Monday, April 28, 2008

More on School Equity

There was a long story in the Leelanau Enterprise this week about Leland School's band program and the hard decision not to grant tenure to our band teacher. Tonight I had a long conversation with a school board member as we waited for kids at choir. She confirmed what I had suspected, that the decision came down to a matter of money. Keeping the band teacher on, even part time, would have meant cutting an elementary teacher. We talked of keeping band as a pay-to-play activity or somehow drawing on talented members of the community to provide some sort of band experience. But a full-time tenured band teacher is not something that our school can afford.

As I explained last post, Leland School would be in a different position if we had been spending a little more money in 1994. We would have the option of asking the voters to approve millages for operations, for payroll, utilities, and bus fuel, the biggest hunks of a school's budget and the fastest rising portion of everybody's costs.

But Wait! There's More! If your school was one of those spending more than $6500 per student in 1994, your school gets special "20j money" straight from the state of Michigan because....well... just because.

Leland School's business manager, Sandy Potts, described the situation in a March 2008 paper. Here are some highlights:


The promise of Proposal “A” was that both property tax levies and educational dollars for K-12 schools would be equalized throughout the state. The formula created would, over time, narrow the gap between the highest funded and lowest funded K-12 school districts.

Language in Section 380.1211 of the State School Code, as revised, limited the increase in per pupil funding for each district to the lesser of the rate of inflation or the amount determined by the legislature in each year’s budget. This meant that those schools with very high per pupil funding would get enough to cover inflation but the lower paid schools would gradually be given more to bring the funding levels closer together. The gap between the highest and lowest school districts’ per-pupil funding began at $7,532 in 1994 and narrowed to $5,454 in 2000 under this formula.

In 2000, the increase to the Student Foundation Grant Allowance was $238 per pupil but the inflation rate was relatively low at 1.6%. This meant that the schools at the highest end of the funding range would have received less than $238 per pupil. (Remember that these schools were already receiving as much as $5,424 more per pupil than the lowest paid schools.) This was not satisfactory to the schools at the highest end of the scale and therefore the legislature was convinced to add Section 20j of the State Aid Fund which allows them to receive the full foundation increase. This was a direct, purposeful, political change in opposition to the intent of Proposal “A” as passed by the voters of the State of Michigan.

Section 20j payments average $251 per pupil and are given to the 51 highest paid schools in the state. The total paid out under Section 20j has averaged $54,000,000 annually for the last five years, for a total of $270,000,000 paid to the 51 wealthiest districts in the state...

...The 20j schools will insist that they can’t survive without the 20j payments but even you if remove the 20j payments, these schools will still receive a minimum of $1,118 and as much as $5,135 more per pupil than the base foundation grant which is the amount with which than half of Michigan’s schools must operate their programs.

In fiscal year 2000, to qualify for the original 20j monies, a school must have had a base grant of $6500 or greater. Since that time a hold-harmless base grant has been set each year and those above that amount receive the extra monies based on the above mentioned calculation. Fifty one districts qualified in the first year. However, only 50 districts qualified in 2000 based on their foundation grant allowance and only 45 districts qualified in years 2002-2008. Yet each year, all 51 of the original schools have been given 20j payments. To date, the 20j payments made to unqualified schools from 2000-2008 is approximately $84,250,000; money that should have been used elsewhere.

Dan Hanrahan, Director of the State Aid and School Finance Office, states that the legislature has never given him direction to change the funding formula for the 20j schools even though the base grant for those schools has been changed each year. Thus all 51 schools on the original list, whether they meet the new 20j base amount or not, continue to receive additional funding for each of their students.
I can't figure out what the moral of the story is. Schools that always had more money still get more money. The rules are so complicated that I can barely find out what they all are, let alone explain them to you. The Director of the School Aid Fund can't even give a good answer as to why some schools get more.

I keep thinking about last fall when the State of Michigan almost shut down because they couldn't come up with a balanced budget. My brother called some friends in Lansing and asked what the legislators were discussing. His friends said, "Oh the legislators aren't talking, they're just sitting around. The lobbyists are meeting and when they come up with a compromise, they'll tell the legislators what to do."

