Politics & Government

Politics
11:31 am
Tue April 5, 2011

Mackinac Center explains FOIA requests

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy says their Freedom of Information Act requests for information regarding labor studies at Wayne State University, Michigan State University, and the University of Michigan is part of its “regular” activity.

Ken Braun is the man behind the FOIA requests and the Senior Managing Editor of Michigan Capitol Confidential, the Mackinac Center’s newsletter. In a posting on the Center’s website, Braun said the requests were made because:

"We were interested in determining whether the LSC and the labor faculty at Michigan’s other two large public universities had actively employed university resources to enter the political debates. At a minimum, we thought a FOIA investigating professors’ emails on these subjects might demonstrate whether state officials should ask questions about this use of tax dollars for public universities. In the worst-case scenario, we knew these emails might suggest that the faculty had acted illegally, because certain political uses of university resources are prohibited by Michigan law. ”

Kate Davidson, of Michigan Radio’s Changing Gears project, has been taking a look at the controversy and, in a story posted today, explains:

“Michigan academics aren’t the only ones under scrutiny.  Last month, the Republican Party of Wisconsin requested emails from William Cronon, a historian critical of Governor Scott Walker’s push to weaken public sector unions. 

In both states, the lines got drawn fast.  On one side: an apparent concern about the use of public resources for political advocacy.  On the other: fear of academic intimidation and reprisal in a politically charged climate.”

You can read Davidson’s full story on the state and national implications of various FOIA requests, and hear directly from the Mackinac Center's Ken Braun, on the Changing Gears’ website.

Commentary
10:34 am
Tue April 5, 2011

The History Behind the Detroit Symphony Orchestra

While historians debate just when and why Detroit began to decline, it’s much easier to say what its high point was: July 28, 1951. That was the official 250th anniversary of Detroit’s founding, and the city was at its peak.

Detroit had nearly two million people. It was rich, vibrant and strong. President Harry Truman came all the way from Washington to speak - a rare occurrence then - and the city then celebrated with a five-hour long parade. And there was other good news, too.

"The Detroit Symphony Orchestra was being revived. Founded when the city had less than two hundred thousand people, it had been disbanded during the Great Depression. But now it was back, and on October 18th, it thrilled fans with its first concert."

Everybody knew then that to be a truly world-class city, you had to have a world-class symphony orchestra.

Back in the jazz age, Detroit had one of the nation’s best orchestras. They had been the first orchestra to have a concert broadcast on the radio. They were regulars at Carnegie Hall. And for eight years, they were broadcast regularly to a nationwide audience.

Then hard times came, and people forgot how important a symphony is for a while. Some people evidently lost sight of that again last year, when the symphony’s season was destroyed by a six-month long strike caused by money problems.

The symphony has huge debts, big deficits, and a shrinking donor base. Everyone agreed the musicians had to take a massive pay cut, but the question was, how massive?

While I am not an expert on cultural economics, it is clear that neither side did much to help their public image during the work stoppage, and management’s handling of public relations was especially bad, as one board member admitted to me.

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News Roundup
7:55 am
Tue April 5, 2011

In this morning's news...

Morning News Roundup, Tuesday, April 5th
Brother O'Mara Flickr

Rallies Across the State

Hundreds of union members and their supporters rallied in various cities across the state yesterday. The rallies were organized to both protest what unions call attacks on the middle class and to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination. The Associated Press reports:

Roughly 200 people gathered at the Capitol on Monday evening…

Several hundred people each turned out at rallies in Detroit, Grand Rapids and Muskegon. Rallies also took place in Escanaba, Saginaw and elsewhere around Michigan.

Michigan unions say they're upset about a new Republican-backed law that lets emergency managers appointed to assist financially struggling communities and schools rescind labor contracts.

The rallies were held Monday to link the fight for collective bargaining to the anniversary of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1968 assassination while supporting striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn.

