Gov. Rick Snyder

Michigan — The New North Korea

imagesCALD1E7KAs the state of Michigan starves its metropolitan areas of revenue sharing while lavishing corporations with $1.7 billion in tax cuts that are not tethered to any job creation requirements, the lights in Michigan are literally going out.

In 2011, just outside of Detroit, the city of Highland Park had their street lights removed by DTE under a program named “Highland Park Lighting Improvement Project” — a debt forgiveness program reached by the city with the utility. An arrangement the city made with DTE forgave $4 million owed, leaving the already crime-riddled community even more vulnerable. Arthur Blackwell, the city’s former Emergency Financial Manager said of the plan: “It’s a great deal” — a predictable response from an individual who sees nothing but the bottomline.

As more and more of Michigan’s urban areas lose their public lighting, crime rates continue to creep up, with Flint and Detroit taking the top two spots nationwide on the FBI violent city rap sheet. Unsafe streets perpetuate the cycle of poverty and crime, leading to increased law enforcement and incarceration costs for the state, all while tax revenues in those communities implode as residents flee for safer neighborhoods. When Detroit area resident Emily Doerr was recently mugged at gun point on a darkened street she explained to the city council that:

“It definitely makes me more fearful about living here where there is a higher number of people who are unemployed, have a gun and desperate (and thus willing to do anything to get money),”.

Detroit can’t afford to drive away people like Emily, a 28 year old who runs Hostel Detroit, a facility which provides tourists an economical place to stay.

In the meantime, one Detroit business association isn’t waiting around for officials to make the critical infrastructure investments needed to help break the poverty-crime cycle. The Detroit News reports that the Southwest Detroit Business Association has raised $6.4 million, 94 percent, of what’s needed to bring lights back to their community. Local business owner Jamahl Makled put it this way:

“Without a doubt safety is our number one priority and when there’s darkness, there’s crime. We’ve seen it from our own personal experience.”

Most of Detroit’s neighborhoods lack the private resources needed to cobble together the basics of a safe community, leaving them in the dark and without democracy under the pending Emergency Manager power-grab. Michigan is looking less like a proud United State, and more like North Korea under its retrograde path of self-destruction.

It is utterly baffling why the Snyder administration and Michigan lawmakers don’t understand that their first responsibility is to keep the lights on in Michigan.

Amy Kerr Hardin from Democracy Tree

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Michigan Governor Appoints Right-to-Life Supreme Court Justice

images[6]Michigan’s Gov. Rick Snyder has thumbed his nose at the suggestion he develop a nonpartisan process in screening potential appointees to the Michigan Supreme Court.

In the wake of the scandalous resignation of Justice Diane Hathaway, the national court- watchdog group, Justice at Stake, urged the governor to set-up a nonpartisan screening commission to aid in the selection of a replacement Justice. JAS Executive Director, Bert Brandenburg put it this way:

“Gov. Rick Snyder could help bolster confidence in fair and impartial courts by taking a page from the report of a bipartisan Michigan judicial selection task force.

“The task force asked Gov. Snyder to set up a nonpartisan advisory commission when a vacancy occurs on the Michigan Supreme Court. The commission would screen candidates and recommend three to five highly qualified applicants, and the governor would appoint one. More than 30 other states have a similar process for filling interim high court vacancies.

“The task force wanted to avoid the perception that raw politics would predominate when a governor makes a vacancy appointment. It said a nonpartisan advisory commission ‘would restore the public’s confidence in the Governor’s vacancy appointments to the supreme court.’ It was a good idea when the task force report came out last April and it’s a good idea now.”

Governor Snyder announced today that he has appointed David Viviano, formerly of the 16th Circuit Court to Michigan’s high court….and conservative Chief Justice Robert Young quickly endorsed the choice as a fine one indeed. Young said this of Viviano:

“Justice Viviano is uncommonly bright and learned in the law. But it is not his legal ability alone that makes him an outstanding jurist. He also knows that the role of judges is to interpret the laws, not to make them. He understands the deference due to the legislature as the body that expresses the will of the people through legislation. He is committed to following the rule of law wherever it leads him.”

Why should this concern Michigan residents, women in particular?

Justice Viviano is a Right-to-Life juror. His campaign finance report from his most recent bid for the circuit court shows a contribution of $2,246.89 from Right-to-Life on November 4, 2006 — his sixth largest contributor in that report. A contribution that came in late and was reported after the general election — a typical ploy of candidates that wish to hide their contributors.

