Tracking union money in school board elections

Public should be aware of who's paying for campaigns, some say

MEA PAC money

(Editor’s Note – This article was written before the November 2007 school board elections. Some people interviewed as candidates may have been elected to school boards in the interim.)

School board elections in Michigan are traditionally low-profile events. Voter turnout is sparse, particularly in years with no bond issues, millage renewals or local controversy. Campaigns often consist of yard signs and flyers.

But a school board member in Rochester and a nonprofit organization in west Michigan are both trying to bring more public scrutiny to conventional public school board races, including who funds the candidates. They say the public should be aware of the time, money and organization put into local races in particular by the political arm of the Michigan Education Association and its local affiliates. That includes not only donations to help candidates cover the costs of fliers, postage and even robocalls, but also support in the form of public endorsements by the local teachers union, get-out-the-teacher-vote efforts, phone calls and mail campaigns.

"How do you run against a machine like that?" Rochester Community Schools board member Steven Kovacs asked.

School employees have the right to support — financially or otherwise — the candidates of their choice, Kovacs said, but he questions whether school board members who receive hundreds or even thousands of dollars in campaign donations from employee unions can then make objective decisions on things like teacher pay and benefits. Even if they can, he said, the donations give the appearance of bias.

Further, Kovacs said, the union’s process of interviewing, publicly endorsing and financially supporting candidates discourages some people from running for office at all, leaving voters with a narrower range of choices. Kovacs invited all of the candidates in November’s Rochester school board election to take a pledge not to accept or solicit money from any individual, organization (including bargaining units), or business that markets to the district or any administrator who would be impacted by board decisions.

"I think you should run on the merits of ‘Here is my policy,’" he said. "Do you want all board candidates to be union-sponsored?"

The Michigan Education Association did not respond to a request for comment on those issues, although it did comment regarding a related lawsuit, as noted below.

However, the union’s political efforts are reflected in its publications, conferences and in campaign finance statements that show financial contributions to local school board races. At the MEA’s state conference at Cobo Hall in Detroit in February, one session titled "Elect your Employer" invited members to learn how run school board campaigns.

"There is no more important elected official in the lives of MEA members than your local school board member," a conference brochure stated. "This session is designed to help members identify potential candidates, analyze election data and run a successful campaign." At the same conference, attendees were invited to sessions titled "We Elected Our Employer, Now What?" on communication with pro-union board members, and "I Brought You into This World and I Can Take You Out! — How to Run a Successful Board Recall Campaign."

The summer 2007 issue of the MEA Voice, a union magazine, praised the efforts of teachers and support employers in Ypsilanti who, the article said, "successfully elected seven board members who shared their vision for the district."

Their efforts paid off, the article said, when the Ypsilanti Public School District Board of Education voted against investigating the possibility of hiring outside firms to provide transportation.

CANDIDATE VIEWS VARY

School board candidates in Rochester, interviewed before the election, had varying opinions on whether union support should be accepted and on whether it would unduly influence their work on the board.

"I think it’s a bit of an insult to teachers to not have their voice heard. Use of money is a form of freedom of speech," candidate Joseph Ropeta told Michigan Education Report. But he also said that there should be full disclosure to voters, in advance of the election, of where each candidate’s money came from. Ropeta planned to list all the donations his campaign received at his campaign Web site. "Just publish it yourself," he said. "Let the voters decide."

Candidate Beth Talbert didn’t plan to sign Kovacs’ pledge, either, but she agreed with his viewpoint on turning down contributions from the teachers union’s political action committee.

"I think that, personally, I would not be comfortable accepting donations from the local chapter of the MEA," she said, saying that while it is legal, it could "create a perception" of influence. That would be true of any interest group, she said. "I think it would be unusual if all of a sudden somebody — say an architect — showed up at my door with a check."

The Rochester Education Association still endorsed Talbert’s candidacy, a move she attributed to her background in higher education and work on a local K-12 reform committee.

Another Rochester candidate, 18-year-old Joe Stouffer, said he also did not plan to sign the pledge or take campaign money from the union’s political arm.

"It would be improper," Stouffer said. The Rochester High School graduate said he was running in order to bring a younger viewpoint to the Rochester Board of Education.

It’s possible, but painstaking, to track the source of money spent in every local school board race in Michigan, according to at least two organizations that watch the flow of money in Michigan elections.

