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Posted on Sun, Dec 18, 2011 : 5:53 a.m.

Union jobs or cheapest labor? Ann Arbor school board debates the merits

By Danielle Arndt

Ann Arbor Public Schools has chosen a Flint-based company to do heating, ventilating and air-conditioning work, but the decision has sparked debate about the role schools should play in supporting local businesses and union jobs.

The Board of Education voted 5-2 last week to enter into a five-year agreement with D.M. Burr for 2,000 hours of HVAC service work, or the equivalent of one full-time employee.

The $93,025 contract with D.M. Burr is expected to save the district about $67,000 a year, and will be renewed annually.

The decision to hire D.M. Burr was opposed by local labor representatives, who urged the school board to do business with local, prevailing wage companies.

Jim Burns, a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Union, said approximately 10,000 people with skills in the building trades live in Ann Arbor.

“We live and pay taxes here to the school system … We don’t want our hard-earned taxpayer dollars to go toward using a business out of Flint,” he said.


Glenn Nelson

But school board member Glenn Nelson argued in favor of going with the lowest bidder. He said the money that is saved can be used toward hiring a teacher or ensuring budget cuts stay further away from the classrooms.

“That is why we do the lowest qualified bidder,” Nelson said. “The remaining almost $67,000 for a year is about what one teacher costs the district. ... A vote for D.M. Burr is a vote for both lower class sizes and HVAC.”

The issue first came to the board in late November, when Randy Trent, executive director of physical properties for Ann Arbor schools, recommended switching contractors for journeyman services in 2012.

Trent solicited bids for the work and received 10 offers, ranging from D.M. Burr’s $93,025 to a high bid of $251,940. Six of the bidders were in the $160,000 to $180,000 range.

AAPS previously contracted with Johnson Controls Inc. for journeyman services. Johnson Controls has an office in Ann Arbor and is a member of the Local 636 labor union. Its bid came in at $159,751.

At its Nov. 30 meeting, after hearing from several local union workers, the board expressed concerns about D.M. Burr’s qualifications and about not contracting with a local, prevailing wage business.

Trent returned to the board last week with more information about D.M. Burr’s credentials and recommended selecting the lowest bidder.

Members of the local unions attended the meeting as well, to encourage the board to do business with local companies not just for the HVAC contract, but also in the future.

Ken Wadland, of Ann Arbor, said he has voted in support of every school millage and bond and does so because he “values Ann Arbor and values the community and part of that is the education system.”

“It’s about the total value,” Wadland said. “That’s what I look at when paying these taxes for the school system, and I think that’s what the board needs to look at.”


Brit Satchwell

Brit Satchwell, president of the Ann Arbor Education Association, said the district could end up paying more if it has to spend additional money to repair poor work.

“I understand how seductive the lure of low prices is, but the lure of low prices could bring us further down that spiral,” he said.

He added the school system is important for more reasons than just its students.

“We are the beacon that brings people to Ann Arbor and we are the thing people point back over their shoulders to when they leave,” he said.

Trustee Simone Lightfoot, who voted against hiring D.M. Burr because she did not think it was qualified to do the work, said she would like to see the board discuss a possible policy pertaining to hiring local.

Trustee Christine Stead, who voted in favor of the D.M. Burr contract, said she would agree to exploring some type of procedure or “methodology” for awarding contracts. She said while AAPS is in the business of education — not the business of economic development — it needs a way to value its contributors to the local economy.

Stead and Nelson were joined by board President Deb Mexicotte, Trustee Andy Thomas and Trustee Irene Patalan in approving the D.M. Burr contract.

Patalan said it is her duty as a board member to keep the district’s dollars as close to the classroom as she can.

Trustee Susan Baskett, who opposed the D.M. Burr contract, said she wishes she could guarantee the money saved would be used for a teacher or for the classroom.

“But I don’t think we want to be making even a hint of a promise of that under the current circumstances,” she said.

The board plans to revisit this topic at an upcoming Committee of the Whole meeting.

Staff reporter Danielle Arndt covers K-12 education for Follow her on Twitter @DanielleArndt or email her at


Michael Christie

Mon, Dec 19, 2011 : 11:17 p.m.

