School Aid Budget Gets Senate OK
Gongwer News Service, March 31, 2004
For more articles like this
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
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
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
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
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
Redmond Takes the 5th Under Subcommittee
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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)
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
"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
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
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."
back to the top ~
back to Breaking News
~ back to