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Bridges4Kids LogoMichigan School Aid Budget Gets Senate OK
Gongwer News Service, March 31, 2004
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Arguments over poor and wealthy school districts marked the passage of SB 1069 on Wednesday in the Senate. The bill, the largest of the state's budgets, went to the House on a 31-6 vote as a number of Democrats complained about cutbacks in at-risk funding.

The budget will continue a basic per pupil foundation allowance of $6,700 - the figure set for several years but which has not been met because of budget shortfalls - and would total nearly $12.5 billion, with $138.6 million in general funds.

The K-12 budget was one of a number of budgets the Senate approved Wednesday, many with their own controversies, especially the Department of Corrections budget where impassioned argument failed to restore funding for treatment of prisoners with Hepatitis C.

The K-12 budget also calls for a feasibility study of moving health care insurance costs for teachers and school personnel from the local districts to the state. Such a move, should it be actually recommended, could face a fight from organizations such as the Michigan Education Association. However, referring to a move in Illinois to do the same thing that officials there say could save the state as much as $1 billion, Republican members of the Senate said it made sense to at least explore the possibility.

But what drove the debate on the bill was the question of funding between lower income and upper income districts, or, as one member said, between higher spending and lower spending districts.

The measure rejects Governor Jennifer Granholm's proposal to reduce additional funds, by some $6 million, going to the highest spending districts through section 20 (j) of the School Aid Act (many of which, like Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills, are also the richest in the state). Those districts, however, also were more limited in their ability to boost per pupil funding under the 1994 Proposal A school funding reforms.

But the budget also cuts funding for at-risk students, and efforts to restore some $11 million in the at-risk funding failed.

Also failing were amendments to restore funding to intermediate school districts for early education programs aimed at infants and toddlers, and a proposal to restore $15 million to the Detroit schools.

Senate Minority Leader Bob Emerson (D-Flint) said he could not support the bill because of the "philosophical statements" it makes by cutting funding to poorer districts while restoring money to the higher spending districts.

But Sen. Shirley Johnson (R-Royal Oak) said that in assessing how much the state spends on a district, all funds have to be considered. For example, she said, a total of $10,000 per pupil is actually spent on students in Detroit schools when the at-risk funds that are spent is considered. That is not that much less than what is spent per student in Birmingham, she said.

Redmond Takes the 5th Under Subcommittee Questioning
Gongwer News Service, March 31, 2004

Former Oakland Schools Superintendent James Redmond was willing to give his full name, but that was the only information he provided the House Education Intermediate School District Review Subcommittee at its hearing Wednesday other than a statement read by his attorney proclaiming his innocence.

The abbreviated testimony was expected after Mr. Redmond was charged Monday with two felony and one misdemeanor counts related to a spending scandal at the intermediate school district.

Despite Mr. Redmond's attorney making it clear that he would not answer any questions, subcommittee Chair Rep. Ruth Johnson (R-Holly) asked a number of questions about his time at Oakland Schools, all of which, including a request for his title, where answered with his attorney invoking the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Mark Kriger, Mr. Redmond's attorney, said Mr. Redmond chose to preserve any defense of himself for court proceedings, adding that indications were that "a fair and unbiased hearing is not on the agenda today."

The subcommittee did receive information and recommendations - and an apology - from Guy Blackburn, a policy analyst for Oakland Schools and one of the first to raise concerns about some of the activities at the ISD.

Mr. Blackburn apologized to the subcommittee for not having done more sooner to try to prevent some of the damage, at least to the district's reputation, that had been done by the scandal at the school. But he also lightly chided Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Watkins for not doing anything with the information Mr. Blackburn provided him in a memo early in 2002.

Mr. Blackburn said the information in the memo was not sufficient to prove any wrongdoing in the ISD, but he said it should have raised some questions. "I had hoped it would start an investigation," he said. "I don't think much happened as a result."

Instead, it was a memo to the ISD board some six months later by a group of middle managers, including many of the same allegations that Mr. Blackburn had made, that started the current series of investigations and that led to Mr. Redmond's termination at the end of last year.

As a result of his experience, Mr. Blackburn recommended that the ISD boards be expanded to seven members and that some of those members be popularly elected. While he said as a bureaucrat he feared too much public interference in ISD operations, he said it would be more difficult to deceive the increased number of board members where some of those members were not education experts.

He said in many cases the board in place at the time of the questioned spending was deceived into approving contracts and new hires - and the ISD's new administration building - without questioning the real meaning of the spending or the source of the funds.