Per usual the title is misleading. Union Jobs or Cheapest Labor is alluding that the cheap labor has quality problems. I'm all for cheapest labor as a free market will dictate. I'm glad to see the flexibility of being able to review the agreement on a yearly basis, unlike a typicaly 3 year deal with a union. I am however that this same group has paid more to hire people for board positions, so they want us to believe that in a depressed economy there wasn't someone to put on the board for less than the people leaving?


Mon, Dec 19, 2011 : 2:36 p.m.

Lets talk about Unions- Local 1182 services the AAPS. We took between paying more for benefits and our pay cut around a 17%-20% cut so it's not that Unions aren't willing to help- we did. Now sad to say a new hire for custodial starts at 9.06 and tops out at 10.29. I would challenge any one of you to tell me how can they pay rent, food, car insurance and so on at this rate of pay. Most are working two or three jobs just a make it. It saddens me to see so many people so critical of Unions, when we don't look at how Management is failing!


Thu, Dec 22, 2011 : 5:18 a.m.

Do they get health care? retirement? sign me up.....I'm sadder than you are. Unions are the "haves" in my opinion. It saddens me that you don't see what they've done to destroy the ability to do business competitively. I almost wish someone would give unions everything they wanted so the whole economy would crash and we could start over without them.


Mon, Dec 19, 2011 : 3:21 a.m.

Ask yourself; what was the lowest bid for superintendent? Could we outsource this position to someone in the third world, and then kick them out of the country when we need change? Do we really need a superintendent with a high school education? Couldn't we get the poor kids to do the work of building tradesmen and custodians, while the rich kids take tests for collage? Please don't ask for my "vote yes for schools" when your performance is simply boorish and obtuse.


Mon, Dec 19, 2011 : 12:44 a.m.

Satchwell is fear mongering and insinuating that anything other than "union labor" is inferior. I say otherwise. I say union labor that circumvents "low bid/sealed bids" promotes corruption and sanctions and hides shoddy and inferior work under "union privacy". When Detroit auto workers were caught on camera smoking dope and drinking on their lunch hour, the only comment union leaders made was that the press was out of line making it "public" and not going to the union they could hush it up, I imagine. Transparency and union activity are not compatible.


Sun, Dec 18, 2011 : 7:09 p.m.

It used to be that I knew all the contractors locally when I bid against them. Now, guys are coming from west of Jackson, Ohio, the east side of Detroit, because there is still work here in AA. Anything I can do about that? No, just make sure by bids are as tight as possible. That's life in today's market. Be competitive or die. The people who work for Burr have families too. It may be that they intentionally low bid in order to keep the doors open until better times. Who knows. As long as the job gets done, and done properly, who cares who gets the bid?


Sun, Dec 18, 2011 : 5:56 p.m.

There are Ann Arbor prices and prices everywhere else in Michigan. It costs more to run a business in Ann Arbor and we pay for that. An Ann Arbor business simply cannot compete with a business in Flint. This is no different than comparing the cost of manufacturing in China to the cost of manufacturing in America. Make your choice. You already know the result.


Sun, Dec 18, 2011 : 5:29 p.m.

It is interesting that the dollar difference is just about the same as the amount the school board jacked up the superintendent's pay. Net savings = zero! The really pernicious aspect of this, however, is this idea that you can squeeze the little guy for savings, while executive pay hikes are always justified by market forces. Nonsense! This is the school board's participation in the class warfare raging in America right now. This superintendent, her two well-paid cronies, and the board that rubber stamps her outrageous policies, are fools if they think the public will vote for their upcoming tech millage. I wish Tod Roberts were here...


Sun, Dec 18, 2011 : 4:36 p.m.

Trustee Nelson approved the contract saying that the money can be funneled back into the classroom, but then votes in favor of double-digit pay raises for administrators, using the contract savings as a rationale for the raise. Where does that leave our students, Mr. Nelson? In need of better BOE representation, by my estimation.


Sun, Dec 18, 2011 : 4:19 p.m.

