As MEA pursues fixes to problematic teacher evaluation reforms enacted in 2015, bargaining teams in some districts have had to contend with a legislative change from 2017 that seeks to add more weight to already high-stakes evaluation scores.
At the state level, MEA’s bargaining wing has developed prototype contract language to knock down the threat, and many local teams have fought it off where administration has tried to unleash it.
Still, the change represents a “slippery slope” that bargainers across the state need to prepare against facing at the negotiating table. And the language of the law represents another area that needs remedy at the Legislature.
At issue is a section added four years ago to the School Aid Act, which is the law passed each year to distribute state funding to schools. The section, 164h, requires school districts to adopt a mechanism tying “significant” teacher pay to performance, also known as merit pay.
The change in law is clearly in conflict with—and trumped by—Michigan’s Public Employment Relations Act (PERA), which governs collective bargaining, says MEA Bargaining Consultant Craig Culver. PERA explicitly prohibits performance-based pay as a bargaining subject, while educators’ wages is a mandatory subject of negotiation.
“Merit pay is a strictly prohibited subject of bargaining, so to say you can’t enter into a collective bargaining agreement without merit pay—when performance-based pay is prohibited—it really is nonsensical,” Culver said.
Section 164h attaches a 5% state funding penalty to districts that fail to comply, a significant fine that MEA believes is rendered unenforceable by the inherent conflict in the law, which was even acknowledged by Gov. Rick Snyder as he first signed the bill with the change.
Now some administrators have attempted to use the law to intimidate bargaining teams into adding contract language denying an annual step increase if an educator’s evaluation score does not meet a minimum.
MEA’s advice: Just say no. That’s what a bargaining team did in Coopersville—after first taking to the membership a supposed bottom-line administration proposal tying steps to evaluations. The idea was shot down in a near unanimous vote.
“That was in May of 2019, and we did not settle the contract until October of that year,” said chief negotiator Talisha Bailey, now serving in her sixth year in the role. “We decided we’d been taken advantage of for too long. From that moment on, I would call it a world war.”
As backdrop, Coopersville offered one of the lowest teacher salaries in Ottawa County at the time, said MEA UniServ Director Krista Abbott. Educators were leaving for better pay and working conditions in neighboring districts at a rate of 25% over the past several years, she said.
“The salary issue, coupled with the district’s position on tying steps to evaluation based on 164h, created a righteousness in the membership,” Abbott said.
Crisis activities began with getting the message out, coordinating members to wear matching colors and show up to sit or speak at school board meetings. Signs with the chosen theme, “A quality future starts now,” were placed all over the city, Bailey said.
“We could not keep up with people that wanted signs—we couldn’t order them quickly enough. It was phenomenal, the energy you get from that and knowing you’re doing the right thing.”
The Coopersville EA had help at every step of the way from the Multi-Association Bargaining Organization (MABO) in Ottawa County, which is a partnership of local unions in the region that share resources and support each other in crisis.
The Ottawa County MABO reviews member contracts before a tentative agreement can be ratified, and the organization has drawn a line in the sand when it comes to tying pay to evaluations, said Amy Cahalan, union president in Grand Haven and MABO chair.
Tying evaluation scores to high stakes—pay, layoffs, recalls—as the state has done calls the system’s reliability into question.
“When you have administrators using a tool to evaluate teachers professionally, and it’s tied to a significant amount of money, it’s a slippery slope to that becoming a cost control method,” Cahalan said. “People are the biggest cost that a school district has, and professional staff is probably 60% or more of the budget.”
Cahalan, a 34-year veteran middle school science teacher, also coordinates Grand Haven’s new teacher mentoring program. More than 20 years ago, she began training in professional growth models for educators that focused on mentoring and progression, she said.
“Part of the problem (with the evaluation system) is the subjectivity. The state is asking us to use these growth model evaluation tools, and then also requiring districts to make a decision about the efficacy of a teacher. It’s not what they were designed for, so the points make no sense and they’re not consistent across districts.”
Teachers’ pay should not be subject to the whims of an administrator’s point scoring, MEA’s Culver said. “You ought to be able to know, per your contract, what your ability will be to meet your financial needs from year to year.”
In Coopersville, nearly six months of holding out against tying steps to ratings paid off. The idea was dropped, and the association approved a three-year contract with a 2.5% increase and steps each year—one of the highest the county had seen in recent years, according to Abbott. In addition, the superintendent announced his retirement and the association helped to elect a new school board president.
“We never knew we had that much community support,” Bailey said.
A Solution for the Bargaining Table
MEA has developed prototype language for bargaining teams to counter administration proposals to tie salary to evaluation scores if it comes up at the negotiating table. The solution keeps mention of merit pay out of the contract except to say it is subject to school board policy, said MEA Bargaining Consultant Craig Culver.
Shifting merit pay considerations to board policy prevents scores and ratings from being tied to step advancement—that is controlled by the contract. “And in that case, what most boards have done is provide some sort of performance bonus at the end of the year for an effective rating,” Culver said. If this is an issue in your area, be sure to work with your MEA UniServ director to get the prototype language and other support.