To save money, school districts should examine union contracts

The Michigan Education Association recently held dozens of rallies around the state in an effort to garner support for raising taxes, most of which would be earmarked for public schools. A close look at school spending, however, shows that instead of seeking new revenues, school districts could do a lot to improve the way they spend the nearly $20 billion they already receive from taxpayers every year. The Wayne-Westland district’s teachers union contract — which accounts for the largest portion of every district’s expenditures — provides some clear examples.

About 75 percent of the Wayne-Westland Community Schools’ $111 million budget goes toward paying employees covered by its current collective bargaining agreement for teachers and a few other employee groups. (The budget figure does not include debt service payments on past construction projects.) Wayne-Westland Community Schools enrolls about 13,100 students and employs approximately 830 teachers.

Teacher salaries are determined by a single salary schedule that grants automatic pay raises based solely on an employee’s years on the job plus additional pedagogy credentials. Teachers are granted “tenure” after four years on the job. Once tenured, teachers are evaluated once every three years, but neither these evaluations nor the performance of their students affects how much they are paid.

Wayne-Westland teachers get automatic annual pay raises of 6 percent as they progress through the time-on-the-job “steps” of the salary schedule. All teachers, regardless of their position on the step schedule, receive a 1.5 percent annual pay increase as the entire salary schedule grows by that amount. The vast majority of teachers in the district receive a base salary between $52,540 and $79,688; the average was $62,582 in 2009.

The district pays between $13,079 and $16,635 per teacher annually for health insurance plans. Most teachers contribute $40 a month to the cost of their own health insurance premiums, or about 4 percent. The statewide average cost (private and public sector) for an employer-provided family plan is $11,300, with the employee picking up 22 percent of that amount. The district also provides life, long-term disability, vision and dental insurance at no cost to employees.

School employees are provided with a lifetime pension when they retire and also expect to receive lifetime post-retirement health benefits. Based on the state-run retirement system’s formula, the lifetime pension for a Wayne-Westland teacher with 30 years of experience and an average base salary of $79,688 (the final “step” on the salary schedule) would be $35,860. This amount increases by 3 percent every year. An employee may begin collecting a pension at age 55, or younger if he or she has 30 years of employment in public schools.

The union contract also covers working hours and conditions. The contractual work year is 181 days, with each day defined as 6 hours and 20 minutes. This adds up to just over 1,100 hours per year. The U.S. average is nearly 1,800 hours annually.

Teachers are allotted 10 sick days, two bereavement days and three personal leave days each year and may accumulate these without limit. Upon retirement, teachers receive $30 for each unused leave day. The local union also gets a total of 110 leave days per year that it can give to teachers to conduct union business.

The union contract also includes bonus pay for additional duties. Being one of the 43 different department heads can net teachers anywhere from $1,421 to $3,909 per year. Acting as a “6th grade liaison” pays an additional $3,198 a year. Teachers can also earn extra cash by coaching or participating in other extracurricular activities, such as band, drama, yearbook, intramurals, student clubs and many others. Aside from coaching (which pays between $711 and $6,301), there are more than 80 different extracurricular positions available, which pay between $711 and $5,293 annually.

Instead of raising taxes to continue to fund the provisions of these types of contracts, school districts should work to reform the way they compensate their teachers. When you consider the economic realities faced by the state’s private-sector over the last decade, school districts have a responsibility to help balance their own budgets, especially when they face declining enrollment and state-based revenues.

(Michael Van Beek is director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute based in Midland. This analysis is part of an ongoing series that can be found at