Given the state of the Michigan legislature as one of the most anti-women and anti-reproductive rights in the nation, this is of grave concern.

Amy Kerr Hardin from Democracy Tree

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Michigan’s Gov. Snyder — The One Term Nerd

images[1]Michigan’s Gov. Rick Snyder, master of the political bait-n-switch, previously claimed he didn’t intend to run for a second term, much like right-to-work wasn’t on his agenda, but now the truth is out about his 2014 ambitions. Dennis Muchmore, his chief of staff, inadvertently(?) slipped that Snyder is itching for another go-round.  Speaking at the Legislative and Public Policy Conference  for the Michigan Society of Association Executives, The Detroit Free Press reports Muchmore saying:

“Leo Fender didn’t know how to play the guitar. He invented it before he knew how to play it, Dr. Seuss invented the word ‘nerd.’ We take a certain amount of pride in that word in our office. It worked for one election. It’ll probably work for another. I’m all about getting re-elected here folks. You may not be but I am.”

One must wonder if, when he visited Detroit this week, Snyder’s motorcade carefully avoided a billboard the Michigan Democratic Party erected on I-96 near Okemos, saying “Make Snyder a One Term Nerd”. He has a history of dodging. Shortly after he signed the recently repealed Emergency Manager law in 2011, Snyder visited Cadillac for an annual breakfast event. Protesters ringed the building on three sides, but never caught sight of the governor — as he snuck in and out via the service entrance.

He certainly is scrambling to mitigate some of the electoral damage RTW did to his numbers. In an effort to regain support among women, Snyder is moderating some of his 19th century reproductive rights policies. Last December he told House members their Blue Cross Blue Shield overhaul legislation was a no-go because it contained a provision that required women seeking an abortion to obtain supplemental insurance. Yesterday, the House was given the gubernatorial thumbs-up on legislation that removed that requirement. A couple of weeks ago, Democracy Tree broke the story about House members attempted to sneak through a cleverly-worded bill that would have required transvaginal ultrasounds, and again Snyder told Jase Bolger where he could stick that idea — making it clear he would not sign it into law.

It is doubtful that newspapers will be prepared to give Snyder those glowing endorsements a second time around. The Detroit Free Press slammed the governor after RTW, claiming he had misrepresented his agenda in his “One Tough Nerd” campaign. Editorial boards are an unforgiving lot with long memories — and they don’t like being made fools of.

Amy Kerr Hardin from Democracy Tree

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Pontiac Emergency Manager Gets Spanked in Court

images[1]Lou Schimmel, Emergency Manager of Pontiac Michigan just got spanked by Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Rae Lee Chabot for violating the Open Meetings Act when he cut the city’s pension board from 11 to 5 members. Chabot said Schimmel’s action “looks like a dictatorship” .

Schimmel claims that he was just trying to save the city money.

Sure.

Last March, Democracy Tree investigated some of the hypocrisies of the Schimmel administration, and found he had no trouble violating his own convictions regarding unfunded mandates and taking an exorbitant salary on Pontiac’s dime, in the form of an unfunded mandate.

Under the recently repealed PA-4, and now again under reinstated PA-72, Emergency Managers are paid through an unconstitutional mandate. When PA-436 takes effect on March 27, 2013, the salaries are to be covered out of a state fund. This change took the form of an appropriation to the new law — an appropriation which by the constitution, made the new law referendum-proof.

Here’s what was discovered last March (a sordid tale of bald-faced hypocrisy):

Unfunded mandates, the scourge of Michigan cities and schools for over three decades. The Legislative Commission on Statutory Mandates was empowered by Michigan lawmakers in 2007 to investigate this widespread unconstitutional practice. The Headlee Amendment  is unambiguous as to the illegal nature of the State enacting laws that place the funding burden on local units of government and school districts.

This committee produced a scathing report that rebuked Michigan lawmakers for blatant and repeated violations of the constitution — in 2009 alone they legislated over $2.2 billion in unfunded mandates. The blue ribbon panel was comprised of five respected experts, included among them was Lou Schimmel, of Municipal Financial Consultants, Inc. The group made very specific recommendations on how the state can avoid any future violations of Headlee. The panel advised creating a legislative oversight “special master” to enforce the provisions of the amendment and thereby protecting our cities and schools from unfunded mandates.

