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Detroit Schools Spending Blues: Contracts That Bind

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

When Detroit Public Schools were assigned an emergency financial manager by the state, we thought he would have the power to turn things around, more or less, with a snap of his fingers.

Turns out that’s not the case, due in large part to a thick document known as a teachers contract, or collective bargaining agreement. In Detroit (and most other school districts across the nation) these documents contain seemingly mundane provisions that cost taxpayers and school districts millions of dollars.

Those provisions have been sucking a lot money out of Detroit Public Schools, a cash-starved district that can’t afford to waste a penny. We took a look at some of the district’s labor expenses in our newly released report, “Sucking the Life Out of America’s Public Schools: The Expense of Teachers Union Contracts, Part 3, Detroit Federation of Teachers Contract.” reported:

“DPS spent millions of dollars in 2010-11 on expensive items stipulated by the Detroit Federation of Teachers collective bargaining agreement.

“They included automatic ‘step’ salary increases for the remaining teachers ($15.6 million), reimbursement for unused sick days ($12.5 million), longevity bonuses ($665,336), ‘super step’ pay increases ($435,000) and ‘overage pay’ for teachers with a few extra kids in their classrooms ($376,082).”

Eighty to 85 percent of all general fund school spending is dictated by a typical teacher contract. Emergency manager or not, a school district like Detroit can’t change its spending habits overnight because it operates under this type of restrictive agreement that prohibits flexibility and efficiency.

Emergency managers in Michigan have the legal power to void these labor contracts, but doing so would cause a great deal of labor “unrest” that DPS can ill-afford at the moment.

Detroit is a prime example of a school district that benefits its adult employees very well. But what about the students? At the same time the district was spending millions of dollars on employee perks in 2010-11, it was laying off thousands of teachers, leading to crowded classrooms, and cancelling student programs.

This begs the question – do public schools exist for kids for the adults who staff them? Detroit school officials should ask themselves that question before they negotiate another union contract.

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