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03-30-2007, 18:00
http://www.detnews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070330/OPINION01/703300323/1008

Friday, March 30, 2007

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Labor Voices

Tax hike would fuel excessive school costs

State should rein in out-of-control spending on benefits

Mike Reno

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Labor Voices
Labor Voices columns are written for The News on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Ron Gettelfinger, Teamster President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Mark Gaffney and Michigan Education Association President Iris Salters. On months with five Fridays, a guest columnist joins the rotation. Today it is Mike Reno, a trustee on the Rochester Community Schools board. The News hopes to provide a forum for discussing workplace issues that are critical to a large segment of Michigan's population, whether or not they are union members. Look for Labor Voices every Friday in The Detroit News.



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I attended the Governor's Education Summit on Monday, anxious to hear Jennifer Granholm's suggestions on how to improve education.

But a visibly irritated Granholm used this opportunity -- billed as "the largest gathering of educators in Michigan" -- to deliver the message: "Go lobby your legislator for more money."

With hundreds of local school board members and superintendents from around the state assembled together, this would've been the perfect place -- and perfect time -- to send a message that structural reform at the local level is needed. Schools need to get a handle on their labor and other costs.

The governor could've referenced the Anderson Economic Group report that shows state funding increased 59.6 percent since Proposal A, compared with an inflation rate of 24.6 percent. She could've lobbied board members to do their part locally to relieve the pressure on Lansing by negotiating reasonable health care contracts. She could've made her case for district consolidation -- something she mentioned in her State of the State address -- and service pooling.

No restructuring mentioned

But she chose to skip any meaningful discussion on cost and instead used the opportunity to enlist educator help to raise taxes.

I reflected on her comments as I headed back to Rochester for a school board meeting to vote on a new three-year teacher contract. The agreement would provide top-of-the-line benefits to union members without asking them to share in the cost of the $15,000-per-year health care premium for each employee. Minor tweaks to co-pays would affect 1.5 percent of the $10 million health care tab, which has historically increased at 10 percent per year.

The contract provides 6 percent to 11 percent pay increases for teachers with less than 10 years of seniority, and 1 percent to 2 percent increases for the more experienced teachers.

The cost of the contract for this year is $82.7 million and increases 6.4 percent to $88 million next year. Even if retirement costs -- the only cost not directly controlled by the district -- were removed, the contract would still increase 5.9 percent.

But the most disturbing aspect was the contract's $5.3 million cost increase for next year, which equals $357 per pupil. The corresponding best-case funding scenario to date has been offered by Granholm, who has proposed a $178 per pupil increase, presumably tied to a tax increase.

In other words, the cost increases are double the projected revenue increases. It passed on a 5-1 vote. I voted no.

Local contracts costly

It's frightening to think Rochester's contract is commonplace. Similar contracts are regularly approved across the state. This irresponsible local spending eventually puts pressure on state legislators to blindly increase funding or face the hollow accusation of "not supporting education."

Proposal A was needed in part because this kind of outrageous spending sent property taxes soaring. Now, more than a decade later, schools are still a part of the force driving the discussion for increased taxes. Only serious reforms at the local level can end this repetitive cycle.

The governor's call for tax help was an effort to enlist the emotional argument "It's for the kids." With contracts like the one in Rochester, legislators need to resist that ploy and suggest Granholm instead deliver that very message to local school boards.

Mike Reno is a trustee on the Rochester Community Schools board. Mail letters to The Detroit News, Editorial Page, 615 W. Lafayette, Detroit, MI 48226. E-mail: letters@detnews.com.