SUNDAY EDITION | JCPS defends paying union president with school - WDRB 41 Louisville News

SUNDAY EDITION | JCPS defends paying union president with school funds

Posted: Updated: Aug 24, 2014 06:00 AM
Brent McKim Brent McKim
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Brent McKim is paid about $75,000 annually by Jefferson County Public Schools -- the going rate for a high school physics teacher with a master's degree and 23 years' experience.

Yet, it's been more than a decade since McKim has taught a class or had any duties at a particular school.

In 2001, he left DuPont Manual High School to serve as president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association, the union representing about 5,700 JCPS teachers and other rank-and-file employees.

It's a job that involves not only representing teachers in collective bargaining with the district but also advancing their interests by, for example, calling for the school board to raise property taxes to bring in more school funding or lobbying the Kentucky General Assembly not to allow charter schools, or to fully fund teacher pensions.

McKim's role is also deeply intertwined with politics, with only the thinnest of lines between the union's advocacy for policies and the work of its political action committee to elect candidates to the school board or the state legislature.

The Kentucky Attorney General's office has twice said it's legal for JCPS to pay the McKim with taxpayer money -- most recently in a letter dated June 13. Yet, one school board member says it's bad policy, while the district seems to defend it mainly as a price paid for other beneficial changes in its contract with the teachers union.

While school system has been raising taxes to balance its budget the last several years, the teachers union has been accumulating surpluses from the roughly $2 million in dues its members pay annually, according to a WDRB review of the union's public tax returns.

WDRB also found that -- while JCPS is hardly alone in subsidizing the work of its union president -- four of five similarly sized districts around the country do not afford their associations that perk.

The arrangement began in 2003 and was continued through 2018 as part of a new, five-year contract with the teachers union the JCPS board approved last summer.

Debbie Wesslund, the only school board member who voted against the contract, said at the time that JCPS should not be “subsidiz(ing) the salary of the union president directly from taxpayer money.”

While regular JCPS employees are prohibited from participating in political activities on duty, Wesslund noted that “a significant part of the union leadership's role has been to participate in campaigns for school board and other offices” – in effect, influencing the composition of the board that sets the policies, working conditions and pay of the union's members.

 “JCTA's members should pay for those who work exclusively for them,” Wesslund said during the July 17, 2013 meeting.

Jim Waters, president of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, a conservative Kentucky group pushing charter schools and other education policies opposed by the district and the union, said it's “unconscionable” for taxpayers to support McKim's advocacy of an agenda with which they may not agree.

“What we have here are taxpayers paying the union boss who is then turning around and advocating for policies that are not in the best interest of the families who are forced to pay the majority of his salary,” Waters said.

For his part, McKim called himself a “valuable part of the district's infrastructure” in its relations with employees, in improving teaching quality and in “advocating for legislation that is favorable to the students.”

For example, he provides a safe “channel” for teachers to give administrators honest feedback about how programs are really working out in the classroom.“Having that voice in the room helps us to craft better policies,” he said.

He added that he uses his JCPS time only for school issues or legislative advocacy in Frankfort -- where the union shares the district's agenda. Any work to elect or defeat specific candidates for school board or the legislature is not done on JCPS' dime, he said.

2003 deal led to policy

McKim's salary represents a tiny fraction of JCPS' $1.3 billion annual budget. Yet, the school board has steadily raised Jefferson County property tax rates over the last decade, and the board will consider what could be the seventh-straight annual increase at its meeting Monday night.

Meanwhile, publicly available tax returns filed by the JCTA show the union doesn't come close to spending all of the about $2 million in member dues it receives annually.

The latest available tax form shows JCTA took in $516,471 more than it spent in the year ended Aug. 31, 2013 – a surplus of 25 percent. In 2012, JCTA's surplus was $536,782; in 2011, $291,891; in 2010, $440,019.

