David Adamany: "The administration of the Detroit Public Schools over the years had sometimes attempted to negotiate the right approaches in collective bargaining, only to be told at the last minute by board members who had ties to organized labor to back off of those positions and settle contracts more favorable to the unions."
School board members take an oath that requires them to faithfully carry out the obligations of their offices to the best of their ability. However, the collective bargaining process frequently puts them at odds with their statutory and ethical responsibilities. Ronald Booth sums up the slings and arrows that board members face when combining labor relations, human relations and politics:
"[I]f unions do not get what they want at the bargaining table, board members and superintendents can find themselves in jeopardy. If the politics of impasse or strike doesn’t get the superintendent fired, then sometimes it’s the loss of school spirit that often follows the strike or the teachers’ refusal to maintain acceptable relationships with students and parents. Even without the rigors of bargaining, superintendents can seal their own doom through neglect of faculty attitudes. … Today’s teachers not only talk about their problems out of school, they organize campaigns to unseat board members and to remove the superintendent.
"That leaves school boards and superintendents on the horns of this dilemma: How do they protect the public from the unions without making themselves the sacrificial lambs? Some boards have said, let’s forget the public and give the unions what they want. Other boards have stood fast against the union’s demands and been ousted at the next election, soon followed to the sidelines by their superintendents. Clearly, what is called ‘collective bargaining’ in the private sector is not necessarily the same thing in the public sector."
Unions routinely recruit pro-union candidates to run for public office. The unions then use their considerable resources to get these candidates — who often do not reveal their union support while campaigning — elected to school boards. Once elected, these board members give the union clout on both sides of the bargaining table. Tracey Bailey, a former AFT member and 1993 National Teacher of the Year, is a frequent critic of the unions and their political nature, calling them "special interests protecting the status quo" and pillars of "a system that too often rewards mediocrity and incompetence."
Donald Wheaton: "You cannot please everybody, and you have to be able to make tough choices and stand by them. Did I like the fact that I went through a recall campaign? No. I hated it and absolutely resented it. All I did was try to be fiscally prudent and give the best opportunities that I could to the students in my district. But if you are going to make controversial financial decisions like privatizing, impasse and other sensitive cuts, then you will have strenuous opposition, and you may just face a recall. You’ve got to have the courage of your convictions. You must stand up for what you believe is right, take it forward and suffer the consequences."
Lynn Parrish: "School board [members] are mostly wonderful people who are there because they care about education for kids. And, unfortunately, the way it’s organized in this state, they are stuck in this role of having to be the ones to go to war with their unions. And that’s very tough for them."
The influence of unions over some elected board members is real. It is not uncommon for turnout of registered voters in off-year school board races to be quite low. For example, in the May 3, 2005, regular election in the Midland Public Schools, only 4,206 votes out of a possible 37,443 were cast in the school board race. Since the Midland Public School District has at least 1,057 employee positions, the electoral impact of school personnel alone could have been substantial. Assuming at least two voting-age members in each employee’s household, school personnel households could have accounted for 50 percent of the vote.[xiii] In such an instance, half of the voters in the election might have had a vested interest in electing a pro-union school board. Throw in the fear of a recall election, and it is easy to understand the political pressures that plague many school boards in Michigan.
[xiii] The figure of 1,057 probably understates the total. Midland County has 1,057 "full-time equivalent positions," meaning there are probably even more employees (see http://www.michigan.gov/documents/cepi/dstaff06_172389_7.dbf). Nearly all of these employees would be part of a union bargaining unit. In the election cited, voter turnout overall was 4,587, but only 4,206 actually cast a vote in the school board race (see www.co.midland.mi.us/election/05school/cumul.htm).