The Michigan Campaign Finance Act regulates the amount of money contributors can give to candidates and also requires most candidates to file campaign finance statements at regular intervals. An individual or a political action committee can donate up to $500 to a school board candidate. An independent committee can donate up to $5,000.

School board candidates must file affidavits with their county clerk stating their intent to run for office and also must form a committee. If they raise or spend more than $1,000 for their campaign, they have to file statements listing their contributions and expenditures. To track the money flow in every school board race would mean compiling data from 83 county clerks, covering 552 conventional public school districts in Michigan. (The exception is districts with enrollment below 2,400 students; those candidates are not required to form committees, unless they raise or spend more than $1,000.)

A few counties — among them Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw — provide searchable online databases to allow the public to view campaign finance statements.

TRACKING DONATIONS

The nonprofit Education Action Group, based in west Michigan, is building a database on local school board races. The group has gathered information on 69 school districts to date, resulting in a list of school board members in those districts who have received donations from the MEA PAC or one of its affiliates between 2003 and 2006. According to their data, 19 current school board members have received $1,000 or more in MEA PAC contributions since 2003. In some cases, as many as six members of the same school board have received contributions of varying amounts.

Local school board races are not typically aggressive campaigns, said Kyle Olson, the organization’s founder. "If the MEA PAC gives them $1,000 or $2,000, they can do a lot."

(Olson is the brother of Ryan Olson, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. The Mackinac Center publishes Michigan Education Report.)

A spot review of records filed in Macomb, Oakland and Washtenaw counties show wide disparities in spending and donations. In some races in May 2007, every candidate filed waiver requests, meaning they did not spend more than $1,000 on their campaign. In other districts, including Utica, Bloomfield Hills and Ann Arbor, candidates spent anywhere from $3,000 to $8,000.

In Novi, school board member Katie Raeon accepted an endorsement and campaign contributions from the Novi Education Association when she won a spot on the board in a close race in 2006. She told Michigan Education Report that "the thought never crossed my mind that I would have to pay extra attention to teachers. You’re elected to do a job. … It’s not going to influence my decisions."

Raeon said that she has always believed that hiring quality teachers is a key component of a successful school district. "I make decisions in the best interest of the kids … and keeping quality teachers is part of that," she said.

A nurse, Raeon ran for a position on the board three times, losing twice but winning by 100 votes in her third attempt. She was endorsed by the Novi Education Association and also accepted about $1,200 from the teachers union during her winning campaign. Of that, $673 was a direct donation and about $500 came from "in-kind contributions," meaning the value of phone banks and mailings that the association donated on her behalf. That total exceeded the $500 contribution limit, and Raeon paid back about $700 following the election. She also spent about $1,300 of her own money, according to her campaign finance statements.

George Kortlandt, another Novi school board member, was elected to the board for three consecutive terms, then lost to Raeon, then came back this May to win a fourth term on the board. He has never been endorsed by employee unions or received campaign contributions from them, he said.

"In my opinion, the elections, especially those held earlier in the year, have such small turnouts that it (union support) makes a significant difference," he said. Union activity in local races is "an attempt, really, to stack the deck in their favor."

But he doesn’t necessarily agree with the pledge suggested in Rochester, Kortlandt said. "I don’t have as much of a problem as he does with campaign contributions. It comes down to the old rule of elections — how hard you work."

In addition to campaign contributions, school employees apparently are more likely to vote in school elections than the public at large, according to a survey conducted early in 2007 by the polling firm Knowledge Networks. The survey was sponsored by the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University and Education Next, and was reported in the fall issue of the journal Education Next.

The survey asked adults if they remembered for sure whether they voted in the most recent school board election. Fifty-seven percent of school employees said yes, compared to 40 percent of respondents at large.

PAYROLL DEDUCTION LAWSUIT

In addition to the candidates’ own financial statements, spending in local school board races and bond issues is also reflected in the statements filed with the Michigan Secretary of State by the Michigan Education Association Political Action Committee or any of its affiliated PACs, such as the Washtenaw County Education Association, Northern Zone Cash for Kids and Saginaw Education Association Fund for Children & Public Education.

The MEA PAC takes in contributions from thousands of school employees through local political action fund drives or payroll deduction plans. It spends some of the money directly and also transfers some funds to local affiliates. Those affiliates make contributions to a wide variety of school-related political activity, such as school board races, bond issues and community college board elections.