Meanwhile, there goes the band teacher.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Why I Don't Like Ballot Initiatives

Graphic from the Citizens for Equity site

In 1995, Michigan voters passed Proposal A, an initiative to lessen the reliance on property taxes as the primary funding source for Michigan's schools, and to provide more stable and more equitable funding of all students throughout the state.

I campaigned for Proposal A, even though my own district, Leland Public Schools, would become a “donor district”, with our property taxes contributing more to the state fund than we got back in school aid. We had a ringside seat when Kalkaska Pubic School ended its school year in April because voters wouldn’t agree to another millage and they ran out of money. It was clear to me that my kids would be much better off living in a state where everyone had access to quality public education, not just the kids in certain districts. The ballot language of Proposal A was pretty straightforward:

A proposal to increase the state sales and use tax rates from 4% to 6%, limit annual increases in property tax assessments, exempt school operating millages from uniform taxation requirement and require 3/4 vote of Legislature to exceed statutorily established school operating millage rates. The proposed constitutional amendment would:

1. Limit annual assessment increase for each property parcel to 5% or inflation rate, whichever is less. When property is sold or transferred, adjust assessment to current value.

2. Increase the sales/use tax. Dedicate additional revenue to schools.

3. Exempt school operating millages from uniform taxation requirement.

4. Require 3/4 vote of Legislature to exceed school operating millage rates.

5. Activate laws raising additional school revenues through taxation including partial restoration of property tax.

6. Nullify alternative laws raising school revenues through taxation, including an increase income tax, personal exemption increase, and partial restoration of property taxes.

Should this proposal be adopted? Yes___ No__.

Everyone would pay slightly higher sales tax, real estate taxes would be more uniform and be insulated from rising too quickly, schools would have a stable source of funding, and school aid would be more evenly distributed.

Proposal A should have worked. It could have worked. But, even as folks like me were campaigning for the idea of equitable funding for Michigan schools, at the expense of our own districts, there were certain districts who were quietly arguing that all that equity was fine for others, just not them.

Sometime around the vote on Proposal A, a little known piece of legislation, the Public Act 283 of 1994, gave the 51 highest funded districts of Michigan the right to ask their homestead taxpayers for “hold-harmless millages” that let them opt out of the equalizing effects of Proposal A. These millages are levied on homestead property first, and the districts are not allowed to levy an amount that would increase their per-pupil spending faster than the rate of inflation. 51 districts (out of about 500) "qualified" for this privilege by spending $6500 or more per student in 1994.

Although it was contrary to the promise of Proposal A, there is nothing inherently wrong with giving communities the choice to support their local districts above the average level. There is something wrong about giving the privilege to some districts and not others. The $6500 cutoff was arbitrary, and some people have described it as rewarding districts who were not so frugal with taxpayer's money.

There was something going on in the background at the time of Proposal A.

Prior to the implementation of Proposal A in 1995, the State of Michigan and public school districts shared in the financing of the employers’ shares of contributions to Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System (MPSERS) for public school districts. Those contributions, expressed as a percentage of active employee payrolls, prefunded the actuarial costs of the defined benefit plan provided to public school employees plus the costs of health benefits for retirees on a pay-as-you-go basis. After Proposal A was approved, full responsibility for financing the employers’ contributions passed to the school districts.*

At first glance it seems that the yearly increases in the per-student grant, which keep up with inflation for the most part, ought to be sufficient to keep schools properly funded. In reality, the annual increase is overshadowed by spiraling retirement and health care costs, leaving less each year to actually educate kids.

How did this happen? There was no mention of pension or health care funding in the Proposal A ballot language. And even after Proposal A passed, the stock market was paying off so the schools' contributions were not that onerous. Would we knowingly have approved a system that worked great in good economic times but fell apart when times got tough?

For years, I could get nowhere talking to my state legislators about school funding. legislation by ballot initiative was the perfect cover for them. They would just say "We can't do anything about that, it's an amendment to the state constitution." even though they were happy to pass all sorts of exemptions to the taxes that were supposed to support the school aid fund.

Last Saturday there was a woman standing in front of the Post Office collecting signatures for the Health Care for Michigan ballot iniative. I asked her "Why a ballot initiative?" and she said, "So the legislature can't mess it up." I signed her petition, but I'm really hoping we can elect some state legislators with brains and backbones.

