Brian Charles Watson / Wikimedia Commons

In this Saturday's Week in Review, Michigan Radio's Rina Miller speaks with Political Analyst Jack Lessenberry about auto earnings, the new state model for measuring K-12 academic achievement, and the primary election coming up on Tuesday.

RM: U.S. car companies announce their profit statements this week. How are things looking, Jack?

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

The school board for the new charter school system in Muskegon Heights will likely adopt a preliminary budget Monday.  

Muskegon Heights schools’ emergency manager hired a for-profit charter school company to run the public school system for the next five years.

An attorney for the school board says Mosaica Education drafted the budget the school board will consider approving Monday. It's likely the budget will be amended throughout the school year if needed.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

The emergency manager of Muskegon Heights Public Schools says he’s signed a contract with a charter operator that will practically run the whole school district next school year.

In a press release sent out this afternoon, Emergency Manager Don Weatherspoon says he’ll review the signed contract during a public meeting on Monday. The statement doesn’t say which charter school company got the deal. Weatherspoon was not available to discuss the release.


Students in Muskegon Heights Public Schools are still in limbo while the district's state-appointed emergency manager decides what charter school company will manage the system.

MHPS Emergency Manager Don Weatherspoon told parents in May he planned to turn the entire system over to a charter operator this fall. He also said he wanted to have a contract signed June 13.

There’s still no contract in place. That means parents don’t know yet if their kids will get bussed to class, if the district will offer athletics, AP classes, or band next school year.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Muskegon Heights Public Schools Emergency Manager Don Weatherspoon heard from parents, alumni, teachers, and taxpayers during and after the meeting. He reassured parents a free neighborhood school will be open this fall.

But most had questions he couldn’t answer yet. Like, will there be band, art or athletics? Busing and special education services? Although he’d prefer it, Don Weatherspoon says he cannot make any guarantees.

Governor Rick Snyder has appointed Donald Weatherspoon to run the Muskegon Heights school district. The appointment is effective Monday, April 23rd. A link to the governor's press release is here.

Dr. Weatherspoon has spent the past 27 years working in the education community, both as a professor at Michigan State University and as a government executive, and currently serves on the Michigan Liquor Control Commission.

Muskegon Heights School Board

Today is the deadline for the Muskegon Heights school board to ask the governor for a hearing on his impending appointment of an emergency manager to the district. It appears unlikely the school board will request the hearing.

Last December the Muskegon Heights school board laid off its superintendent and asked the state for an emergency manager. Four months later, Governor Rick Snyder agreed a financial emergency does exist and the school board has no real plan to fix it.

Unless the school board requests a hearing today, the next step is for Snyder to appoint the manager. That could happen as soon as this week.

Muskegon Heights schools would become the third school district run by an emergency manger in Michigan. Four cities are run by emergency managers as well. The City of Detroit is working under the terms of a consent agreement instead of an emergency manager.

Muskegon Heights School Board

A review team is recommending Governor Rick Snyder appoint an emergency manager to run the Muskegon Heights Public School district.

Unlike any other city or school district, the school board in Muskegon Heights voted for a state takeover.

Muskegon Heights Schools has run a deficit for at least six years in a row.

The review team found:

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Five state lawmakers took tough questions from parents in East Grand Rapids Wednesday night. The legislative committee of the schools' PTA hosted the lawmakers; four republicans and one democrat. Hot issues included a proposed bill on cyber schools and the governor’s proposed k-12 budget for next school year.

Cyber charter schools

Last year Michigan lifted the cap on how many charter schools public universities can run. Now, there’s a bill proposed that would allow more cyber charter schools to operate.

Many parents asked the lawmakers why cyber schools get the same amount of state money per child as brick and morter ones. State Representative Peter MacGregor (R-Rockford) said cyber schools shouldn’t get as much, saying the savings should be passed on to the taxpayers. Cyber charters can be run by national for-profit companies.

Tina Murua has two kids enrolled in East Grand Rapids schools. “I fear that they’ve couched the whole thing in terms of parental choice because…who can argue with that? It’s a brilliant strategy but it was a false choice,” Murua said. She worries companies are pushing states to allow more cyber schools just to make money.  

