Michigan Emergency Manager law

Michigan Public Education in Shambles

It’s no surprise that money troubles and transparency issues are the result stripping public education of the accountability found in democratically elected school boards. Detroit Public Schools and the Education Achievement Authority both operate under state appointed individuals that shift millions in loans back and forth without disclosure of the transactions.

Democratic Rep. Ellen Cogen Lipton paid $2642.05 to file a Freedom of Information Act request for documents that revealed the movement of funds between the two bodies.

The Detroit Free Press reports that cash-strapped DPS have twice loaned the EAA $6 million dollars this school year. EAA Chancellor, John Covington, has been openly begging for money above and beyond the per pupil foundation grants it’s taken from DPS when the EAA was formed out of the 15 lowest performing schools in the district.

Covington is desperate for the Senate to pass legislation to match that passed by the House last month to codify the EAA as an official school district. In his end-of-the-year newsletter he told staff the following:

“…I am fully aware that there is much concern relative to whether there is sufficient support for the Education Achievement Authority and the work we are doing. We were all disappointed that the EAA was not codified as a statewide system of schools during the lame-duck session of the Michigan State Legislature, and the we did not make the final list of awardees for the Race to the Top funding by the United States Department of Education.”

The EAA is troubled by more than funding problems. Lawmakers are concerned about an increase in violence in those schools since they left DPS and are calling for more training of security officers. Sen. Coleman Young II (D) told The Detroit News that “officers have told him they lack basic training in CPR, experience high turnover and get little support from Prudential Protective Service, the company hired to provide security officers at the 15 EAA schools.”

The district produced abominable scores on their MEAPS last Fall, and Sen. Bert Johnson(D) reports that the EAA teachers are ill-trained, student abuse is occuring, and special needs students are being handled improperly:

• Rather than putting experienced teachers in these “under-performing schools,” roughly two-thirds are Teach for America students — who get five weeks of “teacher training” the summer before they are assigned, with no other certification required.

• At Pershing High School, a dozen TFA students walked off the job, and I have received reports of several who have broken down in staff meetings, unable to handle the rigors of teaching. In some cases, athletic department staff are teaching students.

• Reports of student abuse, including a child whose mouth was taped shut for being too talkative.

• Abuse of special needs students, including unilateral changes to Individualized Education Plans without input from parents, therapists and counselors. This is illegal.”

DPS fares little better in meeting special needs requirements.  After all the budget-cutting, school closings, charter conversions, and EAA stripping of funds — the most vulnerable students are being left in dire straights. Special needs students in DPS are becoming a larger and larger portion of the school population. The statewide average is 12 percent, but DPS is struggling to serve 18 percent — that’s 9,000 students – all while under the cruel austerity measures of emergency management. Their class sizes have doubled, yet among the expanded charter schools, only 10 percent serve special needs kids.

Michigan’s kids deserve better than this. Much better.

Amy Kerr Hardin from Democracy Tree

Important New Petition Drive in Michigan

A petition drive has been launched by Voters for Fair Use of Ballot Referendum, aka Voters for FUBR (pronounced foo’-bar). Bill Lucas, of Ferndale Michigan, founded the organization in late 2012. Its purpose is to prevent the legislative abuse of attaching appropriations to new laws to render them referendum-proof.

Voters for FUBR are circulating a petition with a proposal to amend the portion of Michigan’s Constitution regarding appropriations to laws, and to additionally provide for the power of referendum to amend/repeal a portion of a law.

The group hopes to gather 323,000 valid signatures to earn a spot on the 2014 ballot. The Associated Press reports that Voters for FUBR has approached larger organizations, but have yet to gain their support.

This is familiar ground for me personally, as I was one of the founding members of the coalition that successfully petitioned to repeal the Emergency Manager law. The process was difficult and it consumed a year and a half of the lives of many dedicated volunteers and activists. The coalition was key to our success. Without the support of AFSCME, Michigan Forward, Reject Emergency Managers, Rainbow PUSH, NAACP, and a number of other faith-based groups, unions and individuals across the state, we would never have earned a spot on the ballot.

As most are aware, the Michigan legislature enacted a new Emergency Manger law in their shameful lame-duck session, and attached an appropriation to it, as they did to the Right-to-Work law.  The RTW appropriation was straight-up abuse of the democratic process. Re-enacting the EM law was just plain criminal, however its appropriation was legally required because the law would have been an unfunded mandate — BUT, they could have written that into a separate tie-barred bill.

Another point lost on many was the fact that even if there had not been appropriations in either bill, they could not have been put to a referendum. They were both passed at the tail end of the legislative session, and petitioners would have had only 90 days into the next session to complete a process that takes well over a year. There are many hoops to jump through for a ballot proposal:

  1. File a Ballot Question Committee with the Secretary of State.
  2. Develop and have petition language approved by the state.
  3. Coalition build.
  4. Fundraise for legal costs and printing of the petition (a lot of money!).
  5. Recruit and train volunteer petitioners.
  6. Gather signatures.
  7. Compile and verify petitions.
  8.  Submit petitions.
  9. Campaign for the proposal itself.

