve a yearlong extension of the contract between an MEA affiliate, the Chippewa Valley Education Association, and the school board. A 2019 MEA article on the teachers union at Chippewa Valley the union stated: “Local 1 represents most educators in the following school districts: Anchor Bay, Armada, Center Line, Chippewa Valley, Clintondale, Fraser, Grosse Pointe, Harper Woods, Lakeview, L’Anse Creuse, Mt. Clemens, New Haven, Port Huron, Richmond, Romeo, South Lake, and Warren Woods.”

Pyden’s circumstances are, at the least, unusual.

Brad Banasik, legal counsel to the Michigan Association of School Boards, said he doesn’t remember hearing about a similar situation in more than two decades. Members of teachers unions, including those on bargaining teams, have been elected to school boards, but almost always in a district other than the one where they work, he said.

And while there is a prohibition on elected officials voting on contracts in which they have a financial interest, that has customarily been interpreted to refer to the official, or a member of the official’s family, receiving a direct benefit, Banasik said.

Pyden’s MEA employment appears not to be widely known in the community. The biographical information on the board’s website, as of March 9, continued to describe her as an associate in a local law firm. She is routinely described in local news reports as an attorney in private practice.

In a brief interview with Michigan Capitol Confidential on March 9, she denied that any financial or ethical conflict exists.

“This is 100% character assassination ... and I’m choosing not to participate,” she said.

Pyden is one of four members of the Chippewa Valley board targeted by a group of parents for recall over complaints the board is failing schoolchildren by maintaining a mostly online form of instruction during the pandemic. A woman who answered the phone at the district superintendent’s office said she had no information about how Pyden’s potential conflict had been addressed.

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.