The conclusion was clear:  unfunded mandates were a major cause of fiscal stress on local units of government in the State of Michigan.

Fast forward to early 2011 when Public Act-4, The Emergency Manager Bill, was signed into law by Michigan’s Gov. Rick Snyder — that’s when a joke of sorts started making the rounds. At that time it became widely known that the training program for Emergency Managers (EMs) was a short 12 hour course, a day and a half, with lunch, that cost only $175.00. The law requires an EM to possess a paltry five years of unspecified “business” experience to run a city or school district and earn a generous salary of up to $250,000 plus benies. (This begs the question: Does that mean the guy with all the facial piercings at the Taco Bell drive-up qualifies? He’s been there quite a while.)  But, that’s not the “joke”.  No, it was what everyone said upon learning those facts: “I want that job!”  Who can blame them, it does sound like a pretty sweet gig.

At about the same time that Schimmel was decrying the horrors of those unconstitutional unfunded mandates, he also became the Director of Municipal Finance at The Mackinac Center for Public Policy. While in that position he conducted a fiscal analysis of the City of Pontiac in which he advocated for the privatization of much of their services as a solution to their financial woes, much of which were directly caused by the burden of unfunded mandates. Then in early 2011, through his position at the Mackinac Center, Schimmel started lobbying newly inaugurated Governor Snyder for strengthening the powers of the old Emergency Financial Managers found under Public Act 72 of 1990. Schimmel called for a “far more powerful”  EM — he wanted to see local dictators in Michigan cities, especially Pontiac.

Nine months later, Lou Schimmel was coronated as the all-powerful dictator of the City of Pontiac, with a salary of $150,000, plus benefits and full staff — all paid for through an unfunded mandate. Public Act-4 was very specific in its demand that all costs are to be the burden of the unit of government being seized — the law unabashedly violated Michigan’s constitution. Michigan’s legislature had become so cavalier about its addiction to unfunded mandates that they actually put it in writing that time. Most of these mandates are passive, in that the laws demand compliance without specifying the source of funding, leaving the cost burden on cities and schools who try to squeeze it out of their shrinking budgets, while ballooning their deficits.

Emergency Manager salaries currently range between $132,000 and $225,000. The typical defense for the high salary, compared to that of the elected officials they replace, is the demanding nature of the job. In fact, some of these EMs have cried foul about public criticism of their compensation claiming they are taking a pay cut because they could earn much more in the private sector. They paint themselves as making a great personal sacrifice to do their civic duty by “helping” these struggling municipalities.

Again, sure.

Amy Kerr Hardin from Democracy Tree

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DPS — The Incredible Shrinking School District

It’s reality check time for Detroit Public Schools Emergency Manager Roy Roberts. In  a recent correspondence with his staff, he all but admits that the Emergency Management scheme is seriously flawed. Referencing the free-fall in student enrollment as seriously problematic, he tells employees the following:

…the reality remains that if we continue to lose students the district will have no choice but to continue to shrink. I know that this is not what any of us wants to see happen. My goal is for all of us to work together to grow the district.” images[3]

Projections through 2016 predict the loss of over 1000 jobs, a $180 million dollar drop in the per pupil foundation grant, the closing of up to 28 more schools, and the current school population to shrink from 50,000 to 38,400 — less than half of the over 100,000 prior to Emergency Management. This enrollment decline did not occur in a vacuum — it happened under the watch of two unelected Emergency Managers, with unchecked absolute authority, who have run roughshod over the financially stressed district since 2009. They wielded brutal cut-back management fiscal policies, borrowed from the corporate world, leaving the district under-staffed and unable to manage class sizes.

Under the Snyder administration things got worse — much worse. With the governor’s blessing, Roberts launched the Education Achievement Authority so he could cut the academic dead-weight of the district’s 15 lowest achieving schools. The EAA is projected to absorb up to 60 new schools statewide, with many of them coming from DPS.

But, the straw that broke the district’s back is the recent expansion of brick and mortar charter and charter cyber schools — for-profit operations that see students as dollar signs. They have proliferated in the beleaguered Detroit area under the anti-public education policies of the governor. Snyder has systematically dismantled DPS like a true corporate raider.

Is this his idea of success?

Amy Kerr Hardin from Democracy Tree

Snyder Puts the Smack-Down on Michigan Lawmakers

In a rare show of political spine, Governor Snyder admonished lawmakers to pull their collective heads out of their asses (my words — he was much more statesman like), and stop wasting time on gun laws, particularly those that won’t stand-up to a constitutional challenge.

