Many Small Michigan School Districts at Risk for Dissolution

Remember last year when Michigan lawmakers hastily created special legislation for the sole purpose of dissolving two small school districts, Inkster and Buena Vista, when they found themselves in fiscal crisis?

Well, that law is still on the books, and could be invoked again.

Public Act 96, the law to dissolve smaller fiscally distressed school districts was intended to “solve” a problem not covered by another egregiously stupid law, Public Act 436 — the emergency manager law. Smaller school districts — those with under 2500 students, teetering on the verge of succumbing to financial pressures were simply deemed not worthy of the expense of an emergency manager. So, lawmakers decided to do away with them altogether.

The law may be invoked if all of these four criteria are met:

  1. Failure to submit a deficit elimination plan or failure to win state approval of their plan.
  2. The district is determined as not fiscally viable.
  3. Student population is under 2500.
  4. The district incurred a 10 percent, or greater, decline in enrollment in the previous school year.

Of course, there is a fifth consideration not written into the law: Is there a neighboring school district in a position to absorb the dissolved district?

In Democracy Tree’s analysis of the most recent report from the Michigan Department of Education to the State School Superintendent, Michael Flanagan, 24 small school districts are at varying degrees of risk for triggering the provisions of the dissolution law. These schools are among 50 currently on the state’s watch list which are experiencing different levels of fiscal stress and are below the 2500 enrollment threshold, or just barely above it.

Like other kinds of disasters, the MDE report categorizes school districts into various stages of fiscal distress:

  • Category 1 is composed of districts starting the school year in deficit but projected to emerge in the black by June 30, 2014. They are 8 in total, with 5 below the 2500 enrollment mark.
  • Category 2 are those districts that started the year in the red, and are projected to end with a reduced deficit. This is the largest category, with 28 total, including 10 smaller districts that could fall into the dissolution black hole, and another 5 treading water at just above 2500 in enrollment.
  • Category 3 are among the least likely to survive — they began with a deficit and expect to end with even more red ink. Their total number is 8, with 2 below 2500 in student population.
  • Category 4 is a limited group of districts that will be venturing into negative territory this year after a positive start. There are 4 altogether, with 2 vulnerable to the dissolution law.

Readers are probably wondering who these districts are — here is the list:

Category 1 Districts (Low risk) 

  • Atlanta Community Schools, 268 students, 2013 deficit ($31,842)
  • Ashley Community Schools, 269 students, 2013 deficit ($225,307)
  • New Haven Community Schools, 1345 students, 2013 deficit ($236,549)
  • Menominee Area Public Schools, 1560 students, 2013 deficit ($53,664)
  • White Cloud School District, 1069 students, 2013 deficit ($580,276)

Category 2 Districts 

  • Mackinaw City Public Schools, 192 students, 2013 deficit ($345,160)
  • Beecher Community School District, 1363 students, 2013 deficit ($701,015)
  • Hancock Public Schools, 831 students, 2013 deficit ($514,291)
  • Mt. Clemens Community Schools, 1574 students, 2013 deficit ($3,586,719)
  • Vanderbilt Area School District, 141 students, 2013 deficit ($221,573)
  • Bridgeport Spaulding Community Schools, 1464 students, 2013 deficit ($3,221,274)
  • Perry Public Schools, 1397 students, 2013 deficit ($1,689,022)
  • River Rouge School District, 1233 students, 2013 deficit ($1,107,736)
  • Ecorse Public School District, 1044 students, 2013 deficit ($1,809,903)
  • Heart Academy, Wayne, 171 students, 2013 deficit ($344,498)

Category 2 Districts (just above 2500 enrollment) These schools are included because fiscal crises are strongly linked to rapidly declining student populations.

  • Benton Harbor Area Schools, 2826 students, 2013 deficit ($15,517,748)
  • Dearborn Heights School District #7, 2850 students, 2013 deficit ($1,769,214)
  • Hamtramck Public Schools, 2900 students, 2013 deficit ($3,443,659)
  • Redford Union Schools, 2893 students, 2013 deficit ($1,962,334)
  • Westwood Community School District, 2798 students, 2013 deficit ($6,311,270)

Category 3 Districts 

  • Albion Public Schools, 734 students, 2013 deficit ($149,003)
  • Bangor Public Schools, 1254 students, 2013 deficit ( $373, 350)

Category 4 Districts 

  • Iron Mountain Public Schools, 1117 students, projected deficit ($158,473)
  • South Lake Schools, 2133 students, projected deficit ($1,828,396)

HaworthThe combined deficits of the 22 districts who reported red ink at the beginning of the school year totals about $44 million — slightly above the state’s annual office furniture budget of $41 million.

Democracy Tree has written previously on how the actual expenses incurred by dissolving Buena Vista and Inkster school districts have already exceeded their combined deficits, with additional costs to be anticipated. A report from the Citizens Research Council found the law deeply flawed, and worried over possible future applications. The CRC painted PA-96 as a poorly thought-out fiscal boondoggle in which the cure is worse than the disease. They asserted that emergency management was even preferable to dissolution.

State government, through its adoption of the new policy, is signaling that some financial problems cannot be solved without the aid of additional funds. If this is the case, then it might be appropriate to provide these resources sooner, through an emergency manager process, rather than as a last resort.

Rep. Douglass Geiss (D-12) represents two of the school districts that were forced toDoug Geiss absorb students from Inkster Schools when the district was dissolved. Although he did not vote for PA-96, he soon found himself scrambling to provide adequate funding for Taylor and Romulus schools as they were suddenly hit with thousands in additional expenses that were not covered by the legislation. Inkster and Buena Vista schools were dissolved in haste — only five weeks before the beginning of the school year.

It took Geiss from September of 2013 to April of 2014 to secure additional funding for maintenance of the shuttered school buildings foisted upon Taylor and Romulus. Each “receiving” district was finally appropriated $1 million to deal with the crumbling facilities. One of the buildings, Geiss said, “had been abandoned probably 20 years ago — it had a tree growing out of its roof.”