Economic Outlook in MI Improving

Michigan’s jobs picture is looking a little better, according to a new report out of the University of Michigan. University of Michigan economists say the state is starting 2011 with “robust job growth,” Steve Carmody reports. The Detroit Free Press quotes University of Michigan economist George Fulton as saying, “There appears to be pretty good evidence now that we are back to creating more jobs than we are losing. But, the Free Press notes Fulton also, "cautioned that the state's 10.4% unemployment rate is still high, so many residents won't feel as if a recovery is under way. Fulton expects Michigan's unemployment rate to drop to 9.9% by the last quarter of this year and to reach 9.5% by the end of 2012.”

DSO Musicians to Return to Work

Musicians with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra say they will return to work on Thursday. A tentative agreement between the striking musicians and the Orchestra’s management was announced this week. An official ratification vote will come later this week. Musicians had been on strike since October.

Politics
11:03 pm
Mon April 4, 2011

Unions invoke MLK legacy in Detroit rally

Labor supporters rally in Detroit's Hart Plaza
Sarah Cwiek Michigan Radio

Hundreds of labor union supporters rallied against attacks on collective bargaining rights in Detroit Monday.

The rally was one of dozens nationwide commemorating Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination.

King was killed during a 1968 trip to Memphis to support that city’s striking black sanitation workers. National labor leaders are highlighting this lesser-known part of King’s legacy as they fight new state laws that restrict unions’ collective bargaining rights.

Canton resident Natalie Mosher came to the downtown Detroit rally. She says Governor Snyder and state Republicans have gone too far.

"I’m here to support all working people. I was a former teacher and I think what is happening in Michigan today is just not acceptable.”

The Governor recently signed a bill granting Emergency Financial Managers broad powers, including the right to throw out union contracts.

Former Delphi worker Stacey Kemp drove from near Saginaw to attend the rally. Kemp says everyone should be concerned about the many new state laws that restrict workers’ right to collective bargaining.

“Whether they’re union or non-union, this is going to directly affect all middle and working-class people. If they’re allowed to get away with this, we might as well just kiss our grandchildren goodbye, and they’re going to live in a third-world country.”

The AFL-CIO and other organizers say the King-inspired rallies are part of a continued campaign to fight that law and similar measures in other states.

Politics
4:15 pm
Mon April 4, 2011

Michigan Radio's Jennifer White talks with Governor Snyder about his first 90 days

Lester Graham Michigan Radio

It’s been a little over three months since Governor Rick Snyder came into office.

He’s had a few successes, including passing the controversial Emergency Financial Manager Bill. He’s also running into some opposition, even within his own party, especially around issues within his budget proposal.

Jennifer White asked Governor Rick Snyder to talk about the past 90 days and discuss where things go from here.

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Politics
4:06 pm
Mon April 4, 2011

Governor Snyder confident his budget & tax plans will get legislative approval

Governor Rick Snyder, (R) Michigan

A state House committee is debating a tax-reform package that includes eliminating the state’s business tax and replacing its revenues with a corporate income tax and taxing pensions. Governor Snyder says he wants a state budget in place by the end of May.

However, fierce divisions over how and where to reform taxes – especially over whether to tax pensions – are slowing negotiations.

Snyder’s pleased with the progress on the budget so far:

“Things are going reasonably well in terms of that process.   And we’re working on a very fast time frame.  We’re well ahead of the way things traditional done in past years.  And we’ll still on a path to get fundamental reform done."  

Snyder says he's not put off by the harsh criticism that his budget and tax plans have generated: 

“That’s part of the legislative process.  That’s part of democracy.   But as a whole, I believe the framework we put out there will go ahead and if anything I hope it could be an improved product with the good dialogue we’re having today.”  

Some Senate Republicans have said they will not vote for any pension tax. And many Democrats are upset, claiming they have been locked out of negotiations altogether.

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Commentary
10:02 am
Mon April 4, 2011

Confusion Over Medical Marijuana

Two years ago, Michigan voters overwhelmingly approved a state constitutional amendment allowing the use of marijuana for medical purposes.

Voters from liberal Ann Arbor to staunchly conservative Ottawa County supported this change.

Some, to be sure, saw this as opening the door to a complete legalization of marijuana. However, they appear to have been a minority. Most people seem to have felt that those who are legitimately suffering from disease such as glaucoma ought to be able to use the drug in cases where it could ease their pain.