Catering to a fringe demographic, conservative legislators are putting the constitution to a good old-fashioned witch drowning — trial by ordeal — with Senate Bill 63.  A proposed law that would exempt weapons manufactured in Michigan from federal gun regulations, and which lawmakers readily admit is unconstitutional. The “logic” behind the potential law goes likes this:

Lawmakers love their constitution so much (particularly the second amendment), that they are willing to violate it to protect it — a legislative honor killing meant to preserve the virtue of our foundational document.

Snyder’s warning to lawmakers is likely intended to give them a political “out” with the NRA. A lawmaker need only introduce or vote More →

Right to Work — The Domino Effect

images[9]Lawmakers in states that formerly lacked the political will to openly bust unions with Right to Work laws are now lining-up like dominoes, emboldened by the Michigan lame duck legislative feeding frenzy that puked-up, among 300 hastily passed laws, a RTW bill that the spineless flip-flopping governor meekly signed into law, after saying he had no interest in that agenda.

A few days ago, Wisconsin threatened a new RTW push, citing Michigan as inspiration, and now Keystone State Rep. Jim Cox (R-ALEC) is sponsoring a package of bills that will push his Pennsylvania workers over that cliff. Americans for Prosperity is prepared to throw their full weight behind this, making the claim that RTW states have fared better in this economy — a fantasy assertion that is not borne out in reality. More →

Michigan Students — Prepare to be Assimilated

DSCF01825-300x266[1]As the Education Achievement Authority awaits its much anticipated legislative knighthood — codifying the institution through protection found in Michigan Compiled Law, they still want more money.

Currently comprised of 15 former Detroit Public Schools, the EAA is already in receipt of an additional $5.8M from the state, atop the $7,190 per pupil foundation grant that followed the 8,824 students. The new, soon to be, statewide district only captured about $6M in Title I funds, leaving the bulk of the $24.7M behind in a one-year deal with DPS. Next year, they’ll take the mother-lode.

They now clamour for another $2M, in the form of an advance on state aid money, to purchase computer equipment for online learning. Which on the surface sounds fine enough — technology is an important part of our lives. Last year, as the Snyder Administration stood poised to roll-out plans for broad expansions of both charter and cyber school programs, my friend Brit Satchwell, President of the Ann Arbor Education Association, explained to me that some online learning was a good thing, but only as a supplement to real classroom instruction.

The EAA plans to grow by leaps and bounds, as revealed in their recent grant application, they are projected to become the largest school district in the state — with a budget to show for it. A cash cow for eager corporate vampires with their well-honed privatization sales pitches and the full approval of Snyder under his “best practices” for schools — urging (insert air-quotes) districts to privatize wherever they can as a condition of receiving state funding.

Rolfe Timmerman, Superintendent of Saugatuck Public Schools, believes that Snyder has cooked the books in evaluating school performance by manipulating college readiness through creative interpretation of ACT scores. Timmerman says “Gov. Snyder and our Legislature have a vision to reinvent public education in Michigan through expansion of the Education Achievement Authority, eliminating the cap on for-profit charter and cyber schools, and the really frightening education finance rewrite project.”

The EAA is ostensibly meant to aid academically under-achieving schools through various innovations — among them, cyber learning. The sales pitch is the flexibility of learning at one’s own pace, the reality is something else entirely.

Too much online learning leads to an increased academic slump, with full-time cyber learning being an educational train wreck.

Dr. Michael Barbour, a recognized cyber school expert testified last year before the Michigan House Education Committee on the topic. He was very clear in expressing his concerns about the deleterious effects of excessive cyber schooling. Barbour said “On average, there is a decrease in the percentage of students achieving proficiency the longer they are enrolled in full-time online learning.”  Cyber schools often make the claim that they enroll more students that lag academically as their excuse for lower scores, but it is apparent that online learning exacerbates the existing problem. Additionally cyber schools do not have the tools to address, one-on-one, individual learning deficiencies.

Barbour cites an extensive and disturbing survey of 10,500 students in Colorado where they found that cyber schools are so bad that they have three times as many drop-outs as they do actual graduates. The study focused on the top cyber schools. Only 27% of cyber students met Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).

