News Story

Teachers Union Head Gets Annual $92,000 Pension Bonus, Courtesy of Taxpayers

Scheme let top union officials get school pensions based on six-figure union salaries

Former MEA President Steve Cook

If former MEA President Steve Cook had stayed in his job as a paraprofessional — a teacher’s aide — in the Lansing School District and retired after 40 years, his annual school pension would have been an estimated $10,784 per year. That’s because under the union contract, paraprofessionals can earn up to $20.86 an hour but may only work 25 hours a week for 174 days a school year.

But the man who would later run the state’s largest teachers union left the district after 15 years and spent the 25 years gradually rising to the top position of the Michigan Education Association. In that spot, he was paid $212,649 a year before retiring this past September.

But because of an arrangement made by the union and the Lansing School District when he left the public school in 1993, Cook was allowed to use his six-figure MEA salary in the public school pension calculations. The MEA reimbursed the school district for its contributions to the school employee pension system on behalf of Cook. This let Cook begin collecting an annual pension of $103,227 for the rest of his life (with cost-of-living adjustments), which is $92,443 more each year than what someone would have received after working as a paraprofessional for 40 years.

Cook began taking the six-figure government pension in September, according to the state’s Office of Retirement Services.

The MEA also operates a pension system for its employees. The union didn’t respond to emails that asked whether Cook also had any pension coming from the union on top of his public school employee pension.

Cook’s arrangement is one that other top officials in the union have enjoyed. The deals were made by the MEA and the public school districts that formerly employed these union officials. Like Cook, those officials were allowed to slip their six-figure MEA pay rates into the formula used to calculate public school pension benefits — and walk into retirement with six-figure pensions.

Cook’s predecessor, Iris Salters, started collecting a $140,000 government pension in 2015 and was able to plug her $235,447 MEA salary into the calculations for her pension from the Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System. Salters made her deal with the Kalamazoo Public Schools.

The newest batch of six-figure MEA administrators have similar deals with their school districts, too. A change in the law, however, means they won’t get the same pension boost that Cook and Salters enjoy. While they can still slip their years on the MEA payroll into the formula for government pension benefits, they won’t be able to substitute their six-figure union salaries.

Cook left the Lansing School District in 1993 with 15 years of service and went to work for the MEA full-time.

Before then he was employed by the district as a paraprofessional for 15 years. Cook served as the president of the Lansing assistants union from 1981 to 1993 and became the secretary-treasurer of the MEA in 1993.

Richard Halik, who served as superintendent of Lansing Public Schools at the time Cook left for the MEA, wrote a letter to the state Senate Education Committee in 2015. In the letter, Halik said that when district officials agreed to let Cook be considered a school employee while working for the MEA, they thought the arrangement would be a short-term one.

Halik said that the district wanted a positive working relationship with the MEA. Halik said the school district later tried to revise the deal “but to no avail.”

In the letter, Halik described Cook as a “wonderful employee.” He added, though, “I am against allowing employees of a private union to collect a pension based on anything but their salary at the time they served Michigan’s children in our great classrooms as public school employees.”

Other top executives in the Michigan Education Association have similar arrangements, according to school districts’ responses to open records requests. A bill to end these pension spiking arrangements passed in the state Senate last year, but it died in the Republican-controlled House.