Inkster schools

A couple of days ago, Rep. David Knezek (D-11) introduced legislation (HB-5446) that would amend PA-96 to provide a mechanism for dissolved school districts to reorganize — although it’s doubtful they would want to reopen the buildings shown above from the defunct Inkster district. The bill was referred to the House Committee on Education, which is chaired by Republican Lisa Posthumus-Lyons — the lawmaker who referred to teachers as swine when debating whether to dissolve Buena Vista and Inkster schools.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Michigan House Dems Push Back on Snyder

Michigan House Democrats met to announce a reform package aimed at curbing the excesses of the Snyder Administration and House Republicans. The recent scandal over the FY 2012 multi-million dollar furniture budget which benefitted the governor’s cousin — for un-needed office furniture, is what sparked their ire.

House Democrat Brandon Dillon didn’t mince words:

“Governor Snyder told Michigan’s struggling parents, seniors and communities, that while they needed to do some heavy lifting to pay for his budget priorities, that there’d be shared sacrifice — and that we must have a “we, and not me” mentality. But, instead of shared sacrifice, Michigan’s middle-class families did all the lifting, while the governor’s family and political friends were protected. And, they unloaded more new un-needed office furniture onto the taxpayers of this state.”

The furniture budget was poised to be capped at $1 million during budget negotiations in 2011, for FY 2012, when sources connected with Gov. Snyder’s NERD Fund intervened on behalf of his cousin George Snyder, who is a partner at DBI Business Interiors which subcontracts with Haworth Furniture. Richard Baird, then working as “Transformation Manager” with the NERD Fund hooked George Snyder up with Michigan Budget Director, John Nixon. The cap was subsequently killed and the furniture budget has since, under Republican control, ballooned like roadkill on a hot day.

George Snyder email

Haworth is among the top Michigan donors to the Republican Governors Association for the first quarter of 2014, as reported today by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. (The RGA has already spent nearly $300,000 in first quarter political ads in downstate Michigan markets.) The furniture maker gave no money to the Democratic Governors Association during that period.

Haworth donation

House members Rep. Tim Greimel (D-29), Rep. Brandon Dillon (D-75) and Rashida Tlaib (D-06) are leading the charge for financial transparency reform. First, they propose to amend the budget for FY 2015 to cut unnecessary spending on office furniture, and then plan to introduce legislation that will shine a light on financial relationships among all high-level state employees, including the governor, his family and his staff.

Greimel on transparency package

Their proposals are as follows:

• Amend the 2015 budget to transfer $22 million from the General Fund to the School Aid Fund. This reflects the difference between the 2011 Haworth contract and its current authorization level of $41 million.
• Amend Michigan’s 2015 budget to include a $1 million limit on purchases of office furniture.
• Require all high-level state employees, including the governor and his staff, to report their income, assets, liabilities and any asset changes affecting them or their immediate family.
• Require all state contractors and bidders to disclose any family relationships that exist between corporate officers, owners and directors and senior officials in the Executive Branch of state government.
• Amend the Michigan Lobby Registration Act to include “an individual conducting business under the auspices of the executive offices of the governor or lieutenant governor.” This will require reporting the lobbying of those individuals and also subject them to current lobby limits for public officials.

Rep. Greimel pointed out that the $22 million number is significant — it represents the amount that the bloated furniture budget grew while Gov. Snyder slashed $1 billion from education, police and firefighting dollars, and raised taxes by $1.5 billion on retirees and middle-class families. After all, the governor’s $1.8 billion dollar business tax give-away to his special friends, the “job creators”, had to be paid for somehow. Geez, talk about “tax and spend!”

Greimel put it this way:

“These reforms will end out-of-control spending on state office furniture, and most importantly, put the savings where it belongs — in our state’s classrooms.”

Gov. Snyder and Michigan Republicans are being called-out to put their money where their mouth is, in much the same way the Obama Administration recently set-up Republicans to vote down equal pay — and reveal themselves to be the hypocrites they really are.

Katie Carey, press secretary for the Michigan House Democrats, readily admits that the legislation stands little chance of passage, acknowledging that the impetus is more to highlight the transparency problem. Gov. Snyder brushed it aside as election year politicking, but Haworth fired back with professionally crafted PR hyperbole, calling the accusations “baseless” and an “affront” to their employees.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

 

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Michigan Charter Schools – A Poster Child for Failure

Boy, did Moody’s Investor Service ever nail it this time. Last October the credit reporting agency warned of the dangers of charter schools, naming Michigan as the poster-child of how to get it all wrong. Their newsletter called it:

The dramatic rise in charter school enrolments over the past decade is likely to create negative credit pressure on school districts in economically weak urban areas. Charter schools tend to proliferate in areas where school districts already show a degree of underlying economic and demographic stress.”

Listing four risk factors, Moody’s put their finger on what the GOP push for expanded charters in Michigan is all about — they singled-out the state as an example of what not to do.

  1. Allowing districts to become vulnerable to charter take-over through financial pressures and unfavorable demographic trends.
  2. Limiting the ability of a school district to adjust to the changing situation.
  3. Over-promotion of school choice, with easy approval and ready funding of charters.
  4. Isolation of school districts from local and regional support networks.

Moody’s went on to highlight those Michigan districts they have downgraded due to charter influx:

For example in Michigan, the statutory framework emphasizes educational choice, and there are multiple charter authorizers to help promote charter school growth. In Michigan, Detroit Public Schools (B2 negative), Clintondale Community Schools (Ba3 negative), Mount Clemens Community School District (Ba3 negative) and Ypsilanti School District (Ba3) have all experienced significant fiscal strain related to charter enrollment growth, which has also been a contributing factor to their speculative grade status.

DSCF3494There’s much more than declining credit ratings to worry about though.

A MICHIGAN STORY

Several weeks ago, Smart Schools Management, Inc. was dropped simultaneously by two charter academies in Michigan — Bay City Academy and Grand Traverse Academy. The president of the charter management firm, Steve Ingersoll, had been acting as administrator for both schools.

