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Mack column mentioned in Maddow piece that finally finds a monster

by: Eric B.

Sun Apr 24, 2011 at 11:24:50 AM EDT

Julie Mack's column, noted on this site the other day, gets mentioned on Rachel Maddow's show Friday (clip embedded).

The Gazette column was basically a fact-check of Maddow's report, which neglected to mention that the Benton Harbor's financial manager was appointed by Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm and the fight over the park is completely separate from the fight over the financial manager. Moreover, part of the park already has been developed  -- with fulll approval of the Benton Harbor City Commission, which is being sued by opponents of park development.  Bottom line: Contrary to what Maddow suggests, Benton Harbor isn't exactly a model for the virtues of local control.

The Maddow show clip progresses as follows: She leads in by revisiting Benton Harbor, and then moving across the state to the Detroit Public Schools, which as we all know are currently under the emergency management of someone who really wants to run things like his own personal fiefdom (at least until he gets fired later this year). She highlights one of the schools that's on the closure list ... and then descends into hyperbole after declaring that the facts of both cases are not relevant. What is relevant, she says, is that benevolent overlord Rick Michigan has declared democracy irrelevant in Michigan. Face, meet palm.

Again, you can't get the story correct if you get the facts wrong. Facts are important and stubborn things. For instance, turning a public school into a charter is not privatizing it. Most of the state's charter schools are administered by universities and missing from the list of authorizers is any private company. The school in Detroit that Maddow focuses on could, in fact, be run as a public school academy by the Detroit Public Schools are even the Wayne County RESD (in fact, it sounds like that school in particular already functions as a de facto charter school). That is, while she reports that options have been taken away, they in fact exist (I make no qualatative judgment on those options, however).

What is happening here in Michigan defies a simple narrative, especially if you boil it down to a question of dysfunctional local government vs. a state-appointed dictator. The answer might appear to be easy for Rachel Maddow, who doesn't live in the state of Michigan, but those of us who do expect a fire truck to show up when we call 911 and want to trust that the local school district is not only educating our kids but is keeping them safe.

Can you, for instance, count on local government hamstrung by years of corruption and financial mismanagement to come up with a proper master plan and zoning ordinance to encourage businesses to open and hire people? Can you trust a fire department run under those conditions? Would you trust a school district that goes broke while its elected board stubbornly refuses to acknowledge that turning out class after class of kids who can't read is a serious problem?

This, in turn, raises the uncomfortable question ... what's more important here, process or outcomes? When the answer involves whether there's a cop there when you need one or whether your kid will be told that Pluto is considered a planet, I don't see how you can answer that question with a great deal of certitude.

Eric B. :: Mack column mentioned in Maddow piece that finally finds a monster
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What Creates Dysfunctional Government?
Eric, though I agree with most of your points (including the fact that Rachel Maddow has probably gone a little "over-the-top" on this one), I have to take issue with a couple of things.

1.  Even though the financial manager for Benton Harbor was appointed under Gov. Jennifer Granholm, Snyder's new EFM law now gives that financial manager unprecedented powers that he/she did not have before.  We've known about Robert Bobb, the EFM handling the Detroit Public Schools for a while now, but there were checks and balances in place that limited what he could do.

2.  The dysfunctional government that you speak of was deliberately created by a Republican legislature going as far back as Gov. Engler and beyond.  With regard to public school districts all over the state, it began with the Lottery "bait and switch" that we were all stupid enough to vote for as it was written.  Prior to the Lottery, public schools were funded out of the state's General Fund.  When the Lottery was approved "for education", the General Fund money was re-allocated (taken away), and SUBSTITUTED with a portion of the Lottery proceeds.  For public education, it ended up a net loss, and thus they have been "hamstrung" by inadequate funding for at least two decades now.  

Imagine how successful our public schools would be today if the General Fund money had remained, and had been supplemented by the Lottery.  Again, a classic "bait and switch" on we, the ignorant public.

Bottom line, if you take any entity's funding away, and they have nothing to work with, they will become dysfunctional.  Then it's open season for anyone to label them "dysfunctional", and use that as an excuse to take them over, nullify union contracts, etc.

The dismissal of locally-elected officials is a violation of Michigan's state constitution, and I believe it is a matter of time before it is challenged in court.

One last point.  Charter schools are NOT public institutions.  They are private corporations.  I have worked as a contractor for several of them.  Of course, the Republicans in our government would love to funnel our tax dollars their way in the form of "vouchers" - but that is not going to happen if the voters have anything to say about it.  