*Quote from the Citizen's Research Council of Michigan's 2004 report, Financing Michigan Retired Teacher Pension and Health Care Benefits)

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Pennsylvania Primary

Richard and I watched the two speeches at the end of the Pennsylvania primary last night. He doesn't like to watch political coverage, so I usually watch the speeches on YouTube, but last night we sat and watched. I hadn't seen Hillary speak in a while. I never know whether I'm going to see the interesting Hillary or the annoying Hillary. She's interesting when she's talking policy, but so annoying when she's touting her vast experience. Last night she seemed to be Hillary playing Obama, right down to the supporters shouting "Yes, we will!"

At the end, the camera panned to Chelsea and Bill. They were standing maybe two arm's lengths apart in the crowd, more like strangers than like father and daughter. At the end of the speech I was waiting for Bill and Hillary to meet each other, to see if they would embrace, but someone intercepted her and they never came together.

Obama was already in Evansville, Indiana when he spoke a few minutes later. he gave a new speech, speaking to the latest talking points of the Democratic Party, highlighting McCain's words and policies and portraying him as just an extension of the Bush presidency. But we could hardly listen to the speech. There were three white guys in the Abercrombie and Fitch shirts who just couldn't sit still, much less pay attention.

First the guy in the black shirt is on the phone. Obama is speaking, and he's on the phone. I'm hoping it's his mother saying, "Hang up! You're on TV!"

But he just keeps talking. Once he finally hangs up, the guy on the other side of Obama, the one with "Fitch 54" on his shirt starts fidgeting. And fidgeting. He looks up, looks down, adjusts his shorts, raises his sign at random moments.

Obama is talking about layoffs and jobs moving overseas, the older couple in front of the Fitch guys reminds me of the couple in American Gothic. They are looking angry and shaking their heads. The cell phone Fitch guy is chatting with the person next to him. Fitch 54 is looking at something behind him.

"What is wrong with that guy?"

"He has to pee. He's wishing this would be over so he can go find a bathroom."

"Nope, he's itching again."

He's scratching his head. Then he's talking to the other guy. He rearranges his underwear again.

"His mother must be so proud."

Obama's speech barely mentions Clinton. He's all about defeating McCain in November. He doesn't even seem to be worried who the Democratic nominee will be.

Mercifully, the speech ends, Obama leaves the podium, and the camera leaves the Abercrombie and Fitch boys to keep scratching and fidgeting without us. Michelle and Obama hug each other and nobody dares get between them.

The speech is not posted on YouTube, or anywhere else online that I can find. The NY Times is calling for the superdelegates to come in and settle the nomination to "avoid a bloodbath." . I disagree. I've dealt enough Hold Em games down to the river, I've lost and won plenty of chess games on the last three moves, The end game is important, so you play to the end in order to better play end games. As much as I admire Obama and his campaign, watching the Abercrombie and Fitch boys (who let them stand behind the candidate, anyway?) tells me that this show needs a little more rehearsal.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Right to Dry

Liz sent along an article from the NY Times A Line in the Yard: The Battle Over the Right to Dry Outside :
Tumble dryers, like sport utility vehicles, are verging on an image problem: once symbols of economic success, they have morphed into icons of environmental disregard. The gas guzzlers of household appliances, electric dryers use about as much energy as a refrigerator — consuming more than 6 percent of household energy — even though they are used only intermittently.

And there is a cheap and easy, carbon-free alternative. “A clothesline is not a solar panel or a Prius — it’s something that everyone can afford,” said Alexander Lee, founder of Project Laundry List, which promotes sustainable technology in the home.
At issue are subdivision covenants that prohibit outdoor clotheslines. Some people hang their clothes anyway, as a sort of civil disobedience. It's a nice way of starting the conversation to say "I used to love my dryer, but now I can't load it without thinking about how it's wasting energy and accelerating climate change." Others are taking a more systemic approach, petitioning states and provinces to outlaw clothesline bans.

Project Laundry List combines tips on clothesline advocacy with tips on how to do laundry and save energy. I tried their technique for drying towels hung bag style on a windy day and found that it did produce towels almost as soft as machine dried.