I'd say more in this comment, but it's not in my contract.


Sun, Dec 18, 2011 : 3:34 p.m.

"Brit Satchwell, president of the Ann Arbor Education Association, said the district could end up paying more if it has to spend additional money to repair poor work." Puppet master talk Brit, we know what you are going to say before you even open your mouth ! If the low cost bidder does a poor job, you fire them and move on. Too bad we cannot do that with "poor work" teachers ! Good Day


Mon, Dec 19, 2011 : 12:50 a.m.

Billy what cost and over what time frame? New laws reduce the cost and time frame but it is still a long drawn out process over "years". How much damage can an inept teacher do in that time frame? Lots. So while you are technically are wrong in supporting damaging delayed action as "adequate" protection from incompetency. I consider your argument intellectually demeaning to those in the know and purposely deceiving.

Billy Bob Schwartz

Sun, Dec 18, 2011 : 8:47 p.m.

Actually, if a teacher on tenure is not performing at standard, then they CAN be removed. I think this attitude of pretending that tenure is a life-time guarantee regardless of the quality of the work is, well, a sign of ignorance, and it is very widespread, especially among the conservatives who prefer to keep it that way. If a tenured teacher is not doing the job, the principal needs to evaluate the work, then tell the teacher what is not up to expectations, then suggest what can be done to improve it. Then they need to evaluate the teacher again. If they can show that the teacher is not doing satisfactory work, then they can get them fired. The position of public school teacher is one in which the teacher is under constant political-type pressure, and without a strong tenure law, the best teachers are often let go because they stand up for higher expectations, etc. You differ with the principal, then you go. Before people go off on the tenured teacher, in my opinion they need to find out why the law exists, and then look at the fact that the real reason that an incompetent teacher doesn't get fired is that the administrators don't want to do that job.


Sun, Dec 18, 2011 : 3:19 p.m.

"But school board member Glenn Nelson argued in favor of going with the lowest bidder. He said the money that is saved can be used toward hiring a teacher or ensuring budget cuts stay further away from the classrooms." Or to give administrators big pay raises.


Sun, Dec 18, 2011 : 3:01 p.m.

Burr is going to do the same job for ~ 40 percent less money than the current contractor? Either they are low-balling the real cost to get the contract or Johnson Controls has been feeding at the gravy trough for a while. Either way this should be investigated by the BoE.


Sun, Dec 18, 2011 : 3:23 p.m.

Huron74 - I suspect that a combination of union work rules and benefits are the major difference between Burr and Johnson Controls.

Alan Goldsmith

Sun, Dec 18, 2011 : 2:48 p.m.

"But school board member Glenn Nelson argued in favor of going with the lowest bidder. He said the money that is saved can be used toward hiring a teacher or ensuring budget cuts stay further away from the classrooms." Don't insult us Mr. Nelson. When it goes to increasing salaries for administrators, the AA School Board does it in the middle of the night hidden from public common, which is how cowards deal with such issues. Spare me the violin music in the background about saving money to put back into the classroom. You and everyone who voted for this are hypocrites and ultimately are going to damage the school system when tax increase votes come up down the line.

J. A. Pieper

Sun, Dec 18, 2011 : 2:28 p.m.

Under the current contract with Johnson Controls, the building I work in has many of the units with non-functioning belts, so there was NO air flow in the fall months, and some of our classrooms are at fifty degrees in the morning these days, and might warm up five degrees during the day.What happens is the district doesn't pay for a service that will chek heating units on a three month rotation to prevent problems, jus react when there are problems. Of course, the district controls the building temps remotely, and they are dialing down to save money. It seems to be okay for teachers and students to occasionally have to wear jackets and gloves for the district to save money. Wonder what the temperature is for Dr. Green's office and her building? Plus, our staff has heard from other staff friends that the heat hasn't been as cold at their buildings, (more favored by the district?) Oh, and now we are being told on a regular basis how many personal heaters staff are using in the buildings, and how much it is causing the district in power usage (along with other things like fans, microwaves, etc.). When we talk about the lowest bid, is that what they accepted for building Skyline? Has the public seen what they have there? I love the CORK floors, and yet when they re-carpeted my building, they used the cheapest bid, and the carpet is already pulling away at the seams. They repainted over the old paint, but you can scratch it off with your finger nail, or by having a backpack rub against it. Let's go real simple, the toilet paper dispensers at the Balas building are very nice, smooth pull on the paper, did any other building get this? Cheapest bid for all of us on the front lines working with students every day, but not for higher ups!