The board of Bay City Academy dumped Smart Schools citing the school’s poor performance and expressed the need for a full-time administrator. In the case of Grand Traverse Academy, the Traverse City Record-Eagle reported that GTA Board President, Brad Habermehl, said:

“The board felt the direction we were heading in was not the direction that brought success to the school. We wanted a little bit more of an active role, active support in management of the school where we would see implementation of structure that brought that school its notoriety.”

Ingersoll co-founded GTA in 2000 and he was the driving force behind the 201o renovation of a Bay City church which opened as Bay City Academy the following year. The fact that both school boards dumped him and his management company at the same time is much more than a coincidence.

Last week the real reason came to light when U.S. Attorney Barbara L. McQuade indicted Ingersoll, his wife, his brother and two business associates for conspiracy to commit bank fraud and income tax evasion. The charges stem from a $1.8 million construction loan they took out with Chemical Bank for the purpose of retrofitting the Bay City church for use as an academy. The U.S. Attorney’s Office alleges that Ingersoll and his wife diverted $934,000 of the money into their personal bank account through a series of financial transactions intended to conceal the conversion of the money for personal use.

Also indicted were owners of a firm Ingersoll hired to do renovations at Bay City Academy where it is alleged they improperly handled and removed asbestos from the property.

There truly are things worse than a bad credit rating.

Although Moody’s put Michigan in the corner, they are not alone. In fact, it’s been a busy few weeks for charter school boards across the nation.

NORTH CAROLINA

The StudentFirst Academy School of Charlotte is closing today, April 15th, and transferring its 300 students to other schools due to unspecified “money and management problems”. It is the 40th charter to be closed in 25 years in the state , when they swung open the school doors to charters. Thirty got sacked in the first five years. From the Associated Press:

“The large majority of those closures over a period of years have related to financial mismanagement,” said Eddie Goodall, a former state senator and charter school founder who heads the N.C. Public Charter Schools Association. “What I hope people realize is if this (school’s) board has in fact mismanaged our state’s funds, then they should be removed from operating a charter school. That is a good thing.”

PENNSYLVANIA

Two weeks ago, YourErie.com reported that the Erie Rise Leadership Academy School was cited in an interim report for serious violations by the state auditor general over school board oversight, academic performance, and compliance with state laws and the school charter.

“It is alarming that the school’s board of trustees has essentially given the chief executive officer and a financial management company full rein over all aspects of the school without any real oversight. The charter school board should consider this interim finding as a wakeup call — get your act together and do it now. ”

BACK TO MICHIGAN

When the Muskegon Heights School Board voted several years ago to willingly forgo home rule and submit to emergency management to handle their fiscal crisis, the story didn’t get the attention it deserved because the move was “voluntary” — it lacked that certain dictatorial feel for journalists to stand-up and take notice. The first act of the emergency manager was to convert the district into a public school academy to be administered by a for-profit management company, Mosaica Education. They were charged with turning the district around both academically and financially.

Under Mosaica management, Muskegon Heights School Academy ran out of money two weeks ago and couldn’t meet payroll. The state had to front them $231,000 to keep the doors open. At the time, their attorney referred to the problem as an accounting “glitch”. Perhaps the fact that the school ended fiscal year 2013 with more than half a million in red ink is similarly just a “glitch”.

Founded in 1977 by Gene Eidelman, Mosaica Education currently manages about 90 schools generating more than $125 million on revenue. Their mission statement reads: “To empower students to learn and achieve — every child, every day.”

Their rap sheet doesn’t bear that out:

GEORGIA

January this year, Atlanta Public Schools decided not to renew the contract with Mosaica to run the Atlanta Preparatory Academy, citing poor academic performance and shaky financials. The recommendation for closure came from Alan Mueller, an executive with APS, who is also a former executive of Mosaica. From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

…Mueller, a former Mosaica executive, said the school’s performance is a continuing concern. “There are four schools in the neighborhood that out-perform Atlanta Prep in math,” he said. The small percentage of money it spends on classroom instruction is troubling as well, he said.

Last school year Atlanta Preparatory received $4,629,276 from APS. According to the school, 49 percent of that was spent on classroom instruction. Mueller said he is not opposed to for-profit charter management companies “if they deliver. But they aren’t delivering. And we want as much money as possible going into the classroom.”

The numbers tell the tale:

According to Mueller, the K-8 school with about 450 students ranks in the bottom 20 percent of schools statewide in academic performance; its enrollment is 45 percent lower than originally projected; and it owes $801,384 to for-profit education management company Mosaica Education, Inc.

NORTH CAROLINA

In December of 2012, the Mosaica-managed STEAM Academy of Winston-Salem hired a new school administrator named Susan Lawyer Willis just prior to their annual standardized testing. Mosaica admitted that, at the time of hire, they knew she had been fired from her previous job amid test scandal allegations. In April of 2013, the Winston-Salem Journal reported:

Lawyer Willis declined to discuss the issue Monday with the Winston-Salem Journal, following a lengthy article Sunday on the school’s financial problems and its need to pass state end-of-grade tests or face revocation of its charter, which would effectively close the school.

Lawyer Willis was accused of juggling class schedules for 31 students at Fleming High School in Roanoke, Va., so they wouldn’t have to take end-of-year Standards of Learning tests, which are similar to North Carolina’s end-of-grade tests. A Virginia Department of Education investigation found that she and other school administrators were “responsible for egregious violations” and that “course schedules were manipulated for the purpose of influencing (Fleming High School’s) pass rates” in 2008 and 2009.

WASHINGTON D.C.

In 2008, the Howard Road Academy, run by Mosaica, was found to be cheating on standardized tests, by literally supplying students with the test and the correct answers prior to the exam. The Washington Post reports:

The teacher at Howard Road Academy Public Charter School suspected something was seriously amiss in April when a student taking the math portion of the DC-CAS standardized test announced that she was finished — way early.

“You can’t be finished. Go back and check your work,” the teacher said.

“We did this yesterday. I know all of the answers,” the student said.

The scene comes from a report by school officials detailing the investigation of a cheating scandal at their G Street campus in Southeast D.C. When the probe was done, an administrator and two teachers were dismissed and 27 fourth and sixth-graders had their test scores invalidated.