But the devil is always in the details, and we probably should have foreseen that administering this law was going to be an unholy mess. Yesterday, the Detroit Free Press took a comprehensive look at how the medical marijuana law has been working.

To nobody’s surprise, their answer was: Not very well. The state is struggling with a huge backlog of applications to grow the stuff.

Prosecutors, meanwhile, have been going after people who may be falsely claiming to be growing and selling pot for medical use, and there are also rumors that certain physicians are happy to certify that most anybody qualifies to use marijuana for “medical” purposes.

On top of that, neither the constitutional amendment - or any other law - has made it clear where medical marijuana is supposed to come from. Part of the problem is that marijuana is a controlled substance whose use is illegal under federal law.

So, basically, the original source of any pot supply has got to be illegal, even if the state of Michigan approves someone to grow marijuana for medical reasons. There is also, so far as I can tell, absolutely nothing to ensure purity or quality control of the supply.

Basically, then, we’ve got a system of something approaching anarchy when it comes to medical marijuana.

So, what do we do about it?

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Government Shutdown
9:46 am
Mon April 4, 2011

Countdown to federal government shutdown

(flcickr Matti Mattila)

The clock is ticking down to a possible federal government shutdown at the end of this week. And, Michigan lawmakers are playing pivotal roles in the budget debate. 

Michigan congressmen Justin Amash and Tim Walberg are among a group of 13 House Republicans that have threatened to break with the GOP leadership on the budget negotiations. They’ve pushed budget amendments to slash$61 billion in spending.

Michigan Democratic Senator Carl Levin says far right Republicans in the House are preventing the two sides from reaching a budget deal.  

“Right now the leadership of the House…Mr. Boehner…is a kind of a captive of the far right of the House.”  

Levin complains that lawmakers with ties to the Tea Party don’t care if the federal government shuts down, since they believe government is the problem to begin with.

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medical marijuana
9:03 am
Mon April 4, 2011

ACLU of Michigan to take medical marijuana case to Michigan Supreme Court

The ACLU of Michigan hopes to take a medical marijuana case to the Michigan Supreme Court
Kevin Connors MorgueFile

The Michigan Supreme Court may soon hear its first case on the state’s medical marijuana law.

Larry King of Owosso has a medical marijuana license from the state.  He was charged with a felony by the Shiawassee County prosecutor for growing marijuana in a locked dog kennel that did not have a roof. The Circuit Court dismissed the case, but the Court of Appeals reinstated the felony charges.

Dan Korobkin is an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. He says the prosecution shouldn’t charge King with a felony because King is legally allowed to grow marijuana:

“Instead of simply telling Mr. King that he needed to move his plants inside, or put a roof over it, they’re now prosecuting him on felony drug charges for the same offense that he would be charged with if he never had any medical marijuana card at all.”

Korobkin said Michigan voters approved the medical marijuana act to protect patients that were approved to use marijuana for medical reasons.

“We’re representing him because the prosecution of a medical marijuana patient who is complying with the law is a gross injustice and thoroughly undermines the intent of the voters in passing the Medical Marijuana Act."

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Politics
7:01 am
Mon April 4, 2011

Snyder says new Detroit/Ontario bridge is still in the works

A view of the Ambassador bridge over the Detroit River
J. Stephen Conn Flickr

Governor Rick Snyder says he hopes to introduce legislation next week that would move forward with construction on a second bridge span between Detroit and Canada. A similar proposal has met stiff opposition for several years among Republicans in the Legislature. Snyder says it is time for another international crossing:

“Doing the new international trade crossing is the right thing to do. At the same time, when I did my analysis I believe there’s viable opportunity to have the Ambassador Bridge continue, the Windsor Tunnel, the Blue Water Bridge, and clear up at the Soo. We’ve got great crossings, we just need another crossing.”

Democrats in the Legislature say Snyder will need their votes to approve the bridge project. They say if the governor wants their support he will also need to work with them more during budget negotiations.

Lawmakers return next week from their spring break.