I keep thinking of Brother Tim's account of his recent visit to Shanghai, where he saw lots of spanking new high rise buildings and clotheslines everywhere. Here in the US, we seem to be split between "technology will save us" and "technology is evil". Sometimes old fashioned technology, like clotheslines, is just the right fit.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


Unfortunately, the next stage in seed starting is always, at least for me, aphids. It starts with a few seedlings looking poorly, maybe with white mottling on their leaves, maybe with shiny sticky stuff on their leaves. If I look closely and under the leaves, I will see the tiny, soft green aphids, sucking the life out of my plants.

Fortunately, aphids are easily killed using a soap solution that clogs their spiracles (breathing pores) and suffocates them. I use the product made by the Safer company, buying it in bulk and mixing it up in a spray bottle as needed. I last bought an $8 bottle 3 years ago and have yet to use half of it. The year I didn't spray I lost my peppers and basil, but the aphids pretty much left the tomatoes alone.

The aphids hang out on the underside of the leaves, so I spray gently and run my hands over the leaves to make sure all parts get wet. The bottle says not to use the soap on jade plants, but aphids don't seem to like jade plants anyway.

That's not one of my photos above. My camera is acting up again but this time I can't fix it with a pencil eraser. the photo came from Plantedoktoren.

The Grand Vision Comes to Leelanau

On May 8th, Leelanau County residents will have a chance to participate in the Grand Vision project, an attempt to coordinate the land use, transportation systems, and economic development of our six county area.

A "scenario planning workshop" will be held on May 8, 2008 at 6:30 p.m. at Suttons Bay High School, 310 Elm Street, Suttons Bay. You can sign up online or read more about the project here.

I'll be there with my own local/worldview attitude.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Dog Auditions for Annie

Leland Public School's spring drama project is a no-holds-barred presentation of the musical "Annie". Even the auditions are an event, as you can see from this note in the Morning Announcements:
If you need a good laugh and want to be a part of the Annie Dog auditions check out the fun Saturday @ 1 pm as talented Leelanau Pups vie for the role of Sandy, Annie’s dog. Admission per family is $5. Hosted by Luke Speicher and judged by local celebrities: Kathy Lau, Alanna Toro, & Jeremy Evans They even have doggy clean-up provided by the Doo-Do0Don’ts. If you want to enter your dog contact Bill Robinson.
Bill's phone number was included, let me know if you want to contact him.

More on Amtrak

Here is my letter to my Congressional rep:
President Bush has only requested $800 million for Amtrak in his Fiscal 2009 budget. Please work to reject this 40% cut and fully fund Amtrak. America needs passenger rail now more than ever as gas prices rise, airlines shut down, and climate change gets closer to the crisis point.

Rail is an efficient, low carbon way to travel. In Europe and Asia, they are investing in high tech trains that can travel over 250 MPH. We should at least maintain a 20th century level train system, and consider eventually catching up with the rest of the world.

I also urge your support for the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act, S. 294. The bill provides real, meaningful reform for Amtrak and a federal-state partnership for capital investments, which is enjoyed by the other modes of transportation. Please urge House leadership to pass companion legislation.
Nothing much. It took all of ten minutes to copy a sample letter from the National Association of Rail Passengers, paste it into my congressman's web form. and then add my own paragraph in the middle. I'll let you know what sort of response I get.

Jim Loomis, yesterday's commenter, has a short article about the presidential candidates's stances on Amtrak. Jim is a veteran train traveler; his recent posts give some hard-earned practical advice on train travel.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Which Way Amtrak?

I've been following the news on Amtrak since Liz started going back and forth to school on the train. Well, sort of on the train....the closest Amtrak comes is to Grand Rapids or Kalamazoo. We usually drive her to Kalamazoo, a still a four hour drive, but closer than going all the way to Chicago. We put her on the train and drive back home; by the time we come in the door, she has come into Chicago, switched to the Metra, walked home from her stop, and is just about walking into her dorm room. We wish that the train came farther north, or that the bus trip to meet the train wasn't so time-consuming. But we're glad that she can take the train at least partway.