Sun, Dec 18, 2011 : 2:11 p.m.

Johnson Controls has been doing the work for quite some time, is located in Ann Arbor, and apparently have been doing a good job. If it is not broken, why is the board trying to fix it. First, monies from AA should stay in AA. Second, going cheaper can in many cases result in costing more. I doubt very much that the money saved with going cheaper will get to a teacher--in light of the fact that two top administrators just received huge salary increases. The board is out of touch with reality. Continually, those of us at the lower end get cut both in hours and salary while those at the top reap the benefits. And, we are the ones working with the children while you all sit in your offices.

J. A. Pieper

Sun, Dec 18, 2011 : 2:36 p.m.

Carole, if you are in the buildings on a regular basis, even you would question "apparently doing a good job".


Sun, Dec 18, 2011 : 2:04 p.m.

Job 1 of the school district is the best possible education of children. Supporting union jobs is not even in the top 5 priorities. Brit - Just because you consider unions to be the only place that quality workers exist, does not mean it is true. In general the companies I work with range from heavily unionized to very non-union. The quality of the work varies little from one end to the other. If I had to pick, I would probably pick on the end of non-union, since if an employee is not pulling their weight anymore, the management can let them go, so people tend to work harder. The difference in HVAC contract prices about covers the raises for the administration. So, no money left over for an additional teacher here. More cuts coming, news at 11.


Sun, Dec 18, 2011 : 3:26 p.m.

I agree. WISD does not like unions and with the bus drivers ready to vote on a contract I can see them totally displaced by years end next year. Going to be no union except Balais.


Sun, Dec 18, 2011 : 3:21 p.m.

J.A. Pieper - I understand. We had rooms that the windows fell out of the walls when the wind blew in the right direction. I expect that Burr will do a good job, but I also expect that people will have to leave the thermostats alone for the system to really work. The system at Skyline has been disabled more than operating. It can't be a whole lot worse than the current situation. If AAPS had spent the $8 million they spent on a Varsity Weight Room and Grandstand on building controls your situation would probably be much better. But no, the needs of the Varsity sports teams come before the needs of teachers and students in the classrooms.

J. A. Pieper

Sun, Dec 18, 2011 : 2:34 p.m.

Don Bee, it is challenging to educate a classroom full of children when we are wearing our jackets and gloves, and not just for recess!


Sun, Dec 18, 2011 : 1:38 p.m.

I hope this company came in and looked at what they are walking into. The schools heating issues are a mess, my child's school is either way to hot, or way cold. Johnson control is local and can be in the buildings quickly if there is an issue. I think the board meant well, but you might get what you pay for here and maybe some "extras" that they don't tell you about when they bid the jobs. If you were worried about saving money, Dr, Green wouldn't have gotten her huge pay hike, nor would any of the other administrators that just received them in the late night hours of last board meeting.


Sun, Dec 18, 2011 : 1:32 p.m.

Boy, it would be nice to not see Sue Basket publicly undermine the board's vote every time they vote...she should just vote and stop torpedoing the decision made with comments that just inflame others. Her vote stands as her opinion.


Sun, Dec 18, 2011 : 9:19 p.m.

I said she shouldn't inflame people.Like this quote "Trustee Susan Baskett, who opposed the D.M. Burr contract, said she wishes she could guarantee the money saved would be used for a teacher or for the classroom. "But I don't think we want to be making even a hint of a promise of that under the current circumstances," she said." Really? what is she really saying...what current circumstance, specifically is she talking about?and she wishes it could guaranteed to a be given to teacher or a classroom? Huh? Sure, she can make statements, but what is she really trying to say? She went public with this statement, what does she mean. It's very unclear from the actual words she is using.


