Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Fourth of July

George Firestone Grosvenor's descendants honor him with a float in Leland's 4th of July parade.

The fourth fell on a Monday this year, one of my regular days off. We had a poker tournamenton the weekend so I ended up working 12+ hour days on Saturday and Sunday. By Monday I was whipped, but I had a job to do. Every year in Leland's 4th of July parade our State Senator marches down the street accompanied by a truck bearing her campaign logo. Never mind that she's not running for anything. Never mind that she can't run for Senator again due to the very same term limit laws that got her into office. Every year she marches down the street making sure to stop and shake my hand.

If you've been reading my blog a while you've seen me send a couple of letters to my state senator about school funding. You've also heard me mention that she never has responded to my letters, not even a "thank you for your concern" form letter. I have refrained from mentioning the phone message, also unreturned, that I left on her answering machine during business hours. I have also not mentioned going to an open house with our school board president and trying to discuss the school funding crisis with her then. She refused to acknowledge that there was a problem, telling me that our schools were getting plenty of money, the school aid fund was flush, and that Proposal A hadn't been tweaked, etc. She even told me that the federal government was giving our school extra money to cover the cost of complying with No Child Left Behind (we don't). There was more "I'll get back to you" at the end of that encounter, but nothing ever came of it.

So I had a problem. How could I shake this woman's hand during the parade if she wouldn't even acknowledge my letters on any other day? Just refusing to shake her hand would seem petty. Disrupting the 4th of July parade would be satisfying, but probably not productive.

I settled on a plan. I would print out my latest letter and give it to her before the parade. While I was at it I printed out The End of the Rainbow , a New York Times op-ed piece by Thomas Friedman detailing how Ireland sparked an economic recovery by investing in education. One of the excuses to avoid talking about school funding has been that we have to wait for Michigan's economy to improve, as if good times are right around the corner. In reality, Michigan's auto industry will never be what it used to be and simply cutting taxes for the sake of cutting taxes has not attracted new industry to the state. Dell's president, explaining why he was attracted to Ireland said:
"What attracted us? [A] well-educated work force - and good universities close by. [Also,] Ireland has an industrial and tax policy which is consistently very supportive of businesses, independent of which political party is in power. I believe this is because there are enough people who remember the very bad times to de-politicize economic development. [Ireland also has] very good transportation and logistics and a good location - easy to move products to major markets in Europe quickly."

Finally, added Mr. Dell, "they're competitive, want to succeed, hungry and know how to win. ... Our factory is in Limerick, but we also have several thousand sales and technical people outside of Dublin. The talent in Ireland has proven to be a wonderful resource for us. ...
Taxes are a part of the equation, but an educated populace is a much bigger part. How to put the horse back in front of the cart and start talking about education first, i.e. now?

I would be easy to find my state senator, as the parade staging area is just north of my parents' condo, on a bunch of side streets that have float numbers permanently marked on the asphalt so that every knows where to wait. I found her truck, but she was off wandering so I took some time to talk to Dee Glass on the "Naked Gardener" float directly in front.

"Naked Gardener" is a brand new fundraiser for our school's educational gardens. Our school sits on a small plot of land but we have maximized what we have by planting various prnamental and educational gardens. The is a Michigan Bog garden outside of the science rooms and the lower elementary has been working on their own "Very Hungry Caterpillar" garden. The retaining wall outside of the Performing Arts Center is graced by a traditional perennial garden and the kids are prevented from running out into the street by a bed of roses outside the big double doors of the lower elemntary wing. There is no money in the school budget for this sort of thing; the gardens were planted and are maintained by a force of volunteers headed up by Dee Glass, who Liz characterizes as "Everyone's Grandma". Dee also heads up the fundraising for our school's gardens, holding bulb sales, a smelt dinner, and now producing a calendar.

I had first heard of the calendar in last week's Leelanau Enterprise. The timing was perfect. I had just read an editorial from The Mackinac Center for Public Policy blaming school finance problems not on lack of funding, but on school boards and school administrators.

As Mackinac Center President Lawrence W. Reed noted in his January speech "Michigan at the Crossroads": "In the schools, we don’t have a funding crisis so much as we have a management crisis. And it’s not Proposal A that needs to be tweaked. What needs to be changed are tired, old ways of business-as-usual."

Th front page of last week's Enterprise featured two articles about local school districts. The first one described an attempt by the Glen Lake and Suttons Bay school districts to see if it is feasible to share superintendents. Next to it was a picture of Leland's school superintendent, Mike Hartigan, wearing only a yellow raincoat and holding a strategically placed watering can.

The Naked Gardener Calendar is patterned after a famous British fundraiser where well-aged society women posed nude for a calendar to raise money for a cancer ward. Leland's calendar features area business owners, a winemaker, a charter boat captain, a film producer, the dog catcher, a county commissioner, and of course a landscape architect.

Mr Hartigan posing nude on the front page of the Enterprise! This was not "business as usual", and he didn't look particularly "tired", either. I said as much to Dee Glass as I waited by her float (A farm trailer completely draped with potted petunias and one of those naked cherub statues standing in the middle.) Dee gave me an unexpected hug as she explained that she had been taking a lot of flak about the calendar.

Finally I caught sight of my state senator. I buttonholed her in front of a busload of senior citizens waiting with the windows open and asked her why she didn't acknowledge my mail or return my call. She didn't have much to say, of course. I told her that while she was waiting to get going on this issue other people were putting forth bills that may work for downstate schools but did not suit the needs of her rural constituents. She said not to worry, because nothing will be actually passed before another legislative season goes by. I said, I DO worry, our schools need help now!

So she decided to give me her home phone number and we walked back to her truck, past Dee Glass's "Naked Gardener" float. Michelle sniffed and said "I don't know what to think about that!" I told her that some say the whole problem is school administrators who are afraid to "think out of the box", and that I was glad that MY school superintendent was willing to go beyond "business-as-usual". I also mentioned the efforts to share a superintendent between Suttons Bay and Glen Lake. She claimed to be "working closely" with them on that enterprise.

So I said goodbye and went to watch the parade.

The parade was great. Garrison Keillor said of Lake Wobegon's parade: "It goes around twice, once so you can watch and once so you can be in it. Everyone just trades places." Lelanders can't do that because we only have one bridge over the river so we take turns year by year. Anna couldn't decide whether to wear her OM shirt and sell water of wear her ball uniform an march in the parade. Her friend Will just did both. Two of the water selling kids took off without saying where they were going so I ended up walking the whole seven block parade route to find them. It was kind of my own parade, as I stopped to chat with half the people I know and a few I don't know. The real parade started with the Coast Guard helicopter and featured fire trucks, old cars, a Rosie the Riveter float, a giant fiberglass milk cow, a colonial family with minutemen, horses, a goat that kicked, and a tiny brass band. I finally got back to the condo and set up my lawn chair as the parade ended so I sat and watched everyone walk back home again.

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