News Story

The Fake School Employee: Retiring Union President Spikes $115K State Pension

An extra $99k per year by 'taking leave' — at the union, for 24 years

When Steve Cook retires from his $212,649 job as president of the state’s largest teachers union this month, he will have spent 24 years working full time for the Michigan Education Association. But for purposes of collecting a government pension based on that six-figure salary, he’s still considered by the state of Michigan to be an employee of the Lansing School District.

That’s part of a controversial deal Cook struck with the school district back in 1993 when he left to work for the MEA full time. The school district expected that to be a short-term leave, but it ended up lasting 24 years. The deal also allowed Cook to parlay his union salary into an estimated $115,871 state pension.

Cook started in the Lansing School District as a paraprofessional in the 1970s, a position that pays about half of what a teacher gets. But under the deal he struck with the district when he “took leave” to work for the union, Cook gets to use his union pay level and his years on the job there in the formula used to calculate his monthly pension check from the state.

Cook worked 15 years for the Lansing School District and 24 years for the MEA, 39 years altogether, and they all count toward his government pension. The monthly amount he'll start getting is also based on his annual union pay during the final few years there, which ranged from slightly above to slightly below $200,000.

The highest-paid Lansing school district paraprofessionals earned $28,758 in 2017, according to the union contract. A paraprofessional who started there at the same time as Cook and spent 39 years doing that job would receive an annual pension of $16,823.

The highest-paid Lansing teacher made $81,037 in 2016. If he retired after 39 years of teaching, his annual pension would be $49,530.

The MEA reimburses the Lansing district for the contributions it makes for Cook into the state pension system. However, because the pension fund is currently $29.1 billion short of the amount needed to cover future pensions, some experts argue taxpayers probably will be left holding the bag for part of Cook’s retirement.

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

Cook is just one of many top MEA union administrators, including the union’s previous two presidents, who struck similar deals with their school districts.

Former Michigan Education Association President Iris Salters has an annual state pension of $140,000, based on a final union salary of $235,447 when she retired in 2011.

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.