The Republican "wet dream" is to privatize all Michigan schools, and to make education a right only for those who can afford it.

Let the dumbing-down of our society begin.


Dysfunctional government...
I don't think there's any question but that the Legislature and past governors have made worse already bad situations, but if it was all the fault of elected state government, every school district and city government in the state of Michigan would be currently failing. Instead, we've got some cities and school districts that are failing because they were simply incompetently managed.

I consider charters to be public education institutions because they have open enrollment and are ultimately overseen by public entities that can close down underperforming schools. Now, we can argue over whether they do any good or whether they are as accountable to the public as advertised (they aren't), but that's why I call them public entities.

Among the Trees

[ Parent ]
Charter Schools
Charter schools may have their charters operated and issued by universities, but most are managed by private companies hoping to make a profit.  True public schools do not operate to make a profit and this is a key difference.  Also, it's pretty generous to claim charter schools have "open enrollment" as many select for their population in underhanded ways.  Staff turnover in charter schools is ridiculous and working conditions (not to mention learning conditions) are often quite bad.

I think a key point is that most charter school teachers are not unionized.  The Republicans AND many Democrats in charge (Obama/Duncan for sure) would like to eliminate teachers unions and charter schools are a more palatable strategy than vouchers.

[ Parent ]
Again, I make no qualitative judgments here...
You're arguing as if I've never criticized charter schools, which is quite simply untrue.

Among the Trees

[ Parent ]
You're right.  I got off topic because charter schools get me riled up.

BUT I still don't think it's inaccurate to say turning a public school into a charter is privatizing it.  Although the charter might be issued by a public institution, the schools are run and operated by for profit PRIVATE entities.  These private entities have a very different interest than traditional public schools.

[ Parent ]
I'm not in favor of EFM's
I'm not in favor of emergency financial managers generally, and I'm not ok with taking away people's right to elect their own leadership, particularly in places like Detroit and Benton Harbor where there is a long history of people coming in from somewhere else to tell them they don't know what they're doing and how to do it better (and that's ignoring the racial element, which is the 300lb gorilla in the room with practically everything Republicans from Lansing try to do in Detroit).

That said, any school board that elects a semi-literate fool like Otis Mathis it's president and keeps him on despite years of indications that he wasn't exactly the guy you want running your schools (the actions that lead to his criminal charges don't appear to have been the first time he misbehaved in that way) doesn't deserve to be in charge of the salad bar at Denny's, let alone the State's largest school district.

I've been supporting Robert Bobb (halfheartedly) because while he's not exactly great I'm relatively certain he knows how to read and write.

The problem with fixing DPS or anything else where the problems are systemic and caused by elected officials is that you have to convince people not to vote for the sorts of people they've been voting for and to support you instead, while you're making incredibly difficult decisions that are going to negatively impact lots of people.

Like most of the issues Detroit confronts, there's no easy solution to fixing DPS that's going to make everyone, or even most people, happy. If there was it would have been done years ago.

[ Parent ]
You raise a lot of really good points...
There is a lot to be alarmed about in the beefed-up emergency manager powers. I'm somewhat alarmed that an emergency manager would have so quickly stripped elected local officials of power. Against that, however, I have to balance the fact that the city of Benton Harbor told its citizens that they've had to -- to deal with their financial problems -- cut their fire department to the point where the city can't handle a major fire without putting out a mutual assistance call to neighboring local governments.  That not only puts properties and people in Benton Harbor at greater risk, but also at greater risk the properties and people of surrounding communities whose fire protection resources could be drawn to another town at the wrong time.

It's a balancing act, and I don't think that anyone can truthfully say that it's a black-and-white question.

Among the Trees

[ Parent ]
The lottery is not the problem
While what you say about the lottery and subsequent diminished funding from the General Fund is true, that pales in comparison to what Proposal A did in 1994.  Before Prop A, the state provides 20% of K-12 funding, the local districts 80%.  Prop A reversed this so that the state now provided 80% of K-12 funding and the locals 20% (and it's only the local districts that were considered out-of-formula before Prop A  that are still allowed to collect local property taxes.  Thus, almost all districts and public academies aka charter schools are totally dependent on the state for their operating monies.  The lottery money is about $600M, while the School Aid Fund is about $12billion or so.  If there's a recession and/or someone at the helm who thinks K-12 doesn't need all the funding they used to get, then you have the kind of massive cuts we've seen the last few years and that proposed for the future.

[ Parent ]
This is what is bothering me:

Contrary to what Maddow suggests, Benton Harbor isn't exactly a model for the virtues of local control.