The report also strongly suggests that school politics may have helped create an environment in which cheating could take root. It includes a letter of “reprimand” and another of “admonishment” to two unnamed Howard Road employees from Mosaica Education Inc., the company that operates Howard Road and charter schools in eight states.

LOUISIANA

And in 2006, the Times-Picayune reported on troubles with Mosaica’s management of the Lafayette Charter School in New Orleans. The management company had been contracted to run the school after the flood, amid a flurry of post-Katrina charter take-overs. Within days of the school re-opening, irregularities emerged — among them were curriculum problems, failure to produce a contractually agreed after-school program for struggling students, and the absence of required transportation for students.The school district sued, and was awarded a $350,000 judgement against Mosaica.

Yep, it’s much worse than just a bad credit rating.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

This article also appears in the Town Broadcast – Wayland

 

 

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Michigan’s Burning Questions: Fireworks, Flint & Firestorms

Thumb fireNot since the Great Michigan Fire of 1871 and the Thumb Fire of 1881 has the Great Lakes State been this vulnerable to wide scale firestorms, urban arson and the threat of random disastrous sparks. A combination of circumstances are currently at work setting the region up for potential combustion. Climate change, deep budget cuts to fire fighting units and prevention initiatives, coupled with lax fireworks laws and enforcement are all factors creating just the right incendiary mix to spell disaster.

Fireworks Sparked Over an Audit

A state audit of the Michigan Bureau of Fire Services revealed some gaping holes in the public safety network. While initial media reports could easily lead one to believe this may be a simple case of gross bureaucratic incompetence, that would be a simplistic view at best.

The report singled-out problems with inspections and agency record-keeping, particularly those involving fireworks retailers.

Spring and Summer are crunch-time for state fire inspectors — with a barrage of plan and code reviews, initial project inspections and final tests of systems at schools (K-12, colleges and universities), camps, churches and theaters, plus seasonal remodeling and construction at numerous state inspected facilities such as hospitals and licensed healthcare facilities — all demanding their attention at the same time. Often these inspections must be timed and coordinated with other inspections, including electrical, mechanical, plumbing, and compliance with other city and county codes.

In the immediate aftermath of the passage of the law allowing airborne firework sales in Michigan, “permanent” facilities selling the devices were popping-up by the hundreds in previously shuttered storefronts across the state, in addition to those existing businesses adding them to their inventory.

Becoming a seller isn’t difficult — initially, retailers are required to produce a copy of their sales tax license and a $1,000 fee to obtain a Consumer Fireworks Certificate (reduced to $600 for temporary structures such as roadside tents). All applications are due on April 1st of each year. The state then has, by statute, only 30 days in which to approve the application and issue a certificate, with a mandated inspection to occur in the interim — the latter being something the state has had trouble keeping up with. The audit found that in a sampling of 40 random certificate-holders, the average inspection was conducted 36 days after the facility began operating, and the average wait-time for their certificate was 50 days, instead of 30.

Other audit citations regarding the new fireworks law included not retaining complete documentation, lack of standardized procedures, and not consistently exercising statutory authority to apply enforcement actions in response to fire extinguisherviolations.

The law does require the retailer to comply with National Fire Protection Association codes and standards, including maintaining an appropriate fire detection and suppression system, and it additionally mandates they carry $10 million in liability insurance per incident — all things that are to be verified during the state inspection. Too often though, the initial verification comes from the insurer. In essence, insurance companies become the enforcers.

Public Act 256 does in fact provide funding for state inspections of fireworks retailers. The certification fees go straight to the Michigan Bureau of Fire Services for the sole purpose of conducting inspections. In fiscal year 2011-12 there were 1366 certificates issued, and that number jumped to 2584 in 2012-13 according to the audit. The revenue was certainly pouring in.

So, why then was the state so slow in performing its statutory duties?

The fireworks law offers the option of contracting-out the inspections to willing local units of government through a grant of $700 per inspection. Last Summer, the House Fiscal Agency revisited the impact of the appropriations portion of the law and reported that “at the close of the fiscal year 2012, the BFS has not made any grants from the Fireworks Safety Grants to local units of government for inspection costs”. This finding is predictable, given that fire departments across the state are typically suffering a lack the staffing under budget cuts. It is also doubtful the BFS would be keen to forfeit even a fraction of their revenue stream. (A call placed to the BFS to ascertain the 2013 local grant numbers went to voice mail, and has not been returned as of this writing.)

While the money allocated to the Fireworks Safety Grant fund should have easily covered the cost of hiring additional inspectors — the legislation, as written, did not make an appropriation to upfront provide for the added cost of hiring and training personnel — such was the haste with which the legislature enacted the troublesome law. Public Act 256 was, in part, a de facto unfunded mandate — illegal in the state of Michigan. One wonders if the sponsors of the law even consulted with the BFS.

It should come as no surprise that the audit cited the BFS for hiring inspectors that had not completed their full training program. Training takes considerable time, and the fireworks law took effect before the agency had the budgetary resources to bring new staff up to speed through their rather rigorous training program. Shown below is the first of the twelve pages of classes required over a three year period listed at the BFS website.

CFI Training

They couldn’t just call up temp services for a few spare fire inspectors. Effective fire prevention requires trained professionals, as does the dangerous work of fighting fires.

Flint, Michigan — City with a Prophetic Name

The city of Flint is the most combustible example of what happens when basic public services, such as fire protection, are grossly underfunded. Last week, the beleaguered city learned that they are losing a significant portion of their firefighting budget when they failed to qualify for renewal of FEMA grant funds. A loss of $7.9 million will result in the layoff of 19 firefighters. If the city is unable to come up with a viable contingency plan, they will be reduced to only 16 firefighters per shift. NFPA rules require the city to have that many to fight just one active fire. Flint will be unable to handle more than one alarm at a time.

And, Flint is a city infamous for multiple blazes.