Cyber Schools are a virtual, pardon the pun, invitation for corruption. In Pennsylvania and Ohio, where lawmakers opened the door for cyber school expansion, both states experienced a flurry of court cases involving cyber school fraud. The schools where falsifying enrollment reports to receive funding for non-existent students– education tax dollars which went directly into the pockets of the same greedy millionaires that fund cyber school lobbyists and their political action committee, Digital Learning Now, headed by former governor Jeb Bush.

Enter the dragon…

Michael Milken, junk bond dealer, ex-con — you know the guy.  He’s interested in educating our precious children. Or, perhaps it’s more accurate to say he is interested in profiting off the tax dollars we pay to educate our precious children.

Milken is a primary investor in K12 Inc. an online school, and a very profitable one at that. It is the leading cyber scheme in a growing market of for-profit “schools” preying on state legislatures through heavy lobbying to open up their coffers for corporate pillaging in the name of school choice.

K12 currently has 81,000 students in 27 states, including at least one school in Michigan, with more to come in the works, as his company advertises their wares to unsuspecting families.  K12’s net profits in 2011 alone topped $21.5 million, while it’s CEO, Ron Packard, bagged a cool $5 million in 2010. That’s money going into the pockets of the rich at the expense of our children. Money that formerly went towards actual face-to-face education with real teachers earning on average 1% of Packard’s salary.

It’s not difficult to imagine why these profiteers think this is a real sweet gig.  National estimates of net profit in cyber schools range from $2,000 to $3,000 per child each year. Couple that with the fact that accountability in these corporate-owned schools is nearly non-existent, both in performance evaluation and in the disclosure of operating costs and profit margins.  In fact, we know very little about their budgets, but we do know a thing or two about their legally required student achievement measurements.

Cyber schools would just love to get a foot in the door of the EAA, capitalizing on their “innovation” business model.

Amy Kerr Hardin from Democracy Tree

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Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority — NOT Fiscally Responsible

How Michigan’s EAA Chancellor Covington can’t stay on budget:

The double-standard imposed on Detroit Public Schools by the Snyder Administration is the height of hypocrisy.

DPS was taken-over by an Emergency Manager with the claim that their $500 million dollar long-term debt was the result of fiscal irresponsibility of the elected school board and administration. The rationale was that bringing in a strong business leader to shore-up the balance sheet was just the remedy for years of supposed poor leadership. Starting with Robert Bobb in 2009, and now under former GM executive, Roy Roberts, Detroit students daily suffer the consequences of their misguided corporate tactics.

Under their leadership, the district has been subjected to brutal cut-back management practices typically found in the private sector for the purpose of “turning-around” a troubled company — which is code for: parting-it out like an old Buick. First cannibalized by the fire-sale of school assets, and more recently balkanized through the establishment of the Education Achievement Authority under Roberts, Detroit schools continue in a fiscal death spiral with little hope in sight. This new separate district, the EAA, was set-up to better “serve” the unique needs of under-achieving schools in DPS, with the intention of expanding the program statewide to capture the bottom 5 percent of academically stressed schools– along with their meager per pupil foundation grants.

Under Chancellor John Covington, the EAA currently runs 15 schools from DPS, but is under pressure to rapidly expand that number to include 60 schools statewide . A lot of money rides on their ability to grow the EAA to become what is projected to be the largest school district in the state with approximately 46,000 students — under the leadership of one un-elected official using non-union, under-compensated staff, operating day-to-day with shaky job security at best.

What’s the rush? More →

New Michigan Law in the Works to Destroy Public Education

A posthumous legacy of Michigan’s 96th Legislature — some ugly unfinished business the state can expect to see lead the parade of bills introduced in the new session:

Neophyte Republican party hard-liner, Lisa Posthumus-Lyons rode the coat-tails of her daddy, Dick Posthumus, into the Michigan House in 2010. After his failed gubernatorial race and loss to Jennifer Granholm, Dick worked his backroom corporate affiliations, and the father-daughter team surfed their well-greased skids into power positions within the Snyder Administration. The 32 year old freshman lawmaker, Lisa Posthumus-Lyons, fresh out of dabbling in the real estate business, was appointed Chair of the House Education Committee when the previous occupant, Rep. Paul Scott, was recalled.

Upon election, Snyder named the elder Posthumus as his senior advisor and legislative lobbyist. The appointment of Posthumus, a Michigan farmer with extensive legislative experience (having been the longest serving Senate Majority Leader in Michigan’s history) should have been the first clue that the Snyder administration would be nothing like the one painted in the campaign. More →