Mr. Blackburn said there were some limits on what the Legislature could do to prevent events such as happened at the ISD. "A couple of things we're talking about here, and you can't legislate this: we're talking about integrity and we're talking about courage," he said.

He noted that in many instances other managers were not able to do anything because they either feared for their jobs or were in some way shown that their positions on spending were wrong and so stopped fighting for change. He noted one instance a special education director was allegedly shown a legal memo by Mr. Redmond that showed in fact special education funds could be used to fund the ISD's fiber optic system, so the director withdrew his objections.

But not all of the questionable items uncovered by the subcommittee and other investigations should be cause for alarm, said Steve Vulerich, a former consultant to the ISD. Mr. Vulerich was the contracted director of technology during the period Mr. Redmond and others were considering O-Tech, a business that would have provided technology services to districts in the region and potentially in the state.

The plan called for Mr. Vulerich, Mr. Redmond and others connected to the ISD to be on the board, with the ISD putting in some $1.5 million a year for the first three years in exchange for a shrinking share of ownership.

Ms. Johnson said the proposal concerned her most because, while it had the ISD fronting the money, it had no provisions for how it would be repaid or otherwise share in the company's earnings.

But Mr. Vulerich noted that the copy of the business plan she had was preliminary and was never completed, much less implemented.

And he noted at the time the project was disbanded there were still some questions whether it would even have been legal.

NEW SUPERINTENDENT: While the subcommittee was trying to determine what went wrong within the ISD, the ISD board was preparing to move on. Tuesday evening it announced the five finalists to permanently replace Mr. Redmond.

The finalists for the post are Charles Breiner, superintendent of Howell Public Schools; Vickie Markavitch, superintendent of Penn-Harris-Madison

School Corporation in Indiana; William Mayes, superintendent of Huron ISD; Glenn Pelecky, chief administrator of the Mississippi Bend Area Education Agency in Iowa; and Sally Vaughn, superintendent of the Livingston Educational Service Agency.

The board hopes to have a new superintendent in place July 1.

Cox Rules Schools Must Enroll Ex-charter School Students
Gongwer News Service, March 31, 2004

Traditional public school districts must enroll students within their boundaries who leave public school academies and may not treat them as nonresidents, Attorney General Michael Cox ruled Wednesday. He said the districts must accept the students regardless of when in the academic year they elect to transfer, importantly even after the official count day when state aid is calculated.

Mr. Cox said the Legislature's actions to expand education options - such as the schools of choice law and charter schools - underscores the obligation of districts to accept former academy students as residents rather than following procedures to enroll nonresident students.

The opinion (No. 7154) said the districts are entitled to receive a portion of state aid for the partial-year students.

"Nothing in the (School) Code provides that by choosing to enroll in and attend a public school academy, a student relinquishes the right to leave the public school academy and enroll in and attend school in his or her district of residence," Mr. Cox said.

Mr. Cox said academies are not school districts for purposes of the provisions in the School Code mandating districts enroll all resident pupils, although they are considered public school districts for state aid purposes. He said the critical difference is that traditional districts have defined geographical boundaries while the academies do not exist within any such boundary and therefore do not have resident students.

The opinion was in response to questions posed by Sen. Wayne Kuipers (R-Holland) and Reps. Bill Huizenga (R-Zeeland) and Barb VanderVeen (R-Allendale).

ACLU Studying Effect of Teen Life Sentences
Gongwer News Service, March 31, 2004

With Michigan being one of 40 states that still allow life without parole for juvenile offenders and one of 13 with no age limit on such sentences, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan has undertaken a study of the effect of those sentences on communities.

The goal of the Juvenile Life Without Parole Initiative, being conducted under a $100,000 grant from the JEHT Foundation, is to find out nationally not only how many juveniles in the state have been sentenced to life without parole, but also whether there are any disparities in the sentences by race, gender or income level. The report will also outline other concerns about the long sentences.

"Life sentencing for juveniles is a heartbreaking issue and there is a real need to examine the impact these sentences have on our communities, state agencies and families," said ACLU-Michigan Executive Director Kary Moss.

"We know that in Michigan, there are 150 individuals serving 'life without parole' sentences for offenses that occurred when they were sixteen years old or younger," said project director Deborah Labelle. "Two-thirds of those have been sentenced since 1990 and over 70 percent of these children are African-American."

The study was spurred by changes in laws across the country over the past 10 years that allowed more juveniles to be sentenced as adults and recent research that argues teens are not truly able to understand the effects of their actions.