This development is sparking a frightening deja vu scenario for residents who remember vividly what occurred four years ago when it was announced that 23 firefighters were to be side-lined — within less than 24 hours, nine homes were reduced to ashes in what turned out to be a year-long reign of terror earning the city the top spot nationally on the FBI arson list. Already the most violent city in the nation, Flint also took home the honor of being crowned the arson capital . Some of the fires were eventually solved with the arrest and plea deal of a gang of arsonists responsible for up to 100 fires. The city’s east side alone suffered a whopping 145 intentionally set blazes in 2010, accounting for 30 percent of Flint’s 486 known arsons that year.

It’s Not Just an Urban Problem

Last week, the Predictive Services division of the National Interagency Fire Center published their outlook report for the 2014 wildfire season. Michigan is expected to experience an increased risk of blazes for the months of June and July (The NIFC has not yet issued a forecast for August and September).

wildfire predictions 2014

Michigan learned the hard way what it means to be insufficiently funded, equipped and staffed during the summer of 2012 when lightning sparked an Upper Peninsula blaze which burned much of the Duck Lake area — destroying 49 homes, 87 other structures and charring 21,069 acres. It was the third-largest fire in recent history, and required resources from multiple agencies, including the Wisconsin DNR, the Red Cross and the Salvation Army. At that time, fresh in the minds of Upper Peninsula residents was a similar 2007 fire which occurred on the heels of the DNR firefighting crew being slashed to just 72 individuals statewide — an amount 20 percent below what was required. The Sleeper Lake fire scorched 18,000 acres of state forest and cost the state $7.5 million.

Governor Snyder’s office will be wrangling with lawmakers over the budget when they return from Spring break on April 17th. Now would be a good time for them to take a second look at their proposed fire safety dollars.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

 

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Rich Republicans Bitch About McCutcheon Ruling

Let’s call it the Sheldon Syndrome – an outbreak of donor fatigue which is about to afflict a select number of distraught rich Republicans this midterm election season. sheldon adelsonTragically, a horrible confluence of events is fostering this cruel new disease — which could easily have been prevented had the U.S. Supreme Court not ruled in favor of lifting aggregate campaign contribution limits last week in McCutcheon v. FEC.

The affliction does not directly owe its name to Sheldon Adelson, but surely he can relate to its debilitating symptoms.

Harvard Law School Professor and champion of campaign finance reform, Lawrence Lessig, framed the pathology of the syndrome on the Diane Rehm Show by explaining that, right now, about 150,000 Americans fund U.S. Congressional races — about 1/20th of one percent of the population, but after the McCutcheon decision that number will shrink dramatically to include just the uber rich. Lessig said:

“150,000 is about the same number of people who are named Lester in the United States. If it falls to about 40,000 relevant funders, that’s about the same number of people who are named Sheldon. So we are going to go from Lester Land to Sheldon City as we create a system where a tiny, tiny fraction are the significant funders”

Believe it or not, these select few “Sheldons” are actually complaining about the burden this is going to place on their already strained pocketbooks. In 2012, only 591 individuals actually hit the overall cap for all races — that’s a rarefied group of only one out of every half-million. Oh, but they do like to howl about the heartbreak of managing their massive wealth. Matea Gold, of the Washington Post, told the following to Rehm:

“Well, every donor that just hit their aggregate cap is now pulling their hair out because they can’t turn down the solicitation from campaigns anymore, and I spoke to a lot of donors and fundraisers yesterday who actually said there’s an incredible amount of teeth-gnashing going on right now in the donor community who feel that they’re gonna really be hit-up now for donations. They no longer have the excuse to say I’ve hit my max.”

Gold’s characterization of the situation is not unique. A similar whine emanated from Lansing-based attorney and Michigan GOP power broker, Richard McLellan. He told a tale of woe to WKAR:

“One of the wealthy people I talked to was very concerned, he says, unfortunately I’m the kind of guy who can give the money…to a lot of people. I used to be able to say ‘no’ when we got to a hundred and some thousand. Now they know I don’t have that argument. That is a problem for some of these very wealthy people that get hit-up by everybody.”

In the same interview, McLellan offered-up another well polished turd, wherein he argues that limiting money-as-speech in campaigns as akin to McCarthyism.

“So, you have the effort to stop, quote, rich people from speaking in the political sense as much as they want, and at other times in history we’ve tried to shut down other groups of people. Here on Michigan State University, 50 years ago, they tried to keep communists off campus for speaking — so, these battles go on and on.”

And then, his argument sobers-up with this surprising admission about money in politics:

“Certainly, it has backfired. The last election we had several of those really, totally unqualified lunatic candidates that would get some millionaire to support them…Republicans have an uncanny ability to shoot themselves in the foot a lot of times, by taking all this money that they have and coming-up with policy prescriptions that simply are out of tune with where the public is, and we’ve seen that probably in social issues recently.”

Bingo! He sure got that last point right.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

Audio links: WKAR, Diane Rehm Show

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New Rule: Flint Emergency Manager Kills Public Comment

imagesCACJR4OFEmergency Manager Darnell Earley has asked the Flint City Council to “participate” in the process of moving the city back to local control by generously offering them the opportunity to agree, wholesale and without question, to his transition management plan. He wants a “yes” vote from them by tomorrow’s meeting, or he’ll just implement it without them.

The Emergency Manager seems quite keen to gain their approval though, but mostly out of a desire to look as if he, himself, has smoothly transitioned from petty dictator to a consensus builder to his overlords in Lansing:

“It’s important for you to understand that there are a number of ways to do this job and the way that I want to do it is so that no one from Lansing has to come back in here.”

Yet, as Earley attempts to woo council members with his unimpeachable proposal, the residents of Flint are being left out in the cold — disqualified from providing timely citizen input through a new rule issued by the Emergency Manager regarding public comment at council meetings.

Just a few weeks prior to all this, Earley reinstated City Council meetings, which had been suspended during the city’s two-plus years under emergency management. Frustrated residents who have been anxiously awaiting an opportunity to express their concerns before their elected leaders, will have to wait just a little bit longer though — until the end of public meetings that is.

