Corporatism, Education, Labor, unions — June 23, 2015 at 9:06 am

Debunking the Mackinac Center’s phony teachers union “pension spiking” scandal


I recently wrote about Michigan teacher Mary Davenport, a woman who had received hundreds of thousands of dollars in support from her union, the Michigan Education Association (MEA), only to turn around and claim they “weren’t there when she needed them.” She was duped into being the poster child for the campaign by the corporate front group Mackinac Center to encourage teachers to leave their union.

In the letter Davenport signed that was sent to thousands of Michigan teachers using their taxpayer-funded work email addresses, Davenport railed against what Mackinac Center calls “pension spiking” by MEA president Steve Cook whose pension will be based on his MEA salary. She wrote that Cook is “gaming our state teacher pension system” and Mackinac Center has been pushing this phony scandal with all of the resources they can muster, convincing anti-union legislators to introduce legislation to ban what is now an entirely legal arrangement made between union officials and school administrators.

Mackinac Center’s use of the phrase “pension spiking” probably polls well in focus groups but is, in fact, inaccurate. Pension spiking is actually the practice “in which city employees convert certain benefits such as unused sick time or saved vacation pay to boost their pension benefits.” Like many union officials, Cook is “on loan” from the school district to represent teachers in negotiations among many other things. What Davenport and Mackinac Center don’t tell you as they breathlessly claim taxpayers are being cheated is that the unions reimburse the schools for contributions they make to the pension system on behalf of these union officials as well as for their salary – including Cook.

What they also don’t tell you is that if the legislation currently being considered passes, the state education budget will take a nearly million dollar hit:

One of two bills lawmakers say will keep taxpayers from paying for union officers and close a loophole allowing “pension spiking” will cost the state almost $1 million, according to a non-partisan analysis.

Senate Bill 279 would no longer allow union officers to have state-funded pensions calculated off special deals with their local school districts, which critics say has resulted in some officers to gain larger pensions. Senate Bill 280 would eliminate paid release time, but still allow unpaid release time, for teachers who serve as the head of their local unions or in one of the statewide teachers unions.

Sen. Marty Knollenberg, R-Troy, presented the bills as a way to keep taxpayer money in the classroom and out of the hands of union officers. But, an analysis from the Senate Fiscal Agency — a non-partisan government office that analyzes legislation for lawmakers — reports Senate Bill 279 would actually take money away from schools.

According to the analysis, there are 50 school employees on leave working for unions. The unions take on the costs to the system for those employees. If the two bills were to pass, the legislation would cause those costs to be shifted to the School Aid Fund because the employees’ salaries would no longer be paid by the state.

This would cause an increase in the cost the state pays to the Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System, or MPSERS, to the tune of $900,000.

In testimony before the Senate Education Committee, the MEA spelled out the situation, explaining how districts are “fully reimbursed” for both their salary and retirement contribution:

[Senate Bill 279] would prohibit the ability of a school employee to receive retirement credit for time earned on a released basis, regardless of whether the employing District is reimbursed for that time. The Senate Fiscal Agency estimates this legislation will cost the Michigan Public School Employee Retirement fund approximately $900,000, as a result of the loss of reimbursement local associations pay to districts for their MPSERS contribution. Instead of the union, the state would have to bear that cost. However, much of the focus has been on the MEA President’s release agreement from the Lansing Public Schools. This is not a “special deal” nor is it unique. This release agreement is the same type of agreement that has been in place since the 1960’s. Officers of the Michigan Education Association are on release from their district. They still participate in the MPSERS retirement system and districts are fully reimbursed for their salary and retirement contribution.

What Mackinac Center also doesn’t tell you is what these union officials actually do. If you believe them, union officials are just sitting around smoking cigars and plotting to screw over school districts and students to enrich themselves. The reality, however, is much different. Responding to a FOIA request from Mackinac Center, one district human resources director spelled out the myriad things their union official does:

June 16, 2015

Jarrett Skorup
Research Associate
Miackinac Center for Public Policy
P.O. Box 568
Midland, MI 48640

Dear Mr. Skorup:

I am in receipt of your faxed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request dated June 9, 2015 requesting the following information:

“Some school districts have a local school union official on the public payroll. If this pertains to your district, please provide the following information:

  • Name, compensation, and teaching load/work schedule for this employee.
    • The compensation should include benefits information.”

David Workman is a full-time release teacher union president. His compensation for the 2014-15 school year is $85,945 and he is eligible for the same insurance benefits as other teachers (please see attached Summary of Fringe Benefits).

Mr. Workman works full-time that involves many hours outside of the school day. He is a key leader in the District and outside of the District. His involvement includes the following:


  • Teacher Evaluation / Growth Model – District implementation K-12
  • District Talent Initiative
  • Professional Learning Communities
  • Professional Development and Design/Planning Committee
  • District Leadership Team
  • Quality Instructional Coaches Advisory Committee
  • High School Restructuring Steering Team
  • Contract Negotiations
  • Calendar Advisory Committee
  • District Curriculum Participant
  • New Teacher Induction (professional development/mentors)
  • Insurance Advisory Committee
  • Teacher Certification Support
  • Supports all Probationary Teachers
    • Visits classrooms, lab classrooms Peer Assistance and Review
    • Begin building teams to support all probationary teachers
    • Student progress reporting systems
  • Curriculum Support
    • Formative assessment models
    • State testing support/NWEA
    • Resource liaison for professional development
    • Staff communication


  • Great Lakes TURN (Great Lakes Teacher Union Reform Network)
  • CAL TURN (California)
  • Presenter on Farmington’s Teacher Evaluation Growth Model at:
    • American Association of School Personnel Association (AASPA) National Conference.
    • Michigan Negotiators Association
    • Labor Management Collaboration National Conference (U.S. Department of Education)

Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions.

Kathy Smith, Executive Director, Human Resources

Ms. Smith makes if very clear that there are many tasks performed by union officials in addition to the essential services they provide to teachers to ensure that their wages and benefits are negotiated fairly, that their working conditions are maintained at a level that ensures a quality education for all students, and that grievances are properly dealt with.

That’s not the picture that anti-union types like the corporate-funded Mackinac Center paint. They prefer that you believe that unions are screwing over taxpayers.

Here’s a fun fact: taxpayers are, in fact, paying for the people who sit on one side of the negotiating table when contracts are negotiated: the school administrators. Mackinac Center doesn’t appear to care about that inconvenient fact. Their goal is to separate teachers from their unions, both psychologically and in practice. They want the public to see teachers unions as exploiting teachers and taxpayers when, in fact, the unions ARE the teachers. The union officials are their voice in the workplace, representing them while they carry on with the important and essential task of education our children.

Don’t be fooled by slick anti-union campaigns. We all know men and women who are teachers. All of us have, at one time or another, been positively impacted by a teacher who played an important part in our lives. They aren’t parasites. They aren’t greedy. And it’s not too much for them to ask that they have reasonable working conditions, receive a fair wage commensurate with their critical role in society, and that they can, at the end of their career, retire with dignity and not in poverty.

If you believe the Mackinac Center, all of these things ARE too much to ask. And it’s disgusting.