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 Article of Interest - Charter Schools

Charter Bill Felled by Impatient Senate, Plodding House

from Gongwer News Service, December 14, 2002
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Sick of waiting on a Friday night for a House that has struggled to find a resolution on the issue of charter school expansion for four years, the Senate adjourned for the year-coincidentally minutes before the House finally passed the legislation-killing the bill barring an unexpected decision by the Senate to return next week. Furious House members demanded the Senate come back to the Capitol to vote on the bill before the end of the calendar year when all unresolved bills die.

It was an extraordinary conclusion (or maybe not the conclusion) of the 91st Legislature. House Speaker Rick Johnson (R-LeRoy), irate at Senate Majority Leader Dan DeGrow (R-Port Huron), said that if Mr. DeGrow did not bring senators back next week he hoped Governor John Engler would call a special session after the Legislature adjourns sine die December 30. If called, it would be the first special session in nearly 40 years.

But the end also signified the frustration both houses have had for the other over the last several years. Senate members actually were fed up waiting for the House to return a bill on legislative early retirement, since members had no confidence the House would enact a charter bill.

It ended a day that began with the Senate repealing the 2004 election on the Detroit school system, a repeal the House attempted, and failed, to amend, and then followed with both houses as they tried reaching resolutions on a variety of issues on the, most likely, final session day of the 91st Legislature.

Charter school supporters finally cracked the code to getting a bill through the House by limiting charter expansion to Detroit and reimbursing the Detroit Public Schools for lost pupils. It passed the House with the minimum 56 votes needed for passage, 56-39 moments after a Senate annoyed with waiting 12 hours on a rare Friday session (and really for four years) for the House to find a solution on charter schools called it a year.

Senators were plenty peeved at the House, which has whiffed numerous times in the past on charter schools, and felt they had given them more than enough time to resolve the impasse. Enraged House members supporting the bill felt betrayed and all but accused the 27 term-limited senators of skipping town to get started on their political retirement.

But senators complained that House members "should get a clock," and were particularly annoyed when a large load of pizzas showed up in the House about 10 p.m., hinting that chamber was ready to continue well into the night.

The flap that ended the 2001-02 session put a few of key bills in limbo, namely legislation extending the state's participation in a multistate compact that seeks to improve collection of taxes on remote sales, revising the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules and consolidating elections. The House brought them up for votes Friday, but they were short of passage. And after the Senate bolted, Mr. Johnson made it clear he had no interest in Senate-sponsored bills.

Mr. Johnson initially called for rejecting the resolution allowing the Legislature to adjourn, but for constitutional reasons was forced to allow adjournment until December 30. Governor John Engler said although he had not spoken with Mr. DeGrow after the Senate adjourned, he thought both chambers would return next week, but it appeared unlikely the House would come back as members said good-bye to each other until next year.

"I think they will, both the House and Senate probably will come back next week for just a couple hours," Mr. Engler said. "There are enough important measures are now a vote away from being completed that it probably makes sense. ... Would you travel to Lansing for two hours if you could secure a couple hundred million dollars investment in your state? I think the answer's pretty obvious."

CHARTER SCHOOLS: The bill (SB 143) would allow three new charter schools in Detroit per year for five years. They would have been newly constructed buildings paid for privately by Belleville resident Rob Thompson (Mr. Engler's reference to investment in the state). And the Detroit Public Schools would have received $2.5 million per year for three years to offset the loss of funding from pupils leaving the schools system for a charter school.

The bill also would take away the governor's appointee to the Detroit school board and allow the mayor to appoint all seven members-removing the governor's veto power over the selection of the district's CEO. A companion bill (SB 142) that would have delayed the citywide referendum on returning to an elected board from 2004 until 2006 fell short of passage and remains in the House.

Charter schools are public schools that operate outside of the traditional public school system. Universities, the primary authorizers of the academies, are limited to sponsoring no more than 150 such schools, a cap that has been reached.

Seven Democrats joined 49 Republicans to pass the charter school bill with nine Republicans either voting "no" or not voting after a dramatic floor speech by Mr. Johnson in which he berated the Senate and Mr. DeGrow.

"This comes down to four words: term limits and pay raise," Mr. Johnson said. "Senate Majority Leader Dan DeGrow started this legislative term by refusing to take a stand on an outlandish pay raise-that he orchestrated-and he finished the term by walking away from Detroit school kids. It's funny that he couldn't wait around tonight to do the only constitutional thing required of a lawmaker: vote in session."