Election 2012
6:21 am
Mon April 4, 2011

President Obama announces reelection bid

President Obama launched his re-election campaign early Monday morning
The U.S. Army Flickr

President Barack Obama launched his reelection bid this morning. The announcement was made via a web video that was posted to the President's campaign website and through an email sent to supporters.

The news made headlines across the blogosphere:

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Politics
1:29 pm
Sun April 3, 2011

Opponents start push to repeal Ohio union law

Opponents of an Ohio law to limit public workers' collective bargaining rights have started gathering signatures to get a referendum on the measure. Governor John Kasich signed the measure Thursday. It bans public worker strikes, eliminates binding arbitration, and restricts bargaining for 350,000 public workers.

The bill was supported by the Republican majority in the Legislature and by business groups and tea party activists. They say it's needed to help Ohio economically. Unions and Democrats opposed it.

The bipartisan coalition leading the petition drive will need more than 230,000 valid signatures by June 30 to put a referendum on November's ballot.

Corrections
4:48 pm
Fri April 1, 2011

Michigan's prisons keep prisoners longer, cost more

User bgb Flickr

While controversy over budget cuts lingers, new statistics show that Michigan's prison system may have some system-wide problems that actually increase cost.The Chicago Tribune/A.P. reports:

Michigan often keeps inmates long after other states would have released them for similar crimes, driving up prison costs by millions of dollars a year and eating up a quarter of the state's general fund.

Both former Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm and current Republican Gov. Rick Snyder have encouraged the parole board to be more lenient when it comes to releasing prisoners who have served their minimum sentences. Yet a bill that would require that inmates serve 100 percent of their minimum sentence but no more than 120 percent failed to make it through the Legislature during the last two-year session.

That has left 8,000 inmates still behind bars who have served more than their minimum sentences, a practice that's costing Michigan taxpayers around $280 million annually.

It's likely to take years for the parole board to consider those 8,000 cases, which make up nearly a fifth of the prison population. On April 15, the parole board will shrink from 15 members to 10 under a Snyder executive order estimated to save around $500,000 a year in pay and benefits.

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Commentary
9:49 am
Fri April 1, 2011

Doctors with Borders

I had an interesting conversation yesterday with Joe Schwarz, one of the best-informed, multi-talented men in public life in this state. After a stint as mayor of his native Battle Creek, Schwarz spent sixteen years in the state senate, where he was immensely knowledgeable on education policy and finance.

That was, of course, back in the era before term limits. Schwarz is also one of those people whose resume could fill a box. He’s also had a career in the U.S. Navy, and as a spy in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. He ran for governor once and congress twice, finally winning a single term in 2004.

Schwarz’s problem was never the general election. Every time he got to one of those, he won easily. But he had trouble in  Republican primaries. He is a fiscal conservative and a military hawk, but also believes in funding education, and that abortion should be “legal, safe and rare.” Nor does he always suffer fools gladly.

By the way, I didn’t mention his day job. He is an otolaryngologist, which we civilians call an ear, nose and throat surgeon, and is still happily practicing medicine. 

That is, when he isn’t teaching at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. Schwarz understands health care issues, and I was curious about our medical school explosion.

The U of M has a medical school; Wayne State has one; Michigan State has two; Oakland University and Beaumont Hospital have started one, and Western Michigan is now starting one.

Is that too many? Will we be producing too many doctors?

That’s a good question, the good doctor told me, but not the most important one. When all these medical schools are up and running, they’ll be producing something like six hundred and ninety doctors a year, trained largely at state expense.

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Election 2012
7:00 am
Fri April 1, 2011

State Rep. Knollenberg to challenge Congressman Peters

State Representative Marty Knollenberg
Photo courtesy of www.gophouse.com

Republican state Representative Marty Knollenberg (District 41 - Troy) will run against Democratic Congressman Gary Peters in Michigan’s 9th Congressional district in 2012.

Representative Peters unseated Congressman Joe Knollenberg, Marty's father, in the November 2008 election.

As the Associated Press reports, “the younger Knollenberg said Thursday that his staff is filing candidacy papers with the Federal Election Commission. The Troy legislator says he's entering the race now so as not to fall behind the Bloomfield Township Democrat in fundraising."