The state senate already approved the cyber charter school bill. It passed the State House Education Committee in late February.

A statewide group launched a campaign Thursday demanding state lawmakers invest more money in public education.

Victoria Kovari is the lead organizer at the Michigan Organizing Collaborative. It’s a network of faith-based, community and labor leaders. Kovari says they want lawmakers to significantly reverse the trend of education cuts in Michigan over the past decade.

“This is a statewide problem. It affects rich and poor districts, city and suburban and rural districts all across the state. And it affects the lives of real people; young people and parents and teachers,” Kovari said.

The collaborative is asking people to sign an online petition to lawmakers. She hopes the request will make a difference as lawmakers craft the state budget over the next few months.

A new plan to eliminate a running deficit at Muskegon Heights Public Schools would close schools and cut teacher pay by 40-percent. That means a teacher with a PhD and 20 years of experience would make around $40,000 a year. New teachers would make around $20,000.

But school leaders admit the plan is still unlikely to work.

Unions haven’t even voted on the concessions. But interim superintendent Dave Sipka had to submit the plan anyway to get the money the district needed from the state in order to make payroll.

user kakisky / morgueFile

Full day kindergarten may be in store for more Michigan children, due to changes in the school aid budget.

Schools currently get the same amount of per pupil funding whether they offer half day kindergarten or full day kindergarten. But starting this fall, schools that offer half day kindergarten will see their per pupil funding for those students cut in half.

The state legislature approved the school budget funding change last year.

Here are several different school districts' takes on the changes:

One size does not fit all

Livingston County's Brighton Public Schools currently get the full $7,000 per pupil for half day kindergarten students. They’ll get $3,500 for half day kindergarten students beginning with the 2012 school year.

Greg Gary is superintendent for Brighton area schools. He says the drop in funding is going to hurt his budget, but he refuses to cut half day kindergarten from the schedule:

"Not every kid is going to excel in a full day program. I have two children, and I would have put one in full day kindergarten, and one in half day kindergarten, because kids are different."

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

The school board of Michigan’s third largest public school district voted unanimously Monday night to extend interim Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal’s contract for 18 months and suspend the superintendent search.

Neal replaces former superintendent Bernard Taylor. Taylor had agreed to resign from Grand Rapids schools at the end of this school year after he was a finalist for other jobs beginning last spring. But he departed abruptly earlier this month.

In a written statement school board president Senita Lenear said:

Muskegon Heights School Board

Michigan’s Department of Education is recommending the governor conduct a formal review of Muskegon Heights Public Schools’ finances. That’s the next step in a process that could lead to the appointment of an emergency manager – which the school board has asked the state to do.

Benton Harbor High School
Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

This week parents and educators have one last chance to weigh in on the state’s plans for the new Michigan Education Achievement Authority.

The authority is a new school system that’ll try to help turn around the state’s lowest performing schools. Roughly 100 public schools across the state make that list. The system starts in Detroit Public Schools next fall.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Former superintendent Dr. Bernard Taylor had planned to resign by the end of the school year. But Tuesday night the school board of Michigan’s third largest public school district voted unanimously to grant Taylor an immediate leave of absence.

In June 2011, Taylor agreed to resign from Grand Rapids schools by June 2012. That agreement came after he was a finalist for other jobs beginning last spring. It’s unclear why Taylor asked to leave now. The request came in an official letter dated December 27th. He’ll use all of his vacation and sick days left. The district would have had to pay him for those anyway.

 GRPS spokesman John Helmholdt says Taylor is deferring all comments to the school board president.

“I don’t know if relief is the is the word,” Grand Rapids school board president Senita Lenear responded to reporters after the meeting, “but we definitely are looking at this as an opportunity.”

Alberto G. / Creative Commons

The state is launching a pilot program that’ll cover the costs of some standardized tests over the next two years. The Michigan Department of Education hopes the data from the tests will help public schools meet tougher state mandates.