Sun, Dec 18, 2011 : 9:10 p.m.

How much money does Susan Basket receive from the unions for her re-election campaign. I wish she'd engage in full-disclosure before voting against a cost-savings measure. Just say, "I'm voting against this recommendation because I'm beholden to the unions." Truth in advertising.

Billy Bob Schwartz

Sun, Dec 18, 2011 : 8:32 p.m.

Cette.... I don't think we elect officials to just vote and keep their mouths shut. Every elected official (and the rest of us, too) gets to speak his or her mind before and after a decision is made. If this contract is to be reevaluated annually, she has a duty to push her thinking on the decision. In other words, she, along with the others quoted here, is entitled to express her opinions. No one has the obligation to shut up and vote.


Sun, Dec 18, 2011 : 7:49 p.m.

So, follow where that takes you. Sue Basket is pro union, so she wants to hire union over non union because that will support the teacher's union more. Except, it doesn't. It will take more money away from the teachers, albeit $65K may not sound like a make or break it number, for her it's the principle of the thing, except, the principle doesn't work to support teacher's (or more importantly, kids)when extrapolated out in practice. It's just a reactive vote. She has to look at the big picture more.

J. A. Pieper

Sun, Dec 18, 2011 : 2:32 p.m.

Cette, just to let you know, she is speaking out for some of us! We do need someone on the board who will question and not just rubber stamp what the district wants, especially when it comes to spending my tax dollars!

Stephen Landes

Sun, Dec 18, 2011 : 1:14 p.m.

If local companies want the business they will have to demonstrate value for the dollar. This does not mean they necessarily have to be the lowest bid, but they have to provide the best VALUE to the District. Maybe they can demonstrate that they a) won't need to be called because they can monitor the system remotely, b) will have a person permanently assigned to the district to continuously check on buildings, c) have better trained personnel (at their expense) more attuned to the systems in AAPS buildings. Whatever the advantages they can cite they will have to demonstrate to the District that the additional cost of their services will result in lower overall operating cost. In some cases they will simply have to compete on price -- reducing their wage/fringe requirements to meet the market. In my opinion unions are so intent on protecting their turf and their members' wages and benefits that they are pricing themselves out of the market AND refusing to use their organizational skills, training, and management to offer customers MORE VALUE for the dollar than an independent or non-union shop. The Board deserves credit for hiring the lowest cost QUALIFIED contractor no matter where in the school budget the savings go.

Billy Bob Schwartz

Sun, Dec 18, 2011 : 8:27 p.m.

jns....You said, "Guess it is union paying the mechanics their salary." Are you saying that the union pays the workers? I don't think so. Management pays their workers. Or did you just misspeak?


Sun, Dec 18, 2011 : 6:21 p.m.

Stephen--refusing to use their organizational skills, training, and management to offer customers MORE VALUE for the dollar than an independent or non-union shop. I'm not anti-union but what I find is that their ( union labor) experience is not exploited because of poor time management (and job support) from the worker's superiors.


Sun, Dec 18, 2011 : 3:24 p.m.

I hate to say it but union work is higher paid when it comes to automotive repairs. I had a price quote from one dealership> Then went down the street to a local place. Half the price. Guess it is union paying the mechanics their salary. Otherwise, unions do have their place and it is protecting jobs.


Sun, Dec 18, 2011 : 2:10 p.m.

local - I never throw out a bid on a project until I know what the underlying assumptions were and what they expect to do for the money. Sometimes I give bidders an equal chance to sharpen the pencil and bring back better bids. I have gotten wonderful work from the low priced bidder on a number of jobs. In most cases it was because the low bidder focused on what I wanted as their primary business.


Sun, Dec 18, 2011 : 1:42 p.m.

Or maybe the job at hand will actually cost what they are asking for. Johnson Control was right in the middle of the other bids, they weren't the lowest, but they weren't the highest. If I was bidding on a home renovation, I would throw out highest and lowest bid, and would find someone in the middle, and that is where Johnson Control fell. The lowest bid, specially one that was considerable lower, may backfire in the end.