Whether one can sympathize with the state that a place like Benton Harbor is in or not is totally beside the point, and why that keeps getting thrown in is beyond me.  If this is being done on whether the community in question holds the popular opinion of this state's residents is a red herring is far as I'm concerned, and this is really getting to be a dangerous trend.  

If I'm to be completely blunt, this argument is actually a cover (conciously or not) for the belief that since Benton Harbor is a poor, black city that it can't take care of itself.  Your average Michigander can't relate to the place, so it's easier for them to either support or be ambivalent to a state take-over.  It seems to me so long as they are threatening the likes of Detroit, Highland Park, Ecorse, River Rouge...that while some Dems may not like the law, they won't lose any sleep over those places being taken over.  Watch when this shit goes down in a more wealthy community or some rural community and then everybody will be on the same page.  That's if this law is applied consistently, and that's a big if if you ask me.  

It's a double standard, I don't care how many times people want to deny it.  Hamtramck is literally months away from a take-over (AGAIN), just months ago it literally begging the state to let it declare bankruptcy, and nary is there a peep to be heard.

First, they came for the Benton Harborites, and I said nothing, because I wasn't a Harborite...

I would have no problem with an emergency takeover of Mt. Pleasant if need be
And, I have contemplated the possibility, and under what circumstances it might be necessary.

No, this isn't because Benton Harbor is home to a mostly African American population. It's because Benton Harbor tried to borrow money from the state to make payroll, and when the state wondered why the city was so broke found that it was carrying massive liabilities even as the people who requested the cash insisted that nothing was wrong.

Among the Trees

[ Parent ]
There are other solutions to Detroit Schools not yet tried
Why is it that the alternatives have to be a dictator or the inexcusably incompetent boards that we've seen?  

If the state legislature can wipe out the rights of citizens in Detroit (and other minority dominated communities - I'm with MiddleGrandGuy on expecting to see few, if any predominately white communities put under the control of an EFM), why can't the legislature put in place some qualification standards for School Board members? Make them be college graduates, without history of felonies, or misdemeanors involving minor children, or having had children removed by protective services.

Require that entire school budgets, including all contacts, be published on the web site of the District within some short time frame. Publicize the bidding process for procurement.  Pass some stronger conflict of interest and anti-nepotism laws for boards that represent the citizens. Even Texas, well known for its "good 'ol boy" culture, has very strong conflict of interest laws that put us to shame.  For example, if you are elected to a school board, you can't have a family member or spouse of same within some degrees of relationship working for the organization  you will be serving, nor can such persons hold contracts or subcontracts that are paid with public funds.  

Oh, that's enough examples and more than I should say. I just don't think that the ends justify the means in this case. It's too easy to say it's ok if it's Detroit, which just perpetuates the racial and economic divisions that drag this state down.

I see several issues with this approach
1. In many municipalities and districts that have financial issues, the local governments deal with a significant amount of corruption. There is no guarantee that such legislation would be effective as such governments would likely resist such reforms and take steps to prevent their implementation.

2. Various issues within local governments that lead to dysfunction would have to be tackled individually, meaning that it is unlikely that all issues would be addressed and it will take time for such legislation to be implemented.

3. Whatever legislation is undertaken by the states to improve local governments is likely to be imperfect. Thus, it likely would not fully address the problems in struggling local governments and could cause needless problems for well-run districts. Especially as some improvements may not work across the board.

4. While reforming local governments is a good idea and will likely improve them in the long term, a number of local governments face immediate financial crises that they have proven incapable of dealing with on their own. I would argue that EFMs are necessary in these cases, as I cannot come up with any realistic alternatives that can resolve such issues. Hopefully, such reforms would improve local governments to the point that the need for EFMs would be eliminated in the future.

[ Parent ]
The Problem isn't that there are EMs or a need for them
The problem is that the law was entirely ghost-written by the Mackinac Center and ALEC, with Al Pscholka serving as the ventriloquist's dummy.

The speed was astounding -- it took just over two months from Gov. Snyder's first mention of strengthening EFMs at his State of the State message to the day he signed the new law granting absolute power with minimal accountability -- and dominant Republicans swatted aside every Democratic attempt to add accountability or limit the power.

There are no limits on EM pay, benefits or authority (either for themselves or anyone THEY hire to help them); no requirements that they hold public meetings or solicit voter input before making decisions; no rules on conflicts of interest or recusals; they don't even have to put new contracts up for competitive bids or seek the best possible price when they sell community or district assets (such as beachfront property or school buildings).

