Detroit Schools Official Uses New Law as Clout Against Unions

Monday, 18 Apr 2011 11:45 AM

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The Detroit schools emergency financial manager and Motor City's mayor are enlisting a new state law to take firmer stands with public unions, including layoff notices and benefit cuts, to staunch the flow of red ink. Late last week, Superintendent Robert Bobb sent layoff notices to the district's 5,466 salaried employees, including all teachers, in an initial move toward wide workforce cuts because of lower enrollments, according to The Wall Street Journal.

A few days before that, Mayor Dave Bing proposed a $3.1 billion annual budget to the city council calling for higher casino taxes and substantial cuts in city workers' healthcare and pensions as part of his efforts to plug an estimated $200 million budget gap.

Robert Bobb, Detroit schools, finances, unions
Robert Bobb, emergency financial manager for Detroit schools, could void union contracts.
Bobb, who already was in a crisis mode trying to ease the financial burdens on Detroit's struggling and shrinking public school system, is employing a measure signed into law March 17 that broadens state powers to intervene in the finances and governance of struggling municipalities and school districts. The law could allow him to void union contracts, sideline elected school board members, close schools, and authorize charter schools, the Journal reported.

Bobb, whom Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm appointed in 2009 and Republican Gov. Rick Snyder retained, pledged last week to use those powers to harness the district's $327 million shortfall and reverse its educational deficiencies. He indicated the possibility of unilateral changes to the teachers' collective-bargaining agreement.

As far as the city goes, the Democratic Mayor Bing doesn't have additional authority to break union contracts and circumvent the city council, but the new law does allow the governor to give him that leeway. That potential, as well as the threat of a state takeover, has emboldened Bing to make changes, the Journal reports.

Democrats and unions generally opposed the law, deriding it as it an infringement on collective-bargaining rights and a violation of the principle of local elected rule. Republicans contend that the law is the only way to keep the financially threatened city from collapse.

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