In fact, the Senate had finished passing the remaining House bills in its possession hours before the chamber adjourned, and was quite literally spending long times at ease waiting on Senate measures to trickle back from the House. By the time the chamber had adjourned, enough individual senators had left the Senate could no longer give immediate effect to any bills.

Mr. DeGrow and his aides could not be reached for comment after the House session that ended after midnight Saturday. Mr. Engler, while praising Mr. Johnson, also lauded Mr. DeGrow as a "fantastic" lawmaker and defended the Senate's action.

"Dan's always been a guy who's interested in policy," he said. "The Senate worked hard. The Senate got all its work done early. In fact they were so efficient that was the problem. They were having to wait. A chamber of 38 is a little faster than a chamber of 110, especially when the 38 have a lot more experience than the 110."

Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who with House Minority Leader Buzz Thomas (D-Detroit) developed the compromise, said he expects the Senate to return.

"We have unfinished business here," he said. "I know there's some men and women here who want to finish the job, and hopefully they'll come in Tuesday."

Rep. Keith Stallworth (D-Detroit), one of the Democrats voting "yes" on the bill, accused members of his caucus of putting personal gains ahead of a plan with which they philosophically agreed. Other Democrats voting "yes": Ken Daniels of Detroit, Belda Garza of Detroit, LaMar Lemmons of Detroit, Bill McConico of Detroit, Joseph Rivet of Bay City and Mickey Switalski of Roseville.

Hanging in limbo is the extension of the mayoral takeover of the school district. Mr. Engler said he fears political bosses in Detroit will seize control of the school board if the city returns the elected system.

"The old school board's so discredited that there should be no interest in going back anytime soon to that process," he said.

Mr. Engler remained optimistic. Asked if he was disappointed about the result, he said, "Talk to me then when it's over, and we'll see if we're disappointed."

DETROIT SCHOOLS: The Senate's action Friday morning to repeal the election revisited one of the most controversial issues to hit the Legislature in recent years: the takeover of the Detroit public schools in 1999. At that time, the takeover legislation included a provision that in 2004 the voters could restore the elected school board.

In an interview last week, Senate Majority Leader Dan DeGrow (R-Port Huron) said he would support a repeal but doubted it would be accepted because of its charged nature. However, through the week rumblings continued that an effort would be made to repeal the election date, with that tied to a Detroit Area Regional Transportation Authority bill, although no confirmation to those rumors could be made.

In fact the repealer amendment, which could be tied to any bill, was tied to a DARTA bill, HB 5468, which makes changes to the state's bus transportation authority to refer to DARTA.

Mr. Kilpatrick called the repeal "total oppression." He acknowledged that he wanted authority to appoint all the board members-one now is appointed by the governor-and wanted a delay in the election, but called a complete repeal unacceptable.

And Senate Democrats said the provision would deny Detroit residents democratic participation in their schools.

In fact, Sen. Alma Smith (D-Salem Township) angrily said it was ironic that in the main DARTA bill-HB 5467, whose conference report was approved by the Senate on a 20-13 vote-a community could put on the ballot for its voters to drop out of a transportation authority but Detroit voters would now be barred from voting on their school board.

And Senate Minority Leader John Cherry (D-Clio) said, "At some point we have to trust democracy." If the school district is making improvements, then the voters will recognize that and will maintain the current system, he said.

Sen. Joe Young Jr. (D-Detroit) said, in fact, the new district was not working because it had not corrected the problems the old district had developed.

But Sen. Joanne Emmons (R-Big Rapids) said the focus of the lawmakers should be on Detroit's children. "I still haven't heard one word from the other side that the other system was better. This is not about who's in power. It's about who can help the kids."

Once over in the House, though, members tried to change the election date to 2006, which would be in keeping with Mr. Kilpatrick's belief. But the votes were not there for the measure, and the board was cleared without recording a vote.

Chris De Witt, spokesperson for Governor-elect Jennifer Granholm, said she opposed any plan to eliminate the 2004 vote on the Detroit School Board. "If you talk to anyone in the city of Detroit, they have made it very clear that the citizens of Detroit should have a right to vote for their school board," he said. "She feels very strongly that the franchise should be returned to the city of Detroit."

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