Politics
5:31 pm
Thu March 31, 2011

Snyder and Republican leaders point to progress and sticking points

Republican Governor Rick Snyder and the Republican leadership in the State House and Senate outlined progress and sticking points.
Lester Graham Michigan Radio

Governor Snyder, House Speaker Jase Bolger and Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville say they have worked well together to approve many measures so far this year – including the expansion of power for emergency financial managers.

But one area they do not seem to agree on is how and where to reform taxes.

Richardville said "we actually have been disagreeing quite a bit," but he says those disagreements are fine because they are still listening to each other.

"It’s not about disagreement, it’s about passion. Everybody that got elected ran as hard as they could to get here, and is passionate about getting here," said Richardville, "but we have respect for the other passions in the room, so we’re going to get there."

Disagreement over taxing pensions

One area where they disagree is Governor Snyder’s proposal to tax pensions.

Snyder says he stands by his plan, even after receiving a cool reception from many Republican legislators:

"For higher income people, for people who have the wherewithal to say they’re also contributing to our system – I think that’s a fair answer. Because that’s the part of it that is, people shouldn’t just look at what they’re asked to give up, but when you look at where they’re ending up. Are they being treated fairly in respect to the other citizens in our state?”

Governor Snyder often stresses that low-income people on pensions would not be subject to painful tax increases.

Some Republicans state senators say there is no pension tax they would agree to, even one that only focuses on the very wealthy.

Democrats feel left out

Democratic lawmakers say they have been left out of negotiations so far.

Democratic state Senator Bert Johnson says many of the Republican proposals are the reason why thousands of angry people have protested at the Capitol in recent weeks.

"I think we would do well – all of us here in this Legislature – to realize what it being said out on the front steps of the Capitol, what is being said out on the lawns of the Capitol. I think these are not crazy people – these are people who have elected all of us. These are people who go out, and they vote, and they vote in numbers and they’re carrying their concerns to the Capitol."

Johnson says Democratic lawmakers have been ignored in much of the work that has been done so far. He says Snyder will soon find that he needs Democratic votes as he tries to approve parts of his tax plan that are unpopular with Republicans.

Politics
4:48 pm
Thu March 31, 2011

Ballot proposal would put casinos in seven Michigan cities

Triin Q wikipedia commons

New casinos would open in seven Michigan cities, under a measure a group hopes to get onto the ballot in 2012.

Bill Thompson is a casino expert from Las Vegas who helped draft the proposed constitutional amendment, which calls for a 19% wagering tax for the casinos. He says it would raise about $400 million in tax revenues. More than half the money would fund college scholarships and a tourism ad campaign.

Thompson says much of the rest would go to the communities that host the casinos:

"This will bring money into Saginaw, Benton Harbor – two cities that are in desperate financial situations, also Lansing, Grand Rapids – two cities that need help."

The measure also calls for casinos in Mount Clemens, Detroit and Romulus, where Alan Lambert is the mayor:

"There’s so many people out of work. In my own community there’s a lot of people out of work. So to a city like Romulus this means revenue obviously, and it means a lot of jobs."

Detroit’s three existing casinos will likely put on a vigorous fight to block the measure. And since it’s a statewide vote, opponents say it takes away residents’ rights to decide whether they want a casino in their communities.

The group failed to get a similar measure onto the 2010 ballot.

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Commentary
11:19 am
Thu March 31, 2011

Thought Police

Several listeners have asked me why I haven’t commented on the battle over collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin.  Well, there’s a good reason for that.

Which is, that we’ve got more than enough in Michigan to wrestle with to keep us all occupied. That doesn’t mean, as one of my devoted admirers e-mailed me, that I am a “gutless wonder.”

Matter of fact, I would like to get an inch or two off my gut. Seriously, I have a hard time accepting that anyone should lose their collective bargaining rights in America, no matter who their employer.

But I have an even harder time with anyone trying to suppress anybody’s freedom of expression in any way.

Which brings me to a very ominous development I first read about on the political blog Talking Points Memo, a story which involves Michigan and the Wisconsin mess.

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Midland-based think tank best known for supporting free-market economics, is asking, under Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act, for all the emails by labor studies professors at our state’s three major public universities -- Michigan State, the University of Michigan, and Wayne State. 