The MEA PAC’s latest report, covering the time period from Jan. 1 to July 20, numbers 3,455 pages chronicling approximately $194,00 in donations. That doesn’t include the separate statements filed by each affiliate.

"I come from the belief they have these 20-plus PACS to confuse people," Olson said.

"One of the efforts of this group is to expose the way they (the MEA) are involved," he said. It makes sense for union members to attempt to elect union-friendly candidates, he said, but it’s also important for the public to be aware of the extent of union election activity.

How the union collects PAC donations is at the heart of a current lawsuit between the MEA and the Secretary of State. The MEA in the past has taken in money through payroll deduction plans in local school districts, but Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land ruled in 2006 that such plans violated the Campaign Finance Act because they use public school resources — school district administration — for political purposes.

The MEA filed suit over Land’s ruling, and Ingham County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Brown ruled in September that public bodies, including school districts, can deduct PAC contributions from employees’ payroll checks as long as the administrative costs of making the deductions are reimbursed by the PAC in advance.

The Secretary of State has filed an appeal in the case with the Michigan Court of Appeals. Among other arguments, attorneys for the state said in a written brief that if the MEA is allowed to prepay a school district for political fund raising activity, then it opens the door to others to do the same.

"What would prevent any private political entity from making a prepayment to a public body in order to raise political contributions?" the brief said.

In response to a request for comments on the ruling and on the role of education associations in local school board races, an MEA spokesman referred Michigan Education Report to its press release on the lawsuit.

"Many public employees choose payroll deduction for their PAC contributions because it’s a convenient way to donate," Art Przybylowicz, MEA general counsel, was quoted in the release. "This legal victory allows them to continue to do so, just as their colleagues in the private sector can."

Olson’s group also wants to lend encouragement to school board members who face union displeasure when, he said, they broach such subjects as competitive contracting or changes in health insurance providers.

"I want to work with school districts that are looking into contracting competitively for health care, contracting for services, and to stand with school board members who face recall because they voted for these things," he said. "This is not about attacking teachers. … But people are afraid to stand up to unions and say there is a better way."

Kovacs said his remarks weren’t intended to reflect poorly on Rochester’s educational program.

"We have excellent teachers. The kids get an excellent education," he said.

CONTROVERSIAL DONATIONS

In Rochester, Kovacs’ suggestion that two school board members’ votes were influenced by contributions they received from the MEA PAC resulted in an angry exchange at a board meeting in March, according to a report in the Oakland Press.

Kovacs was in China on business on the evening the board voted on a three-year contract agreement with district teachers that Kovacs said did not go far enough to address rising health care costs. In a letter to other board members, he said they failed to consider dozens of cost-containment ideas and questioned whether the yes votes of trustees Michelle Shepherd and Timothy Greimel were linked to the $3,000 donations made to each by the MEA PAC, the Press reported.

Those are the largest donations in the list compiled by the Education Action Group.

Shepherd was quoted in the article as saying that "I am not the puppet of the people or organizations that contributed to my campaign." Greimel pointed out in a later e-mail to the Rochester News & Views Web site that he received contributions from numerous sources, not just teachers or the union’s political action committee. "My decisions as a board member have never been influenced by anyone’s donations to my campaign," Greimel wrote.

Since he raised the issue publicly, "I’ve had a lot of people ask me about this," Kovacs said. He said he developed his pledge after a candidate in the local city council election proposed a "clean campaign pledge" in that race.

Another organization tracking MEA political spending, the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, reported that the MEA PAC was 10th on the list of money-making PACs in Michigan in the first six months of 2007. At $194,000, contributions to the MEA PAC were running 26 percent behind donations from the previous election cycle, noted Rich Robinson, the network’s director. The Campaign Finance Network is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts research and public education on money in Michigan politics.

"Certainly for the last four election cycles, cycle in and cycle out, it’s been one of the top 10 PACs," he said. The MEA also spent $454,140 on lobbying in the first six months of 2007, highest in the state but down 14 percent from the same time period last year.

Public scrutiny of school board races is likely to increase in any case in coming years, as more districts switch to November elections to save money, pointed out Oakland County Commissioner John Scott. More voters turn out in November, Scott said, bringing more attention to school board races, bond issues and millage renewals.

"I think it’ll be a more open race than we’ve ever had," he said, speaking of coming elections in his own district, the Waterford School District. "I really believe this is going to be a fun election."