About two-thirds of Michigan’s 8th and 10th graders already take the pre-ACT exams. But individual districts have to pay for them. The exams line up with state standards for graduating high school. 

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Michigan schools superintendent Mike Flanagan says a review of the Benton Harbor schools finds evidence of "probable financial stress." But Flanagan is not recommending a deeper, 60-day review. He says that’s because the district has taken “several steps in recent days to correct the deficit including:”

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Teachers in Benton Harbor have agreed to an across-the-board cut of pay and benefits. Teachers ratified the contract with a vote of 85 yes and 65 no. Tuesday afternoon the school board voted 5 to 2 to approve a new contract that will reduce teachers’ pay by 10-percent beginning in February (the contract runs through August 2012). Teachers will pay 20-percent of their health care benefits.  In the past three weeks alone the school board has closed two schools and laid off 20 employees. They’ve also put buildings up for sale.

“That will help us with our cash flow and will allow us to continue our operation without a stoppage,” Superintendent Leonard Seawood said. “That’s a lot for this community to be proud of,” Seawood said, in terms of addressing the financial problems. Seawood has been with the district since August 2010. 

Muskegon Heights School Board

Tomorrow the state will begin a preliminary review of the Muskegon Heights School District’s finances. This is the first step in a process that would determine if the school district needs a state-appointed emergency manager.

Many school districts and municipalities make an effort to avoid state takeovers. But in Muskegon Heights, the school board is asking for one.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Benton Harbor Area Schools will get results from the state’s preliminary review of the district’s finances this week. The school district blames cash flow problems on a lower-than-expected-student count this fall.

The 30-day preliminary review is the first step in a process to determine if a school district or municipality needs a state-appointed emergency manager. It does not mean one will be appointed for certain.

Galien Township Schools

This week a small school district in southwest Michigan laid off all but four employees because of major budget problems. 122 students at Galien Township Schools will have to enroll at new schools next semester. Included in the layoffs were 10 teachers, 10 support staff, 4 bus drivers, and 2 kitchen workers. The only ones who remain are the superintendent, the business manager, a secretary and a custodian.

The Galien district consists mostly of farmland 3 miles away from the Michigan-Indiana border in Berrien County. The number of students there has gone down for several years. The school board closed the high school in 2004. Those students transferred to other districts. In January, kindergarteners through eighth graders will do the same.

“I’m sad for this community,” Superintendet Tim Allard said, “I’m sad for these employees who have been here so much longer than I have." Allard just came on as the district’s superintendent in September. 

Sarah M. Stewart / Creative Commons

A report out this week shows more than half of high school freshmen and sophomores failed the first semester of the new blended-online courses at Grand Rapids Public Schools. GRPS is Michigan's third largest K-12 district.

The program launched in the fall of 2010. At the time it was (and may very well continue to be) incredibly controversial. Like any new program, Grand Rapids schools spokesman John Helmholdt says there was an adjustment period the first semester.

“There was both a district-wide layoff but also a huge early retirement incentive where we had more than 400 teachers, principals, and support staff retire; and so that first semester was a little rocky,” Helmholdt said. The retirement incentive was offered by the State of Michigan to try to save districts and the state money.

Test scores improved in the spring 2011 semester, but the failure rate was still 44-percent.

The State of Michigan will conduct a preliminary review of the "critical and alarming financial situation" at Benton Harbor Area Schools. This is the first step in a process that would determine if the school district needs a state-appointed emergency manager. It doesn’t mean one would be appointed for certain.

Leonard Seawood has been superintendent of Benton Harbor Area Schools for a little more than a year. “When you are in a deficit like I inherited…there are no easy answers in terms to digging yourself out of this hole as a district,” Seawood said.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

When Governor Rick Snyder talks about education in the state, he doesn’t talk in terms of K-12 but rather P-20 education. He describes it as pre-natal through post-graduate.

Early education increasingly considered key to future success

Susan Neuman is a Professor of Educational Studies at the University of Michigan. She served as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education from 2001-2003. (You can read more about her work in early childhood development here.)

