November 19, 2009

Ann Arbor Board of Education Members Need Tutoring to Avoid Conflicts of Interest

“Punctuality is the politeness of kings,” or so said French King Louis XVIII. Most mornings at our house the big mystery is whether the tots will get off to school on time. We all strive to meet the standards of punctuality imposed upon us (or self-imposed). Get in to work on time. Get out of work on time. Get the income taxes done on time. Pay the property taxes on time. Filing deadlines abound. In the political arena, there are some strict deadlines that must be observed, including the date by which a candidate must file her/his campaign finance disclosure forms to the appropriate government office. 

Of course, in small towns like Ann Arbor, there are nosy Parkers who sit around waiting for the campaign finance disclosure forms to hit the County Clerk’s web site so as to divine who’s giving bucks (big and small) to whom. Hunting through campaign donation forms is as much a sport in some political circles, as is hunting down 10-point bucks in other circles (in the case of a current Republican gubernatorial candidate, the circles happen to intersect). There’s another sport, and it’s called hiding your campaign finances.

Why? Well, because politicians have been known to make political hay with donation information. So how does a politician skirt some strict filing deadlines imposed on campaigns? First, one can ask certain donors to hold back donations until after the first filing deadline (candidates files pre- and post-campaign finance forms if they expect to spend over $1,000), which is generally a week or so before the election. In essence, late donations are allowed; candidates simply file a Late Donation form to report late donations. The upshot is, of course, that information about late donations are hidden until after the voters go to the polls.

Whether the strategy is a deliberate attempt to hide the donations is, of course, usually open to interpretation. I say usually, because in doing some research into the campaign finances of our current Ann Arbor Board of Education members, I discovered a pattern of late donations made to Board of Education members by the Michigan Education Association Political Action Committee (MEA PAC). Like clockwork, just a few days (or weeks) after the pre-election campaign disclosure deadline, several of Ann Arbor’s current Board of Education members received $500 checks from the Michigan Education Association Political Action Committee. You might think the little ladies writing out those $500 checks for the MEA PAC just got their donation deadlines confused, but the late donations were made time and again. 

Is it a conflict of interest for a school board member to accept large donations from the MEA? Our BOE members negotiate teacher contracts with representatives of the Ann Arbor MEA local—the Ann Arbor Education Association (AAEA). Slurping up large donations from the same people with whom one negotiates hundred-million dollar compensation contracts on a regular basis could potentially impact a school board member’s objectivity. At best, accepting such donations could give the impression of bias. 

Thus, one might admire the political savvy of the MEA’s strategy of giving “hidden” donations to the school board members by giving money after reporting deadlines have passed. Then again, the MEA ain’t foolin’ around with these school board elections. In 2008, the MEA had an annual budget of $139,000,000. Each of the union’s 156,000 members pay $680 per year to belong to the union. Thus, higher pay for teachers translates, ultimately, more money for the MEA in the form of union dues from members. It also translates into more money for the union’s PAC to dole out during local school board elections. The MEA is deadly serious about seeing that union friendly school board members get elected. The group has a handy booklet called Electing Your Bosses. There is an interesting report about tracking teacher union PAC money in school board elections here.

So how does this all play out in Ann Arbor? Let’s start with someone not on the BOE. 

Karen Cross, who recently retired from the Ann Arbor Board of Education after 10 years of service, had just one campaign contribution in 2005. It was a late donation given on April 26, 2005, two days after the Pre-election Campaign Statement Filing deadline. It was a $500 donation from the MEA-PAC. 

Trustee Glenn Nelson first ran for the Board of Education in 2002. That year, he raised a modest $1080 for his campaign. Among his donors was the (Ann Arbor Education Association) AAEA ($250). In 2005, Nelson ran for re-election and raised $750 for his campaign. On April 24, 2005, after the Pre-election Campaign Statement Filing deadline, Nelson received a $500 donation from the MEA-PAC. Thus, the union paid for 75 percent of Nelson’s campaign expenses.

Trustee Deb Mexicotte first ran for the Board of Education in 2003. Among her list of donations was a $1,000 loan from herself. Her campaign ended $1,000 in the red, but she had won a seat on the Board. On June 4, 2003, the MEA PAC helped retire part of Mexicotte’s personal campaign debt with, yep, a $500 donation given, yep, well after the donation reporting deadline.

Trustee Helen Gates-Bryant ran for re-election in 2008 and raised $1,150 to fund her campaign. Of that total, $1,000 came from an MEA PAC donation. The union funded 87 percent of her campaign expenses. A2P Note: On November 19th, Gates-Bryant announced her resignation from the BOE.

Trustee Susan Baskett ran for election in 2003, and raised a total of $4,430. She accepted a $700 donation from the Laborers Local 959-Laborers International Union of North America. On June 5, 2003, the MEA PAC gave Baskett a $500 donation, again, well after the reporting deadline. 

In 2004, voters approved $205,465,000 in bonds for such projects as a new high school (Skyline).

In 2006, Trustee Baskett’s re-election campaign donations total $2,075. She accepted the following donations:

  • $200 from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 252 PAC
  • $250 from the Operating Engineers Local 324 PAC 
  • $150 from the Michigan Laborers Political League PAC

Between 2006-2007, Board of Education members awarded contracts for construction work on Skyline High School. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 252, Laborers Local 959-Laborers International Union of North America, and the Operating Engineers Local 324 all landed work on Skyline high school.

Over the past half a dozen years since the five BOE members above were elected (Trustee Patalan’s campaign finance forms reflect no donations from the AAEA or MEA during her 2005 campaign (see comment #1 below). Trustee Hollier spent less than $1,000 on his campaign and did not file any financial disclosure forms), the Ann Arbor Public Schools has struggled under a structural deficit. However, despite a continued multi-million dollar structural deficit, between 2003-2009, AAPS Board trustees negotiated teacher contracts with the AAEA (the MEA local), that included regular raises, as well as step increases. The 2009-2011 contract was the first one in which the Board members “froze” teacher salaries. However, the majority of the district’s 1,100 teachers were still eligible for step raises, that were not suspended.

In a piece posted to AnnArbor.com, Trustee Randy Friedman hoped the current divisions over the districts’s financial difficulties did not mean a return to contentious meetings and riding Superintendents out of town on a rail. 

No one wants contentious meetings, and certainly a school superintendent who’s performing well should be retained and rewarded. However, the Board members we have now may work well together, and have a wonderful relationship with Dr. Todd Roberts, but under their leadership our District has experienced ongoing financial hardship, struggled with an achievement gap that is as embarrassing as it is persistent, and shown little inclination to make budget cuts that involve tangling with the MEA over teacher compensation and benefits, and retiree pensions and benefits. 

If Ann Arbor teachers, administrators and other staff took a two percent pay cut, the structural deficit would be erased for the 2009-2011 budget cycle. That would buy district officials enough time to come up with a long-term plan to educate Ann Arbor’s 16,421 students on, say, $9,500 per student, as opposed to $11,000 per student. Such a move would, finally, put the district back in the black. 

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