Ostensibly, Earley is facilitating the process of easing council members back into the position of a decision-making body, but it’s apparent he is the one who requires a nudge towards those most basic democratic principles of home rule.

He provided council members with his detailed seven-point transition plan on March 20th, asking them to approve it at their meeting on Monday, March 24. In true dictatorial fashion, he more-or-less told them – I can do this with you or without you, either way, I’m implementing the plan, saying:

“The other alternative is that the EM just did it and didn’t say anything about it. I would urge you to pass the plan, let’s work on them together.”

In an 8 to 1 vote, his plan was tabled and will be reconsidered at a special meeting on April 7th, giving members time to absorb its contents. One of the objections voiced was by council member Eric Mays:

“Point No. 3 is a game-breaker for me. I cannot condone elected officials meeting behind closed doors.”

Exclusion of public participation is the primary modus operandi of emergency management. It’s all about public policy by fiat, the masses be damned, with the rule of law suspended, including the Open Meetings Act.

In Earley’s latest offense against democratic rule, he has decreed that all public comment will be confined to three minutes each at the end of City Council meetings — after the agenda has been exhausted and all votes taken. It’s his special rule, in defiance of long-standing procedures which allowed for five minutes per speaker prior to dispatching the city’s business. From the old Flint rules book:

Flint rules of order

The Michigan Municipal League provides an unambiguous rule on public comment at government meetings. In their Ethics Handbook for Michigan Municipalities they spell it out:

MI ethics for public comment

The sound logic behind placing a premium on public comment is also expressed in the MML handbook:

Procedural rules that permit and promote flexible opportunities for public input may diffuse public frustration at being foreclosed from comment and encourage constructive debate.

Another handbook, published by the University of Georgia, based on best municipal practices, Roberts Rules of Order and established parliamentary procedure, also places public comment early in a meeting’s agenda, prior to actions taken on old and new business:

rules on public comment

Emergency Manager Earley will have none of this though. Apparently unwilling to hear any public criticism of his seven-point plan — on April first he ordered the new limits placed on public comment, explaining it thus:

“This order is for the purpose of ensuring the business of the city of Flint conducted at City Council meetings occurs in an orderly, dignified and efficient manner, reflecting the level of professionalism deserved by council members, city officials, staff and the public.”

“This is consistent with the prevalent practice of similar municipalities, and is intended to ensure that members of the public who sacrifice their free time to attend meetings are give[n] a reasonable opportunity to address council without having to wait an unnecessarily extensive period of time to do so. It provides the public with the chance to express themselves. These are not normal times in the city of Flint … Our first priority is to take care of the business of the city of Flint.”

 

Thumbing his nose at any genuine effort to re-establish the often messy business of effective home rule, Earley is merely erecting a Potemkin democracy in Flint. It appears the only rule Emergency Managers seem to respect is their own: Because I said so!

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

 

 

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Private Food Vendor Aramark Reveals Secret Ingredients

Last week, we reported on the long rap sheet held by Aramark, the private food vendor contracted at the insistence of GOP lawmakers for Michigan prisons in a transaction last year that displaced hundreds of workers. Among the offenses found in prisons, schools, and entertainment venues across the nation were food skimping, unapproved substitutions, improper contact with inmates, drug use, drug distribution, smuggling contraband, embezzlement charges, questionably obtained contracts, numerous OSHA and NLRB violations, bilking employees out of tips, and unsanitary conditions leading to a deadly outbreak.

They don’t limit their shenanigans to prisons though. Aramark provides food services in many large public school systems, colleges and universities.

An Aramark director of food services in the Burlington Area Schools, near Madison Wisconsin, was recently collared for pocketing $14,000 of kids’ lunch money at three different schools. In 2012, New Orleans Health Department records found numerous critical violations in local schools, including the presence of rat feces.

One of their larger customers, Chicago Public Schools, awarded them a contract after the previous vendor was having trouble getting kids to eat their fare — because it was too healthful. Food provider Chartwells-Thompson couldn’t get the kids to eat their broccoli.

Enter Aramark and their coveted chicken patty sandwich — now the number one menu item in CPS. It seems Windy City kids can’t get enough of them. But, what’s in these magic patties?

potted chicken

Chicago radio station WBEZ recently asked that very question. A few weeks ago they filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the school district hoping to get some answers on what’s really in the food. This isn’t the first time reporter Monica Eng has probed into CPS lunches — she made a similar request of the previous vendor to learn that their chicken patties contained numerous incomprehensible ingredients.

Here is what was reported this week by CPS:

Aramark FOIA

Yep, the secret ingredient to their chicken patty is — a chicken patty. Ditto, their chicken nuggets.  Eng, of WBEZ, put it this way:

“When I last did a story on popular CPS lunch items for the Chicago Tribune in 2011, the district’s spicy chicken patty contained dozens of ingredients, many too hard to pronounce. But, miraculously, CPS and its new caterer Aramark have pared the district’s number one food item down to just two ingredients: a chicken patty and a bun, according to the district’s response.”

Sure, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but their claim of culinary simplicity is somewhat suspect here. One can’t help but wonder what choice artisanal ingredients lend the patty its distinct flavor profile rendering it irresistible to the refined palettes of CPS students.

Maybe if we grease the palm of the right Aramark employee we can get their special recipe.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

Read a full media report on Aramark here.

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Michigan Public School Teachers – Friends Without Benefits

Michigan House Education Committee Chair, Rep. Lisa Posthumus-Lyons (R-86), may prefer to liken public school teachers to “pigs” and “hogs”, but the numbers simply do not support her crude porcine accusation.

cut of the pig

On average, public school teachers in Michigan earn an estimated $61,560 a year, which may seem like a king’s ransom to some.  But, consider the fact that employment in their profession, at a minimum, requires a Bachelor’s degree — which often serves only as a precursor to mandatory continuing education, typically involving earning a Master’s degree as a condition of future employment. Adjusted for inflation, their salary is down by 8.2 percent in buying power from the 1999-2000 school year.