If President Bush has his way, Amtrak will be going backwards. The president's proposed 2009 budget includes a 40% cut in Amtrak funding. Amtrak ridership is rising, along with gas prices and airline delays. We need more investment in low-carbon transportation alternatives, not less.
Last October, the US Senate passed the Passenger Rail Improvement and Investment Act, which will provide Amtrak with a stable source of funding through 2011, and provide for expansion of passenger routes using a 80/20 match of federal and state funds. We are still waiting for sponsorship of the corresponding House bill, but it is already the basis of efforts across the country to add or restore intercity rail services.
When Liz first started riding the train in 2006, you almost had to be a broke college student or a climate change visionary to put up with the poor service. Sometimes the train was on time, but once it fell a little behind, it just got later and later as it sat by the side and let freight trains pass it by. It seems that the passenger trains were allotted a certain time slot on the track, and if it fell behind schedule, it had to wait for an open slot instead of going ahead of the freight. So I was interested to read about this study that "describes how delays to Amtrak trains that operate over freight railroad lines cost the company almost $137 million in fiscal year 2006, an amount equal to 30 percent of its federal operating subsidy." It seems that, by law, passenger trains always had priority over freight, but the tracks are owned by the freight companies and nobody did anything about it when they put their own business first.
Liz thinks that the trains have become much more reliable since she started riding. I wonder if the improvement is due to different priorities or because the economy has slowed and so there is less freight moving. I don't think that moving freight is unimportant. The rise in just in time manufacturing depends on moving freight quickly and reliably. Passengers and freight competing for space on the same aging tracks is just another facet of our nation's failure to keep investing in infrastructure. Much made about jobs moving overseas due to cheaper labor, but I wonder if the future belongs to the nation with the more up to date railroads.
If so, we'd better look at Shanghai. Great Lakes Guy posted a story about the high speed mag lev train they're building for passenger service. It's top speed is over 300 miles per hour; normal operating speed is about 268 MPH:

That means, if we were building this sort of advanced transportation technology in the United States, you could get from Detroit to Chicago in just over one hour. It's at least a 4-hour car ride if you're hauling the mail down I-94.

Chicago to Minneapolis, nearly a 7-hour drive, would take less than 2 hours. Cleveland to Pittsburgh? Be there in 30 minutes. No gas fillups, no traffic jams, no exorbitant downtown parking fees.

With that sort of perspective, it just doesn't seem all that extravagant when I wish for the sort of train service that was routine in the US around, say 1950.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Bradley on the Role of Citizen

From Bill Bradley's The New American Story:

Once you have a desire to make a difference and you've taken steps to be informed, the next step is to get involved, passionately. Socrates captured this spirit of involvement during his trial, when he was faced with the prospect of exile from Athens: "Perhaps someone may say, 'But surely, Socrates, after you have left us you can spend the rest of your life in quietly minding your own business,' this is the hardest thing of all to make some of you understand. If I say that....I cannot 'mind my own business' you will not believe that I am serious." Inherent in the job of being a citizen is the refusal to mind one's own business. As a citizen, you are the caretaker of the public good. You don't see yourself as a representative of a special interest, and you don't think democracy amounts only to a negotiation among special interests. You are disinterested; you act for the whole, not just yourself.

Such engagement will not be easy. It goes against the prevailing idea of how things ought to be done. In Unconscious Civilization, John Ralston Saul writes that being a citizen is "not a particularly pleasant or easy style of life. It is not profitable, efficient, competitive or rewarded. It often consists of being persistently annoying to others as well as being stubborn and repetitive." But when you keep at it, beautiful things can happen. Like Socrates, we need to challenge the public lies that too often pass without comment and explain what it means to be a democracy committed to humanism and globalization simultaneously. Our own philosophers, economists, political scientists, and sociologists should engage on the public issues of the day, not just hole up in their academic sanctuaries. Democracy depends on citizens who make waves. When citizens abdicate their inherent democratic power, they turn the system over to those who often use it for personal enrichment, or worse. A true citizen doesn't retreat to his or her private pleasures when the price of public silence is that society's big decisions are made by fewer and fewer people.

This was just one of many passages in Bradley's book that resonated with me. His method is to look at each of the major issues facing Americans and reiterate the "story" of that issue as we have become used to hearing it, then to retell the story of that issue in a new, more hopeful way.

He addresses world politics, the economy, oil and the environment, pensions, health care, and education. While I don't agree with him on every point of analysis, his perspective is far reaching and thoughtful. This book hit by library shelf in April 2007, but is almost eerily predicts the current meltdown of the housing market, sub prime mortgages, hedge fund market, and the fall of the dollar.

It would seem like he was a lone voice in the wilderness if I didn't hear so much of Bradley's ideas in reflected in this year's competition for the Democratic nomination, in Governor Granholm's alternative energy initiative, in the AARP ads featuring the purple elephant-donkey.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Who Is That Woman?

