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Mackinac Center's Legal Foundation taking 10 Kent County school districts to court

The Mackinac Center’s for Public Policy’s Legal Foundation is filing a lawsuitagainst 10 Kent County school districts and their teachers’ union.

The suit is to be filed Wednesday on behalf of five taxpayers living near Grand Rapids. It claims the school districts are breaking state law by approving a contract that agrees not to privatize any services during the one-year agreement.

Patrick Wright directs the foundation. He says they want to make sure privatization remains a viable option for school districts across the state.

“We think it’s beneficial that the school should focus on educating, and that they should do so as cheaply and efficiently as possible.”

Michael Shibler is Superintendent of Rockford Public Schools, just north of Grand Rapids. His is one district that agreed to the contract. “This labor agreement that is only for one year, is a landmark quite frankly in Kent County. And for the Mackinac Center to take a position contrary to supporting it, I find disappointing,” Shibler said.

Shibler and Kent County ISD Superintendent Kevin Karnaska called the contract a landmark because for the first time, the ISD helped hammer out a template contract that had teachers contributing to their health insurance – $65 per month, up from zero. They also agreed to freeze their wages and pay more for their health insurance deductibles. “I’m more interested in concessions and cost containment than I am in just literally wholesale privatization,” Shibler said.

“They should be applauding us rather than attacking us,” Shibler said. Karnaska says the agreement saved hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars spend on public schools. “Now, they’re forcing us to spend thousands of taxpayers’ dollars on attorney fees,” Karnaska said.

Wright says the Mackinac Center’s case is not against that part of the contract, only the portion prohibiting privatization for this year. “We’re happy they’re saving money,” Wright said, “but they can’t do it illegally.” Wright notes they’re asking a judge only to strike out that particular provision.

Defending school districts say they didn’t plan on privatizing services this year with or without the contract. Many already have privatized some services.

Bill Dungey is with the Michigan Education Association. He helped work on the deal for the Kent County Education Association. “I know we stand by our agreements,” Dungey said, “this lawsuit has no basis and we hope the courts dismiss it appropriately.”

The defendants have 21 days to respond to the case.

Lindsey Smith is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently leading the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.