Watkins Told About ISD Mess In 2001, But Lack of Documentation Prevented Action
MIRS, March 31, 2004

A witness told a House investigative panel today that he told State Superintendent Tom WATKINS of suspected irregularities and wrongdoing at the Oakland Intermediate School District (ISD) in Dec. 2001, about six months before the ISD scandals came to light.

However, since the witness had no documentation to back up his claims at the time, the Attorney General apparently told the Department of Education it would not investigate.

Guy BLACKBURN, a consultant for student performance at the Oakland ISD, testified in front of the Subcommittee reviewing ISDs that he that he sent Watkins a Dec. 19, 2001, memo that outlined Blackburn's concerns about issues ranging from conflicts of interest and nepotism to misuse of school funds.

The following summer, other whistleblowers at the ISD took similar concerns to the ISD board. Ultimately, virtually every concern Blackburn outlined in his memo came to light as elements of a scandal that rocked the ISD and led to investigations by the news media, local law enforcement, the Legislature and the ISD itself.

On Monday, Attorney General Mike COX charged former Oakland ISD superintendent James REDMOND with three offenses, including felony embezzlement, marking the first criminal charges filed in connection with the scandals.

Redmond came before the subcommittee just prior to Blackburn this afternoon, and refused to answer questions, based on his Fifth Amendment rights (see related story). Redmond's appearance drew most of the news media's focus, and most of the reporters in the committee room left before Blackburn sat in the witness chair.

Following Blackburn's testimony, MIRS asked him how often he had talked with Watkins back around the time period of his memo.

"I talked with him by telephone once before I wrote the memo," Blackburn said. "I talked to him several times after that. But I wouldn't say I talked to him regularly or anything. He (Watkins) seemed to be quite concerned about it."

MIRS asked Blackburn if any action was ever taken in response to his memo or phone conversations with Watkins.

"Not that I'm aware of," Blackburn said.

This evening MIRS asked Watkins' spokesman Martin ACKLEY about the Dec. 19 memo and Blackburn's conversations with Watkins at that time.

"We passed the memo on to the person (Edith HARSH) in the Attorney General's office who was in charge of education," Ackley said. "When she got back to us, she said there was nothing to be done because he (Blackburn) had no documentation of what he was claiming. Shortly after that, the local (Whall) investigation began."

The Whall investigation began in the summer of 2002.

Blackburn told the panel today that he had hoped at the time that the memo would lead to an investigation by former Attorney General Jennifer GRANHOLM, who was only a few weeks away from announcing her candidacy for Governor.

If the Attorney General's policy at that time was that whistleblowers were required to provide "documentation" before the AG would investigate, Blackburn apparently stifled any chance for such an investigation in the opening lines of his memo.

"Per the request you made during our telephone conversation here is a report of any concerns," Blackburn wrote in the six-page memo. "There are many areas to discuss and unfortunately I do not have documentation to backup my assertions and suspicions."

In his testimony today, Blackburn pointed out that he stressed in his memo that he was well-paid and well-treated at Oakland Schools. He said he made a point of writing this because he wanted to make it clear that he was not a disgruntled employee.

"I have nothing to gain here," Blackburn stated in the memo. "In fact, I am putting myself in jeopardy to bring these to your attention."

Blackburn wrote that several of Redmond's personal family friends had been hired at his insistence. He also said Redmond attempted to secure a position for his son as director of a history/internet project. He ordered the new grant writer to prepare a $500,000 grant with his son as director.

Blackburn wrote that Redmond's son and Assistant Principal Jan VAM DAM's daughter were employed by minds.com, which Blackburn described as "almost a subsidiary" of Oakland ISD.

Next, Blackburn discussed the "large expenditure" of special education funding being used for the ISD's new building and other apparent misuses of the special education funds.

The third item had to do with the hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, going into minds.com without competitive bids. (Minds.com was a company Redmond started with ISD funding. This was also a major aspect of the overall ISD scandals.)

Blackburn also wrote of "expensive" staff parties, a fulltime "events planner," a teacher/coordinator being hired at close to $100,000 for a middle school program that never started. Instead, the employee was paid while basically having no job for nearly a year. Blackburn also mentioned the $84,000 set aside for cell phones.

Finally, Blackburn stated in the memo that, "We no longer have a rational salary schedule and most salaries are secret. In the past, all salaries were public knowledge. Stipends are often paid at the discretion of the superintendent and to my knowledge without board approval."

(The House Subcommittee is currently attempting to find out on what basis the stipends were paid.)

"We now have approximately 20 so-called Business Leaders, all making between $80,000 and $100,000," Blackburn said.

At the end of the six-page memo Blackburn wrote, "There is more, but the hour is late."

    

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