These are the problems. Focusing on Benton Harbor or DPS allows proponents to point at just how bad things are with those places, and remind us that Harris and Bobb were appointed by Governor Granholm.

I expect that the large majority of the coming wave of EM Czars will at least try to take their job seriously; they will have credentials far exceeding the laughably minimal requirements set forth in the law; and thety'll focus on being in power just long enough to resolve the financial emergency (among the powers granted is the ability to set up millages to raise revenues).

But it will only take one or two to read the LETTER of the law, realize that there's NOTHING preventing all manner of corruption, and get busy.

Pointing out the possibility of a worst-case scenario is our duty. Then, when it happens, it'll be our job to make it public and hang that corruption around Republicans' necks like beads at Mardi Gras. "Willie Horton"-ize it, if you will.

"The two most common elements in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity." ~ Harlan Ellison

Can you, for instance, count on local government hamstrung by years of corruption and financial mismanagement to come up with a proper master plan and zoning ordinance to encourage businesses to open and hire people?

The answer is no.

Among the Trees

[ Parent ]
Can YOU, for another instance, count on an unelected and unaccountable EM Czar with zero experience in master plans or zoning to come up with something that will encourage businesses (those that aren't run by the EM Czar's friends/family, or won't "pay to play") to open and hire people?

The answer is also no.

"The two most common elements in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity." ~ Harlan Ellison

[ Parent ]
That's a strawman argument...
First off, it's not actually the job of a emergency manager to write a master plan or a zoning ordinance. That job is left to township, city, and county governments and if a town goes into emergency management without a working master plan and zoning ordinance ... well, that probably goes to great lengths to explaining why the town is under an emergency manager.

Second, you're presupposing that every person named as an emergency manager will have no experience in writing master plans and zoning ordinances.

But you dodged the original question ... can you count on local government hamstrung by years of corruption and financial mismanagement to come up with a proper master plan and zoning ordinance to encourage businesses to open and hire people?

Among the Trees

[ Parent ]
Care to explain your "1" ratings?
[ Parent ]
Because you're not going to get a four on everything.  On the strange scale between a "Great" and an "unproductive", I rated you towards which one I felt you were closer to.  You've been grossly inconsistent and it's getting to be something a bit beyond annoying.

Maybe, you need to add a two and a three.  :)

[ Parent ]
I haven't been inconsistent, I've been nuanced
This is an incredibly complicated issue to me, so a simple position escapes me.  People who make a mess of things tend to not want to own up to it publicly and fix things. So, we need a way around those people. However, I don't see the solution as simply not caring what everyone but one man thinks. So, I see this not as a question of whether the law is good or bad, but whether specific applications of the law are good and bad. Also, if an emergency manager goes to a city and finds that the books are cooked to accommodate corruption, I see no reason why the people responsible shouldn't be promptly terminated.  Hell, the governor already has the power to do this (lots of people called on Jennifer Granholm to fire Kwame). That power has only been delegated.

Among the Trees

[ Parent ]
I didn't presuppose anything, and wasn't dodging
I expect that the large majority of the coming wave of EM Czars will at least try to take their job seriously; they will have credentials far exceeding the laughably minimal requirements set forth in the law; and they'll focus on being in power just long enough to resolve the financial emergency (among the powers granted is the ability to set up millages to raise revenues).

Many of the early attendees of Andy Dillon's Czar School are veterans of municipal government, former elected officials, or both.

But what the quoted bit also points out is that an EM isn't there to "encourage businesses to open and hire people:" The Czar's job is to resolve the financial emergency -- period.

If resolving the emergency means amending the Master Plan, or scrapping it and commissioning a new one, the EM can issue a contract to do it.

Now, my reading of P.A. 4 didn't show Zoning to be in the set of powers granted to an EM; however, replacing an elected or appointed Zoning Board with people handpicked by the EM Czar would accomplish the same thing.

Maybe some EMs will attack Zoning or the Master Plan (possibly to clear the way for an asset sale to an interested developer); but I imagine most won't need to, or have no desire to waste the time.

"The two most common elements in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity." ~ Harlan Ellison

[ Parent ]
Emergency Financial Managers
Regardless of which Guv appointed these EFM's the final result is going to be the same They'll pull off a power grab that only their Party will benefit from financially. Then they'll leave town braying like a jackass about all the great things they did.

However, it'' still still going to be the same town, white flight to the burbs, poverty and all the social ills that brings. And finally who will fill the void left by the departure of the EFM's? Will the citizens do so or will our Benevolent Overload appoint a committee of his underlings to carry it out? My bet is the thought hasn't even occurred to him.

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