Michigan’s Republican lawmakers are not unique in their singular scorn of the profession, and while they can’t make a convincing case over excessive salaries, one of their favorite hollow-tipped bullet points remains the enormous cost of teacher pensions, and the burden that places on classroom dollars.

Time for a little reality check.

pork back fatRep. Lyons may wish to sit-up straight and take some notes here. While her MSU degree in agriculture surely taught her how to calculate the back fat of swine (that’s something they actually learn), she may need an education on numbers that don’t involve slaughterhouse rules.

A report published by the non-profit education policy think tank, The Bellwether Education Partners, titled: Friends Without Benefits:  How States Systematically Shortchange Teachers’ Retirement and Threaten Retirement Security tells a decidedly pork-less story of public education dollars spent.

Public school teachers are no small segment of our professional landscape. In fact nationally, they represent the largest class of workers in the country — 3.3 million strong. They are also the largest group of college-educated professionals.

teachers with degrees chart

Yet among our teachers, just a fraction will be secure in their retirement — a subset restricted to those that were able to stick it out within one pension plan for their entire career will be among the lucky few to enjoy full benefits. In the current work environment and economy, the vast majority of public school teachers will receive little or no pension. Employment in the profession has become very fluid. In 1998, if asked about how much experience they had in their field, a typical public educator would have said 14-15 years. By 2008, the most common answer was one year. By contrast, the current median adult worker in the U.S. has a solid five years experience in their given field.

Lawmakers have fostered this trend to further legislatively erode the profession of education as a whole. Fully 17 states, including Michigan, have raised the vesting requirement to ten years service, with the remaining states being mostly around five years. (Surprisingly, Arizona offers immediate vestment.) This pattern conveniently shoehorns with the transient nature of those entering the profession, largely due to public policies unfriendly to prolonged service in public education, which in turn has created an opportunity for GOP lawmakers to capitalize on the mobile nature of young education professionals. They know they don’t have to fully fund pensions because their policies drive young people out of the profession. The result is a penny-wise, pound-foolish state of affairs in our public schools.

Teachers now fall into two distinct categories: the dwindling vested old guard who remain strong union proponents, and the discouraged younger teachers who may never see a pension.

In Michigan, 57 percent of teachers will never be vested based on current turnover rates, with only 27 percent predicted to reach retirement in their profession — and the state is not unique in this regard. Across the land, the trend is the same, with a national median of only 44 percent vested and just under 20 percent reaching retirement.

Bad public policies and poor planning have encouraged a generational schism between professional educators — it’s a near mirror-image of what occurred among private sector workers twenty years ago. This is another intentional un-leveling of the playing field to the detriment of our professional educators and the quality of education in our schools, and recent GOP attacks on teachers’ unions are designed to maximize the split. The Bellwether report described the disparity in public education this way:

“In a nationally representative sample of teachers, nearly three out of four agreed that ‘too many veteran teachers who are burned out stay because they do not want to walk away from benefits and service time they have accrued.’ “

GOP laws, including right-to-work, are written to further this divide-and-conquer scheme for the purpose of cutting-back on pension obligations. And lawmakers show no shame for it — with the less creative minds among them, including Rep. Lyons, turning to labeling teachers as “greedy”.

The pension problem is not limited to public school teachers. Fully 92 percent of national households are grossly behind on retirement savings. Private-sector workers who represent the failed two-decade long experiment of self-funded retirement should serve as a warning. Baby boomers are the leading edge of a wave of Americans who can never retire. Currently, 45 percent of working-age households have not saved a dime for their future, and 92 percent do not even meet the conservative estimates needed, based on their age and income. Two-thirds of those approaching what we formerly thought of as retirement age have saved less than their annual income.

State leaders who like to point fingers, ought to be looking in the mirror. Nationally, public-sector pensions are underfunded by over $1 trillion dollars, with teacher pensions accounting for $390 billion of that figure. Forty-eight states are underfunded — that’s 96 percent — 4 percent worse than individual households.

So much for fiscal responsibility.

Who wins the Miss Piggy designation? You decide.Miss Piggy2

Let’s start by revisiting Rep. Lyons with her porky finger-pointing habit. As a state representative, her cash compensation package comes to $80,100, plus health insurance for her family of six. Her base salary is $71,685, with an additional mileage allowance of $2,917. She has an expense account of $10,800. As is commonplace, she will likely attempt to follow the predictable path of holding continued elected public office, garnering an ever-increasing salary on the taxpayers’ dime.

The average teacher, with typically more education than Lyons, earns $61,560 — but, instead of an expense account, they on average pay out-of-pocket about $356 in schoolroom supplies each year. They are unlikely to gather a pension for their service.

Full disclosure, this writer is not, nor has ever been, a school teacher or a union member.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

 

 

 

 

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Michigan Farmers in a Pickle Over Minimum Wage

pickleIf anything ever illustrated why unions and the power of collective bargaining remain absolutely necessary, here it is.

This story is not from fifty or seventy-five years ago, it’s happening right now, here in Michigan — the state where the labor movement was born, and is now clearly in need of some serious resuscitation.

A Northern Michigan farm family is quite deservedly in a bit of a legal pickle over a court ruling finding them in violation of federal labor laws. Darryl and Ron Howes, a couple of cucumber farmers from Manistee County, were the subject of a U.S. Labor Department inspection of their operation in the summer of 2011. The investigation resulted in a suit claiming they failed to pay their workers a fair minimum wage.

In November of 2012, the farmers responded claiming the allegations were false, and furthermore, asserted the investigation interrupted their business when agents entered the farm to talk to their laborers. The Howes’ premised their argument for under-payment on the notion that the 30 migrant workers were “contractors” and not employees, and had consented to the contractual amount.

Sure, right, as if they actually possessed any real power to negotiate their wage.

Federal Judge Gordon Quist wasn’t buying it. He ruled earlier this month in favor of the Labor Department. The ruling said that the laborers were not paid a fair wage and were additionally provided with substandard housing.

Two years ago, when the investigation started, it was against the backdrop of the ascendance of stridently anti-immigrant attitudes among GOP-dominated states like Arizona and Michigan. At the time, many conservative communities were attempting to squeeze-out seasonal workers — farmers began to feel a very real labor shortage, and lobbied Lansing to make Michigan a state friendly to migrant laborers and their families.

