Legislature Returns After Summer Recess
Although the Michigan Legislature had planned to work through the summer to find a solution to the road funding issue, those plans went largely unfulfilled as discussion over how to raise or shift over $1 billion to transportation purposes was ultimately not productive. Instead, the major discussions in Lansing this summer focused on whether or not two members of the Michigan House inappropriately used taxpayer funds to cover up an illicit affair. Now that the Legislature has resumed its regular schedule, it is expected that leadership will focus on finding common ground for transportation funding. Additionally, a solution for the ever-increasing debt of the Detroit Public Schools is a clear priority for the governor and we expect legislation to be introduced addressing Detroit’s educational environment within the coming weeks.
House Committee Considers Bill Meant to Improve Early Literacy
House Bill 4822, introduced by Rep. Amanda Price (R-Park Township), attempts to improve literacy in early grades by requiring schools to assess and diagnose reading deficiencies, create reading assistance programs for K-2 students, and requiring retention and intervention programs for students who are not reading at grade level by the end of the third grade. This bill is significantly improved from the bill Rep. Price introduced in 2013, which simply mandated retention for all third grade students not reading at grade level.
AFT Michigan has long recommended early diagnosis and intervention for struggling readers, along with the employment of specialized reading coaches to work with students and early elementary teachers to improve teaching and learning in this vital area. We are very pleased to see these elements included in HB 4822. However, we continue to have concerns with the retention piece of the bill as well as concerns regarding appropriate funding and staffing for such programs. We will continue to communicate our reading policy goals with Rep. Price and members of the House Education committee throughout the process. The House Education Committee has heard about four hours worth of testimony on the bill, but did not take a vote at its Thursday meeting. We expect more changes made to the bill and a committee vote very soon.
Whiston: About One-Third of School Districts Will Eliminate Deficit
State Superintendent Brian Whiston presented the quarterly report on deficit districts to a joint meeting of the House and Senate K-12 appropriations subcommittees Wednesday, testifying that 58 school districts and charter schools ended fiscal year 2014 in a deficit. By June 2015, 20 of those schools projected deficit elimination, 20 projected deficit reduction, and 14 projected deficit growth.
Senate Bill Targets Pensions for Employees on Union Leave Time
Senator Marty Knollenberg (R-Troy) has introduced a pair of bills aimed at creating barriers for public employee union members to be released for union activities. Senate Bill 280 would prohibit collective bargaining agreements from allowing public employee to be paid by the employer for union work. Even more troubling is Senate Bill 279, which targets public school employee pensions. SB 279, as it was amended in committee, prohibits the accumulation of service credits in the MPSERS system for any time an employee spends on union leave.
These bills are being promoted with the mantra that tax dollars should not be spent on union work or lobbying. However, this glib argument ignores the practical reality that a good amount of work done on union leave time is actually beneficial to the employer. For example, grievance procedures, collective bargaining, and employee representation for disciplinary matters would have to be shifted to off-work hours if the employer was barred from paying for union leave time. This would pose a burden on management staff, cause delays in conflict resolutions, and increase administrative costs.
As bad as SB 280 is, SB 279 is even worse. This bill would penalize any public school employee who took union leave time by disallowing any of that time to count toward their pension. Most collective bargaining agreements already require the union to reimburse the employer for any pension-related costs for union leave time, but this bill would prohibit it altogether. In fact, by not allowing credits for the time, the bill would actually create an added burden for the MPSERS system.
Both of these bills were reported from the Senate Education Committee last June, but their future is somewhat uncertain on the Senate floor.
Gamrat/Courser Drama Distracts Lansing
In addition to attempting to pass a transportation funding plan over the summer, the Legislature was also forced to concentrate on a much more sordid issue. Reports surfaced in July that Representative Todd Courser (R-Lapeer) and Representative Cindy Gamrat (R-Plainwell) had been involved in a romantic affair, and allegedly had misused taxpayer resources to cover it up. While their tryst was shocking, it was the alleged misuse of staff resources that led to calls for their expulsion from the Legislature.
Ultimately, Courser resigned from office and Gamrat was expelled. Special elections have been called to fill the vacancies. Both Courser and Gamrat have filed to run in the special elections, which are likely to costs hundreds of thousands of dollars.