All the e-mails, that is, that these professors have sent regarding the union strike in Wisconsin, that state’s governor, and, oddly enough, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow.

Why are they asking for these e-mails? The managing editor of the Mackinac Center’s newsletter wouldn’t say. But some fear the center wants to use them to attack liberal professors for using state resources for what could be called improper political activity.

That, or cow them into not expressing their points of view.

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Politics
10:08 am
Thu March 31, 2011

Is the State Supreme Court a flip-flopper?

The Michigan State Supreme Court attracts attention for overruling its own older decisions
jeffness Wikimedia Commons

Politicians don’t like to flip flop. Going back on what they said before can be a big political headache. 

The U.S. Supreme Court also takes flip flopping very seriously. The last time they overturned a decision was in 2003.

By comparison, the Michigan Supreme Court has flip-flopped a lot. Somewhere around thirty-eight times in the past decade.

All this flip flopping means that court keeps changing the law. One reason for the flip flops is because the judges on the court keep changing. Between elections and appointments there can be a lot of turnover on the bench. And new judges don’t necessarily agree with those who came before them.

Robert Sedler is a court watcher who says ideology is causing the back and forth on the Court. And he says things got bad about a decade ago. He teaches law at Wayne State University Law School.

"Around 1998 there were a series of appointments by former Governor Engler who were very ideological in their views. The majority took the position that, if they believed  cases were wrongly decided, they were going to overrule those cases."

Conservative majorities, like the one appointed by Engler, aren’t the only ones overturning old decisions. In 2010 there was a more moderate court, and they also overturned cases.

Take marajuana, for example. In 2006 the court saw all marijuana use the same, it was illegal. Four years later the new court saw more nuance and interpreted the law in ways that impacts medical marijuana use.

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News Roundup
8:53 am
Thu March 31, 2011

In this morning's news...

Morning News Roundup, Thursday, March 31st
Brother O'Mara Flickr

Snyder to Deliver Progress Report

Governor Snyder plans to deliver a progress report on his first 90 days in office later this morning in Lansing. Lt. Governor Brian Calley, state Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, and state House Speaker Jase Bolger will join him. It’s expected the Republican leaders will address their plans for the state’s budget. The Governor has previously asked the legislature to balance the state’s budget for the next fiscal year by May 31st.

Dems to Propose Reinstating Jobless Benefits

Two Democratic state lawmakers are preparing legislation that would restore cuts to unemployment benefits. On Monday, Governor Snyder signed legislation to extend federal jobless benefits this year by 20 weeks, but the bill also contained a provision reducing state unemployment benefits from 26 to 20 weeks for new filers beginning in 2012.

Michigan Court Rules Against CAFO Operators

Large factory farms have lost a major court case in the Michigan Court of Appeals, Steve Carmody reports. The case involves farming operations, called Confined Animal Feeding Operations (or CAFOs), with hundreds, sometimes thousands of animals. Carmody reports:

The appellate court upheld a lower court ruling that the state could require large confined animal feeding operations to get pollution discharge permits before opening. Farm groups challenged the state rule insisting they should only need a permit after releasing manure causing water pollution.  But today, the three judge panel disagreed:

“We conclude that the DEQ was fully authorized to require CAFOs to either (1) seek and obtain an (federal) permit (irrespective of whether they actually discharge pollutants), or (2) satisfactorily demonstrate that they have no potential to discharge.  The circuit court  properly denied plaintiffs’ motion for summary disposition and granted summary disposition in favor of the DEQ.”

Reorganization in the Detroit Public School System

Thousands of kids in the Detroit Public Schools system could see their school close or become a charter school next fall, Sarah Hulett reports. Yesterday, DPS Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb laid out his reorganization plan. As Hulett explains, the plan calls for:

… closing seven schools this summer and one next summer. Another 18 schools will close by the fall unless a charter school operator can be identified to run them. And 27 more schools will be offered for conversion to charter schools, but will remain open otherwise…The list of 32 schools is fewer than half the troubled school district will have to close or convert to charters to erase a $327 million dollar deficit.

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