McKim said the surpluses are going toward building up the union's reserves. In the year ended Aug. 31, 2013, JCTA's net assets increased from $1.7 million to $2.2 million.

Similar to an administrator, McKim works on a year-round contract with JCPS and gets paid a total of $105,520.

The district pays the portion that McKim would earn as a teacher working on a 187-day  calendar (about $75,000), while JCTA reimburses the district for the additional $30,000 in salary plus the cost of benefits during McKim's additional 73 days of work.

Before the 2003 deal with then-Superintendent Stephen Daeschner, JCTA reimbursed the district for the full cost of union president's salary, McKim said.

McKim stressed that the district support for his salary was only one of 11 negotiated changes in 2003 that were expected to result in a cumulative savings for the district of $500,000 to $1 million annually.

Policies vary across U.S.

JCPS appears to be the only school district in Kentucky that pays a teacher to work for a union fulltime, but it's also by far the biggest district in the state, and JCTA is the state's strongest bargaining unit.

In fact, only nine districts in the state have collective bargaining, according to a 2010 report from the Legislative Research Commission.

In big school districts in which running the union is a full-time job, teachers are typically granted leave so they can serve in the role without being penalized in salary or accumulating retirement benefits, said Julia Koppich, a San Francisco-based consultant who works in school-labor relations.

Sometimes the union pays the official directly or reimburses the district for the official's compensation, but it's not unusual for a district to pick up all or part of the tab, she said.

“There is precedent for this; I can't say it happens everywhere, but it is absolutely not uncommon,” Koppich said.

McKim provided a handful of examples of districts that subsidize at least part of their union president's pay, such as in Evansville, Indiana.

But nationally, four of the five districts with the most approximate enrollment to JCPS –  and that have collective bargaining -- do not subsidize the union president's salary, according to WDRB's review of those districts' contracts.

In Pinellas County, Florida  Albuquerque, New Mexico  Jefferson County, Colorado and Baltimore County, Maryland, the teachers union reimburses the school district for the union president's pay.

(Pinellas and Baltimore County were among the districts that state Auditor Adam Edelen used as benchmarks for JCPS in his audit of the district earlier this year – along with three other districts in states where teachers are not allowed to collectively bargain.)

But in Polk County, Florida, the district pays the union president $34,155 annually – the same salary she earned as a licensed practical nurse before assuming the union role – with no reimbursement from the union, according to Polk County district spokesman Jason Geary.

Koppich, the education consultant, said school districts often find a union leader's position worth funding because the union can save administrators time and money by acting as a go-between with teachers.

“Let's say one month, the district screws up teacher pay checks… Teachers who are upset about not getting paid correctly, or getting paid at all, (would) go to the union, and the union resolves the problem with the district, so the district doesn't have thousands of teachers beating down its doors,” Koppich said.

JCPS school board member Linda Duncan echoed Koppich's view, saying that paying McKim's salary affords the district “a great deal of cooperation and access” from the union, and McKim's presence on many district committees is helpful.

“It's productive to have his input on those issues that we look at (because) the teachers are the ones that have to make it happen,” she said.

Ben Jackey, the district's spokesman, said JCPS agreed to continue the provision to “serve a greater good” of winning several changes in the 2013 contract that will benefit students, like a less restrictive teacher transfer policy.

Asked whether paying McKim directly benefits students, Jackey said: “I don't think you can look at it in isolation, I think you have to look at the overall picture, and the overall picture is that, this is one of the things they saw as important in their bargaining, in their negotiations, and we had these other things that were important.”

In an interview Thursday, Wesslund reiterated her opposition to the JCPS paying McKim, though she said the issue is settled.

School board member David Jones, Jr. declined to be interviewed, saying only that the provision was part of the contract, and “I voted in favor of the contract.” (In fact, Jones was absent when the board approved the contract July 17, 2013).

School board member Carol Haddad said the continued subsidy for McKim's salary was the product of “good faith” negotiations, but she did not defend it on its own merits.