Sun, Dec 18, 2011 : 1:05 p.m.

All options should be open. The decisions need to based upon fiscal and quality factors. If the local union laborers are too expensive then they need to find a more efficient way of doing business. This is taxpayer money, the officials have a responsiblity to get the most value for the taxpayers.


Sun, Dec 18, 2011 : 12:57 p.m.

We'll just have to see if that a good idea. I don't like the idea of hiring someone just because they are local, it should be because they do a good job for a good price. It was the right decision.


Sun, Dec 18, 2011 : 12:46 p.m.

Time will tell-- Who knows if Burr will be any good or if they run into a problem they will tell the the school board " sorry but we need more money". I'v seen that response on more than one occasion with low bidders. Get your foot in the door and then get more money.


Sun, Dec 18, 2011 : 5:45 p.m.

kathryn -- and if you send new people all the time they will be very slow at diagnosing problems. The whole thing is a gamble at best.


Sun, Dec 18, 2011 : 3:23 p.m.

And the buildings are very tricky to manage, so I predict that they will go way over the "2000" hours.

Dr. I. Emsayin

Sun, Dec 18, 2011 : 12:46 p.m.

If any of the readers have ever listened to their children complain about how their classroom is too cold or too hot, they can thank Johnson Controls for that, as the heating and cooling in many of the schools seems to be far from ideal (unless the schools themselves were poorly constructed in terms of heating and cooling from the start). School secretaries say Johnson Controls is called regularly, at all times of the day, and that the issues are never resolved. So, can a Flint based company have its employees driving from Flint to every building in the district that has serious heating and cooling issues, or will the schools close for the day because it is too cold? How much money will taxpayers pay for the gasoline used to drive to Ann Arbor for each service call? Who will do the work while the students wait to get some relief from the severe cold or heat in their classrooms? I would like to hear here from other parents whose students complain of poor heating/cooling at their school.


Sun, Dec 18, 2011 : 2:07 p.m.

Dr. Emsayin - I suspect that at least early in the contract, they will have someone drive down in the morning and stay in the area all day. Burr is big, they have a number of contracts in the Ann Arbor area, so I would not be surprised if they actually have 3 or 4 people who live in the school district.


Sun, Dec 18, 2011 : 11:58 a.m.

Over the long run privatization rarely results in the savings promised. Instead it takes money out of the pockets of the people who actually do the work and puts it in the hands of profiteers and overpaid administrators. Indeed, our entire society is over administrated now with too many people deciding what should be done and how it should be done without knowing anything about the actual work to be performed. Instead of tangible results we have a bunch of self important graduates of schools of business and public administration who think they are valuable because they have hoodwinked the public into overpaying them. Their undeserved and often ill gotten salaries convince them that they know something. In fact they are just writing more memos, designing more forms, and attending more pointless meetings with other drones, the outcomes of which are to schedule yet another reunion.. Meanwhile the system is hobbled by endless paperwork even as the gini coefficient continues to rise. Keep the union workers and can a few administrators. More work would get done and the system would be more efficient.


Sun, Dec 18, 2011 : 3:28 p.m.

Maybe the question is whether any of these "private" contractors actually do a better job of maintaining the tricky old heating/cooling systems than an employee who works full time for AAPS and really gets to know the problem. Johnson controls comes out time after time, but it's not always the same person, and they don't always know the history of that particular building. Is it really more efficient?


Sun, Dec 18, 2011 : 3:22 p.m.

The only union that will be left is the high paying jobs in admin at Balais. They privatized the food service workers, they privatized the bus drivers but yet they did elect the teachers union to rep them. Now? Custodians. If the board has their way? The only union left will be Balais.


Sun, Dec 18, 2011 : 2:06 p.m.

Kronoberger - This work was already privatized, and has been for years. So that is not the issue here - it is union vs non-union contractors and Ann Arbor based vs Southeastern Michigan based.


Sun, Dec 18, 2011 : 11:32 a.m.

They want to save money? Isn't this the same board that voted to give two of their executives a substantial raise this week? They weren't thinking about saving money then. Hope the old sying you get what you pay for doesn't apply here.