Center sues Kent County schools over non-privatization clause

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

The Mackinac Center, the Michigan free market think tank based in Midland, last week sued the Kent Intermediate School District (KISD), the school districts of Byron Center, Comstock Park, Godfrey Lee, Godwin Heights, Grandville, Kenowa Hills, Lowell, Northview and Rockford, and the Kent County Education Association over contract language it claims is illegal.

The language the Mackinac Center finds offensive is contained in the labor contracts agreed to by all of the school districts with their unions. It reads: “All districts agree not to privatize any KCEA/MEA unionized services for the life of this agreement.”

KISD had facilitated a process where various school districts could opt in to using standardized language if the districts’ unions would agree to certain compromises, which included employees paying part of their health care insurance costs.

According to Ron Koehler, KISD Assistant Superintendent for Organizational and Community Initiatives, “Through this collaborative contract agreement we’ve saved well over $1 million this year for Kent ISD and the nine districts, and established precedent for bargaining unit employees paying a share of their health care premium forever, accomplished without weeks, months and years of acrimonious bargaining.”

A statement by KISD Superintendent Kevin Konarska on the website, www.kentisd.org, says the one-year contractual agreement also “kept teachers in the classroom instead of on the unemployment line.”

Patrick Wright of the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation says they believe the clause is contrary to Public Act 112 of 1994. The Center’s position is that “Michigan law could not be more clear in prohibiting school districts from bargaining away their right to privatize non-instructional services,” and that “absent a legal challenge, this agreement will likely become permanent, hamstringing future boards and harming students.”

Wright stated in an interview that the only remedies they are seeking is for the language to be stricken from the contracts, and an injunction issued against inserting such language in future contracts.
The suit was filed at the 17th Circuit Court on behalf of five specific Kent County taxpayers: Chris Jurrians, Lila Deline, Thomas Norton, Rina Sala-Baker and Gail Schuiling.

Wright said the agency sought out the local taxpayers to participate in the suit, after reading about the union contracts last spring.

Koehler said that the defendants have only issued general statements on the suit because they have not yet been served. KISD is approaching the suit cautiously. They have “initially consulted with Miller Johnson,” but can go no further until they have more information.

“We don’t believe they have grounds or standing,” Koehler said. “We don’t want to spend the money to pursue this until we’re served.”

He feels that a more appropriate venue than the courts would have been to open discussions with the Michigan Employee Relations Commission or follow other administrative channels.
“The Mackinac Center was aware of what we were planning; they did a story on this way back in March.”

According to the Konarska, “The regional agreement was totally voluntary.  Each of the 20 districts within Kent ISD had the opportunity to participate if it met their needs.  Those that were considering outsourcing services within the 2010-11 school year were advised against participating in the regional template... None of those districts was planning to pursue outsourcing in this contract year.”

Rockford Public Schools had tried outsourcing their food service in the past, but discontinued it because it did not save the district any money.

The Kent Intermediate School District and the Kent County Education Administration are both currently taking the position that the lawsuit is likely to be thrown out by the courts.

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