Some farmers, like the Howes, just didn’t get it though. They wanted to continue to abuse the rights of a transient community already living in the shadows. The farmers’ behavior was not necessarily indicative of Michigan’s farming community as a whole, but this court victory is important to us all — people who work for a living and also those among us who prefer to eat on a regular basis.

March 31st has been declared Cesar Chavez Day in California by their labor-friendly governor, Jerry Brown. Today would have been the activist’s 86th birthday. Brown said this of the late Chavez:

“In 1962, after working for many years as a community organizer, he founded the organization which later became the United Farm Workers (UFW). As leader of the UFW, Chavez organized agricultural laborers to protest and demand improvements in their working and living conditions. The UFW motto of “Si se puede!” or “Yes, we can!” continues to resound as a timeless rallying cry to workers for social justice.”

Like California, agriculture is crucial to Michigan’s economy. Farming beats-out the auto industry hands-down when it comes to Michigan’s long-term future. Manufacturing comes and goes, while arable land remains a durable asset.

DSCF0339

If you are an urbanite, you may think this is primarily a rural and agricultural issue, but that simply isn’t so. Wayne, Oakland, Washtenaw, Monroe, and Macomb Counties account for a whopping 302.6 million dollars of the statewide 71.3 billion in annual agri-business. Farming is the number two industry in the state, and it’s more reliable than manufacturing as a steady economic base. It employs 600,000 people.  The state is second only to California in crop diversity, with twelve of Michigan’s crops being number one in the nation. Many of these crops are dependent on seasonal workers to harvest them by hand. Farmers could not survive without this workforce, nor could our struggling economy.

We need migrants more than they need us.

Si se puede!

DSCN0444

Amy Kerr Hardin

 

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Democrats Strike Another Blow to Intolerance in Michigan

Attorney General Bill Schuette is criss-crossing Northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula making “campaign stops” which are little more than pure money-grubbing fundraisers with zero intent of advancing his campaign message among curious voters, while Gov. Snyder is preparing to jet-off to Italy and Germany to wine and dine various large corporate “job creators” — with the state’s checkbook wide open.

Both leaders are on the road, effectively leaving the state in a legal lurch after the courts placed a stay on same-sex marriages at the request of Schuette. Today, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder stepped-in to fix, at least temporarily, the mess these two men left in their wake.

Before slipping out of the state, Snyder neatly split legal hairs over the issue saying the marriages of over 300 couples were… eh, legal kinda, but then again, not so much…

“With respect to the marriages, we believe those are legal and valid marriages. The stay being issued makes it more complicated.

Going on to muddy the waters with:

“Because of the stay, we won’t recognize the benefits of the marriage until there’s a removal of the stay.”

He’s off to Italy now, perhaps to get some helpful pointers on how to walk-back the anti-gay rhetoric from Guido Barilla, the gay-bashing pasta magnate.

Snyder’s campaign team is finessing the issue by hoping that if they ignore it, it will magically go away. Republicans consistently make the mistake of assuming that marriage equality is a concern primarily limited to the LGBT community. Not so. It’s a much broader demographic supporting same-sex marriage — not just Democrats — it’s Independents, Libertarians, and a decent smattering of Republicans, albeit typically when they have an LGBT family member.

While back at the Schuette camp, as Snyder ducks and dives, they’re fashioning this issue as a passive-aggressive campaign center-piece. Schuette’s campaign is catering to the lowest common denominator shared by several of his key demographics: religious intolerants, homophobes, and xenophobic white supremacists — three groups that apparently constitute the Attorney General’s voter base.

His latest move is to bring-in some skin-head-types-in-suits through accepting their amicus brief supporting his position against same-sex marriage. Lansing Online News reports that an activist with known white supremacists affiliations, Kyle Bristol, ganderhas filed a brief, under The Traditionalists Youth Network. The brief claims that Michiganders will be marrying actual ganders if the state allows same-sex marriage:

“Either government can reasonably regulate marriage, or it cannot – there is no middle ground. If a state cannot be permitted to define marriage as simply as constituting one man and one woman, then our culture will be taken down a very slippery slope that will see pedophiles, polygamists, zoophiles, those in incestuous relationships, and every other sexual deviant with proclivities now known or to be invented to challenge laws that, likewise, prevent them from marrying whom — or what – they wish.”

Read the full brief at Lansing Online News here.

Yesterday, Democratic leaders pounced on the Governor and the Attorney General for their political pandering. U.S. lawmakers Dan Kildee, Debbie Stabenow, Carl Levin, John Dingell, Sander Levin and Gary Peters filed a letter with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder asking the federal government to recognize the 323 marriages already performed in Michigan. Kildee said:

“This is about Michigan families. Their government ought to be behind them.” Adding ”Hopefully this won’t take long.”

From Kildee’s lips to Holder’s ears. The AG didn’t waste a second approving their request and granting full legal protection to the couples under federal law — they may file joint tax returns, receive spousal Social Security benefits, request immigration status for their partners, among other critical rights. Holder recently did this for about 1000 same-sex couples in Utah who found themselves in the same state of legal limbo.

Michigan’s Democrats were busy too. On Wednesday, a couple dozen lawmakers offered House Resolution (HR-328) and House Concurrent Resolution (HCR-25) urging Gov. Snyder to recognize those marriages already performed and to exercise his authority to request Schuette withdraw his appeal and stay with the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Sam Singh on marriage eaqualityThe primary sponsor of both resolutions was Rep. Sam Singh (D-69) who said of the governor’s action (full video statement here):

“I was greatly disappointed that he did not provide the benefits of marriage to those citizens. To me, it was a slap in the face to their constitutional rights and to those families.”

As expected, Snyder has taken the spineless route of equivocation, allowing Schuette to fill the GOP void with his hateful message of intolerance. Thank goodness for the Democrats who took charge of the situation.

The battle may go on, but the outcome is inevitable.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

 

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