Neuman says she can measure an achievement gap between children as early as 9 months. She says birth through age three turns out to be pretty crucial for a child’s future. “This is when brain development is increasing at an enormous rate,” Nueman said. “This is when language development is spurting this is when cognitive development and this is when our belief in ourselves is developing.”

Nueman says the best early childhood education programs are those that strengthen a parent’s ability to become their child’s best teacher in those first years of life.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Vice President Joe Biden says he’ll work to get President Obama’s American Jobs Act through Congress piece by piece if lawmakers won’t take up the entire stimulus bill.

Biden says the bill would invest $25 billion to fix 35,000 schools across the country, including buildings like the one visited in Grand Rapids Wednesday.

Junior and seniors at Grand Rapids’ Central High School showed Biden around their science classroom, listened, and asked questions. He also saw a classroom they can’t use because of health concerns over chipping and peeling paint.

“They’re in a laboratory where they can’t turn on a burner because there’s no ventilation system,” Biden said. “They have microscopes that use mirrors – I mean it’s just totally out of date.” The science classroom is part of Grand Rapids Public Schools district’s School of Health Science and Technology; a “hub” school students can opt into. “Come on man,” Biden told reporters after the visits, “these are talented kids - they chose to come here to learn more.”

Biden says some GOP leaders would rather “do nothing” than pass parts of the bill he says they agree with.

Mercedes Mejia / Michigan Radio

The tally of students who show up at each school district is a major factor in how much money a district gets from the state.

There are two count days each year; one in the spring and one in the fall. This year state lawmakers changed the formula so that the fall count day is even more important. The number of students a district has is determined by a blend of the two count days. The fall day makes up 90-percent of that blend, the spring only 10-percent.

Democrats in the state House say voters should be allowed to decide how the state spends its education dollars.

They’re calling for a constitutional amendment that would specify that School Aid Fund money be spent only on K-12 schools, and not on universities and community colleges.

Democratic state Representative Barb Byrum says Republicans have proposed diverting $900 million from K-12 schools for the fiscal year that starts in October.

These are tough times for Michigan’s Public Schools, which by and large, have done a superb job educating our citizens since we became a state nearly two hundred years ago.

Statewide, the schools are suffering from a series of crippling funding cuts enacted at the same time we are demanding they do more with less. Teachers feel that their hard-won health care, pension, salaries and benefits are under siege.

And some districts are suffering further because an explosion of charter schools are taking students and money away from them. This is most acute in Detroit. There, a revolving door of expensive financial managers and high-paid consultants have proven unable to fix the schools or halt the stampede away from them.

Naturally, this has led to a crisis atmosphere. I spent yesterday afternoon with the leadership of the various school districts in one of Michigan’s major counties. They believe there is an actual conspiracy against them. They think there are those who want to essentially destroy public education and turn it into a system of charter schools and vouchers, for one big reason: To get private hands on some of the thirteen billion a year Michigan spends on public education.

Whether that’s true or not, that there is a major crisis - and coincidentally, a major new report finally gets to the bottom of just why this is. There are few institutions more respected than the non-partisan, non-profit Citizens Research Council of Michigan, whose motto is this: The right to criticize government is also an obligation to know what you are talking about.

Released yesterday, the CRC’s study is called “Distribution of State Aid to Michigan Schools.” That may not sound like a sexy page-turner, but for those of us interested in saving our state, it is.

Woodley Wonder Works / Flickr

 A new report, released by the Citizen's Research Council, says declining enrollment is one reason many Michigan public schools are facing financial struggles. From the Associated Press:

About 61 percent of Michigan's 551 traditional public school districts faced some degree of declining enrollment between the state's 1995 and 2009 fiscal years...

It's an important factor because much of the state aid that goes to school districts is granted on a per-student basis. The report says about half of Michigan's school districts saw a decline in their total state aid foundation revenue between the 1995 and 2009 fiscal years once it's adjusted for inflation.

The report says the per-student gap between the state's highest and lowest funded districts has shrunk but still exists.

The 87 page report, titled Distribution of State Aid to Michigan Schools, can be found here.