In the case of the Emergency Manager law we repealed, it had been enacted at the open of the legislative session of 2011, therefore we had till 90 days after the close of the 2012  session to complete the process, about 13 months — and that was still a tight timeline!

Voters for FUBR will face other familiar challenges. Their initiative is similarly “un-sexy”, and will require more public education than a straight-up recall. People will erroneously think that the leaders of the drive are a well-funded sophisticated organization with banks of computers and trained staff — the public will get angry with the slightest little burp in the process. The mainstream media will be wishy-washy in their coverage, at times with a derisive under-current to their reporting. Right-wing organizations will put a lot of money into challenging the validity of the petitions and the ballot proposal itself.

This new ballot proposal is very important. It won’t be an easy task for Voters for FUBR to achieve, in fact, it will be monumental — but it’s worth the effort and I support them, and hope the voting public does too.

Amy Kerr Hardin from Democracy Tree

Detroit’s New Emergency Manager Has Tax Liens

Gov. Snyder’s handpicked financial wizard for Detroit’s Emergency Manager, Kevyn Orr, ain’t so wizard-y after all. Seems he has a checkered history of paying his taxes, and of having liens placed on his million dollar Chevy Chase, Maryland McMansion.

The Detroit News reports that Maryland records show:

 “A lien for $7,022 in unemployment taxes for the 2008 tax year was entered on July 17, 2009, and satisfied on Aug. 20, 2010. Another for $9,409 in income taxes for the 2008 tax year against Orr and his wife, Dr. Donna Neale, was entered on Aug. 11, 2010, and satisfied on Oct. 3, 2011.

Two other liens over unemployment taxes — $6,985 for the 2010 tax year and $9,201 for the 2010-11 tax years — are outstanding, said Frost, who reviewed the records.”

Snyder spokesperson, Sara Wurfel, said it didn’t come up in the vetting process. Did they not do the obvious — pull a credit report on a candidate for the appointment?

Seems not.

Maybe his $275,000 salary will help him with his personal debt service problems.

Amy Kerr Hardin at Democracy Tree
democracy tree logo
cropped-bannerformat1.jpg

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

democracy tree logo

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

democracy tree logo

Detroit Public School Test Results Misleading

images[2]As Detroit Public Schools are bragging-up their progress on the newly released MEAP (Michigan Educational Assessment Program) test scores, they are hoping that the media doesn’t remember that Emergency Manager Roy Roberts cut the academic dead weight of the 15 lowest performing schools in his district by hiding them away in the Educational Achievement Authority.

Admittedly, DPS is making slight progress, as part of a trend found across the state, but Roy Roberts gamed the system through the EAA, and should get over the self-puffery of the illusion of improvement. DPS scores lag dramatically compared to statewide averages in math, science, social studies, and writing, however they are beginning to show some meager progress in reading. Find DPS scores here.

The EAA, composed of only those 15 former DPS schools, should be factored-in when evaluated DPS progress. The truly abysmal EAA scores are deeply troubling. In math only o.9% of 3rd graders, 0.3% of 6th graders, and 0.5% of 8th graders were found proficient. In science 0% of both 5th and 8th graders were proficient in science. Find EAA scores here.

One wonders if the projected expansion of the EAA to 60 schools over the next five years,which is rumored to include an additional 10 schools from DPS, is Robert’s plan for further improving MEAP results. With his brutal cut-back management style and the closure of so many schools, combined with increased Detroit-area youth poverty and a disproportionate number of special needs students, Roberts will have to get “creative” to sell the public on the notion of measurable progress.

Amy Kerr Hardin from Democracy Tree

democracy tree logo

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

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 →

Michigan’s New Emergency Manager Law — An Analysis

       Fast facts about Michigan’s new Emergency Manager Law

Sorry Michiganders, it appears that your lawmakers and governor have done little more than rename the recently repealed Public Act 4 to make it appear more palatable to those that voted to strike down their 2011 version. Their working title is the Local Financial Stability and Choice Act — sounds almost nice — brings to mind terms like “enhanced interrogation” and “clear skies act”.

As previously noted, this new law actually provides no “choice” and only a false sense of “stability”. Its little more than a corporate slash-and-burn policy called cut-back management. The intent of the law, as written and applied, is to dissolve most, if not all, of the unit of government through a fire-sale of of its components, leaving the afflicted community without the basics expected of democratic civil life. Under the Snyder administration, Michigan’s cities and schools have been starved of funding while corporations are lavished with tax breaks.

Governor Snyder took the bill to his private residence to sign, and it will be delivered to Lansing for enactment any minute now. Here’s a primer on what you need to know about the new emergency manager law:

                                         A section-by-section analysis of the new law More →

Michigan Republicans… Toying with Democracy

A (satirical) Holiday Card from Republican Lawmakers:

Dear Michigan,

Season’s Greetings from Lansing to All Our Friends!

It’s that time of year Michigan Republicans like to share what the kids in Congress have been up to — capping-off another year of magic and wonder for the whole gang.

Santa came early for Michigan Republicans. And boy did they get spoiled this year! First they eagerly ripped open a package from Governor Snyder himself . Wow! — it was a Magic Kit!

Our Republican lawmakers, not being the brightest kids (shhh! They More →