“We got some good things this past year for kids, and it's about the kids and not the adults. And nobody keeps remembering that. They just want to keep looking at all the bad things we did, and in that negotiation…we did a lot of good stuff,” she said.

The other members of the board – chairwoman Diane Porter, Chris Brady and Chuck Haddaway – did not return calls from WDRB.

Collaborative, but adversarial

While McKim “frequently collaborates” with JCPS, he is “at times an adversary of the (school board) regarding the discipline of JCTA members and in collective bargaining negotiations,” JCPS General Counsel Rosemary Miller wrote in a letter to Attorney General Jack Conway's office last summer.

McKim has highlighted that adversarial role over the years in newsletters to JCTA members, which are available on JCTA's website.

In one dated Oct. 20, 2010, he said JCTA “took on” and “out-maneuvered” then Superintendent Sheldon Berman by “putting together a solid block of school board members” to support a three-year extension of the expiring collective bargaining agreement, instead of the one-year extension Berman wanted.

In response to Wesslund's concerns, JCPS asked the attorney general last summer about the legality of the district paying McKim to serve as the union president; whether the school district should be accounting for his time and giving him annual evaluations like other employees; and whether McKim is allowed to “engage in political activities while on duty.”

In a letter dated June 13, Conway's office said McKim's salary is a permissible use of school funds because “JCTA serves teachers and students, and by serving them, enhances the quality of the public school system.”

JCPS policy says employees “shall not promote, organize or engage in political activities during school/office hours.”

But McKim may engage in political activities on duty, Conway's office said, “as long as those duties are fairly within the scope of serving as JCTA president.”

The letter noted Kentucky law still prohibits McKim, like other school employees, from “tak(ing) part in the management or activities of any political campaign for school board.”

McKim said he accounts for his time so that any days working on political action – that is, work in support or opposition to candidate(s) -- are the ones paid by the teachers association or on his personal time.

His days working for the school system are limited to school activities or legislative advocacy in Frankfort on behalf of the district and the union's joint priorities, he said.

He also said he's merely a “liaison” to Better Schools Kentucky -- the political action committee funded by voluntary contributions from JCTA members and not by union dues.

The 2010 Legislative Research Commission report noted that Better Schools Kentucky provides “substantial resources” by contributing “hundreds of thousands of dollars per election cycle in independent expenditures on behalf of their endorsed school board candidates.”

McKim acknowledges meeting with candidates for school board and providing information about candidates to Better Schools Kentucky, but he said he has “no role” in deciding which candidates the PAC supports.

Yet, in another October 2010 newsletter, JCTA executive director DeeAnn Flaherty wrote that “there has been a long history of the (union) President and Executive Director seeking out candidates for office, especially School Board.”

Asked about that, McKim said he would “not have worded it that way” but that Flaherty was “very new in the position” at the time. (She was hired in June 2009, about a year and four months before the newsletter was dated, according to the JCTA website).

“I wouldn't say we recruit candidates. If we hear that someone is thinking about running, we will try to engage with them and talk to them and get a sense of what they are about…It's not like we have a recruitment board and go looking for them,” McKim said.

McKim also acknowledged how the distinction between JCTA and its political action committee can often be lost on candidates.

For example, a July 2 press release from Conway's 2015 campaign for governor touts the endorsement of the JCTA.

The press release quotes McKim in his role as JCTA president saying, "We are proud to endorse Jack Conway for Governor."

In the interview, McKim said the endorsement is actually from Better Schools Kentucky, not JCTA. “Candidates often use the terms interchangeably. We can inform them of the difference,” he said.

McKim denied any connection between the June 13 letter from Conway's office regarding his pay and the JCTA PAC's endorsement of Conway's campaign about two weeks later.

“I seriously doubt that the Better Schools Kentucky committee that made that decision even had any knowledge” that Conway's office was examining the legality of McKim's compensation, he said.

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