Is a union benefit worth the cost to the taxpayers?

(WXYZ) - - Whether there’s a student in your house or not, surely you know by now about the big battle over funding public schools with fewer and fewer tax dollars. In light of that, our Chief Investigative Reporter Steve Wilson is exposing a pricey union perk where taxpayers are picking up the cost.

Parents have rallied to join school officials protesting cuts in school funding which many say will devastate schools throughout Michigan.

Leonard Rezmierski/Northville Superintendent: We’ve taken decades to build an outstanding school district program, and we are unwilling to let it unravel like a cheap suit.

But what isn’t widely known by parents and others who say costs have already been cut to the bone: hundreds of thousands of tax dollars budgeted to educate students are being shelled out to pay salaries and benefits for teachers' union officials. Did you know it’s happening to one degree or another in more than two dozen districts just in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties?

In the Southfield district, for instance, Ted Peters stopped teaching Social Studies a dozen years ago when he became the full-time union president representing that district’s teachers. Yet, his pay still comes from the schools, every penny of his $109,000 in annual pay and benefits, as if he were still teaching students. His main job now: educating Superintendent Wanda Cook-Robinson and other district officials about ways they can better support teachers with more benefits, pay and better working conditions.

Dr. Wanda Cook-Robinson/Southfield Superintendent: Not only do we pay his salary and benefits package, but we pay the salary and benefit package of a person to replace him as well.

That’s right, generally when this happens, each district has to go out and hire a new teacher as they did when they hired Peters’ classroom replacement at Thompson Middle School for another $100,000. Now, Southfield’s superintendent will be the first to tell you there are terrific teachers working hard to produce impressive results in her district, even in wake of about $21 million in budget cuts in the last three years. Even so, she says, shouldn’t the unionized teachers support their own leadership?

Dr. Cook-Robinson: And I think the dues that individuals pay could perhaps go toward the president, but I think we need these dollars here in the district for student achievement.

In Lansing, State Representative Marty Knollenberg agrees entirely.

State Rep. Marty Knollenberg/R-Troy: My argument is one dollar spent on union activity should be one dollar paid for by the union membership dues.

His bill to stop Michigan school districts from paying all or even part of the paychecks of union bosses has gotten nowhere.

State Rep. Knollenberg: As soon as they leave the function of school duties and start acting as labor representatives, then the labor organization should pay for their salaries and benefits.

Attention Troy taxpayers: did you know your school district is paying Roberta Masters her full teacher’s salary and benefits—a little more than $140,000 a year—even though she left the classroom four years ago when she became a union president. Her replacement in the classroom is costing another $66,000. In Farmington, essentially the same deal for union president Dave Workman.

Wilson: Shouldn’t classroom teachers be used in the classroom and dollars be used to keep as many of them in the classroom instead of having them across the table bargaining, in effect, against the taxpayer?
Dave Workman/Farmington Schools Union President: Well I would argue I bargain very much for the taxpayer, because we’re about learning and doing it in a way that’s most effective.

In Lansing, the state teacher’s union defends the practice we’re exposing here, saying its union presidents aren’t always just hammering administrators, demanding more at a bargaining table.

Doug Pratt/MEA Spokesman: Keep in mind that they’re also taxpayers themselves. This is a situation where you really are working collectively, that’s why it’s called collective bargaining.

And, he says, when they’re not negotiating teacher contracts, they’re doing important work that helps school administrators, like preparing for H1N1 problems and averting personnel crises from time to time.

Doug Pratt: They’re taking those things off their plates so than can put their full focus on service Michigan students.

Back in Southfield, where heated negotiations have left teachers without a contract for nearly two years, the superintendent remains unconvinced.

Dr. Cook-Robinson: And I want every tax dollar going toward the environment to improve student achievement.
Wilson: And you think that can best be done with teachers in the classroom.
Dr. Cook-Robinson: Absolutely.
Wilson: And let the union members pay their union leaders.
Dr. Cook-Robinson: Yes.

If you have a tip for the Action News Investigative Team, contact us at or at (248) 827-9466.