Michigan Legislators Attempt to Reform Taxpayer-funded Release Time for Unions

Published August 26, 2015

Legislators in the Republican-controlled Michigan Legislature are trying to prevent tax dollars from being used to pay public school union members for taking “union leave time” to do union business, rather than teaching classes.

The practice, known as “release time,” is employed throughout Michigan.

Senate Bill 280, introduced by Sen. Marty Knollenberg (R-Troy) in April, would make it illegal for any public school union contract to permit government employees from being granted union leave time to do union work.

The bill is now under review by the state’s Senate Commerce Committee.

Thirty-Nine Districts

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy brought attention to the issue in 2011, when it surveyed release time policies in every school district in the state. The survey found 39 of the 862 school districts in existence in 2011 paid a combined total of at least $2.7 million per year to teachers for time spent working on union business.

In the Ann Arbor Public School District, teachers union president Linda Carter does not teach any classes, but the school district pays half of her $77,502 annual salary. Carter devotes all her time to union business. The school district also covers the entire cost of Carter’s health care and pension benefits, according to the Mackinac Center.

The district has a similar arrangement with the local union’s vice president, who spends 50 percent of her time on union business and the other half as a schoolteacher. The annual cost to Ann Arbor Public Schools for those deals is greater than $250,000, which includes expenses related to replacing the union members with other teachers when they are not teaching.

‘Flagrant Abuse’

“Taxpayers should not be subsidizing organized labor, especially when these same unions claim there is not enough money going for vital services,” said F. Vincent Vernuccio, director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center. “The practice in Michigan and other states that pay for union work with taxpayer-funded salaries needs to stop.”

Antony Davies, an associate professor of economics at Duquesne University’s School of Business, says such policies result from unions sowing “deliberate confusion.”

“The fact that the [National Education Association] represents teachers’ interests is not problematic,” Davies said. “This is, after all, the whole point of a labor union. What is unacceptable is that the NEA encourages taxpayers to think of it as an organization that is committed to education rather than what it actually is: an organization that is committed to educators.”

Davies says Michigan unions use the term “release time” in a misleading way.

“Release time is what you get when your employer releases you from your work responsibilities and doesn’t pay you,” Davies said. “This is not uncommon in universities, where research faculty will raise money from outside sources to reimburse their universities for a portion of their salaries in exchange for being released from teaching some of their assigned courses. The important part is that the employee is released from some of his responsibilities in exchange for not being paid. To be paid and released from work, as is happening in the Michigan public schools, is not release time at all. It is paid leave.”

Taxpayers Paying for Lobbying

Davies says it’s unfair to force taxpayers to pay people to work for a union that lobbies the government for more taxpayer dollars.

“If public schools produced extremely well-educated students, we might look the other way,” Davies said. “But when fewer than 80 percent of Michigan’s high school students graduate within four years, one might well ask if taxpayers’ dollars would be better spent paying people to teach rather than paying them to lobby for more pay.”

Tom Gantert ([email protected]) is senior capitol correspondent for Michigan Capitol Confidential, a daily news site of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

Image by Pictures of Money.