This is a photo that Jerry Hawes brought over last summer, part of a large box of Hawes/Ivey family photos that he inherited recently. Jerry, my mom, and I spent the afternoon working on old pictures and family trees, trying to put the pieces together. This was a tantalizing picture; we figured out the identities of three of the ladies quite easily, but the one on the left is a stranger to us. She might actually be a stranger -- something about her reminds me of a neighbor lady who butts into the picture at the last minute as the shutter clicks. Or this might be the only image of someone that we've only ever known as a name on paper.

Jerry's links back to this group go like this:

Son of: Clarence Charles Hawes and Ruth Mary Riopelle Hawes – Ishpeming and Marquette
Grand son of: Herbert Stanley Hawes and Avis Willey Hawes – Cornwall/Ishpeming/Marquette
Great Grand Son of: William Francis Hawes and Sara Drew Peters Hawes – Cornwall/Ishpeming

SO the lady second from the left is his great grandmother and my great great grandmother, Sarah Drew Peters Hawes. We have a few other photos of her, like this one with her husband, William Frances Hawes.

Below is a picture of my great grandmother, Sarah Louisa Hawes, daughter of Sarah and William Frances.

The lady third from the left in the top photo is also Sarah Louisa Hawes, but younger. My mom recognized the lady on the far right from the characteristic tilt of her head. She is Margaret Ann Hawes Ivey, or "Aunt Maggie" as my mom knew her.

But what of the lady on the left? We speculated that it might be Emma Jane Peters Matthews, the younger sister of Sarah Drew Peters Hawes, who married and moved out west with her husband. Could she have come back to visit on the occasion of this photo? But that was only speculation, and I've done enough jigsaw puzzles to know that you're never sure until you have placed the last piece:

My great great grandmother, behind the mystery lady.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

What Happened Yesterday

Richard went outside and found the garage door window broken and a softball laying in the yard. He went and found Anna and asked her "Weren't you even going to tell me that you broke another window?"

Anna said, "What window? I didn't break a window?"

They went and looked at the garage. There were shards of glass from the door all the way to the other end. Laying in the middle of the garage, dead, was a red tail hawk.

It seems that the hawk dove right through the window, killing itself in the process. We can't figure out why. Perhaps it had something to do with the cats, who have been sunning themselves on the roof of the car in the driveway. Or maybe it has something to do with the pair of mourning doves who have been nesting in the pine tree next to the garage.

I will tell the story to Pat Patterson, who keeps racing pigeons just up French Road and who is regularly besieged by hawks. He may or may not have some insight, but it will certainly make his day.

Friday, April 04, 2008

I Don't Have A Grow Light

I realized that the last time I wrote about my seed starting project, I used the phrase "grow light."

I don't have a grow light. I have a homemade wooden plant stand with two $10 shop lights mounted under the shelves. It works just fine.
For a while, I really wanted a setup like the one in the picture and I was trying to justify spending $150 on one such light. But when I brought the catalog to work, everyone in the break room said, "Oh, you're going into the dope growing business?"
Then I heard that the neighborhood hydroponic lettuce grower had been robbed. They cut through the side of his poly greenhouse and made off with all the lights. They left the lettuce. I decided that I didn't need to own anything that dope growers wanted to steal, and that the $10 shop lights were working just fine.
I mention this because it is easy to get intimidated by the tons of gardening catalogs and home improvement store ads. You start to think that growing a garden requires a huge monetary investment. I like seed catalogs as much as anyone, but I'm not above picking up seeds from the ten cent rack at Walmart. All of the seeds that I started this year were old, some were even marked for 2003. The arugula and lettuce seeds were harvested from plants that went to seed at the end of last season. Most of our sunflowers are transplanted from the seedlings that come up under the bird feeders.
I'm so pleased with the lettuce and arugula that I've resolved to try more seed saving this year.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Vetal Elementary

I've been watching for news about Vetal Elementary, in the Detroit Public School system, for the past two years, ever since daughter Shelagh joined the America Reads program and started tutoring Vetal second graders in reading. Twice a week, she would join four other students in a University of Michigan car and drive to the school on the west side of Detroit to work with kindersgarteners and third graders. The program helped her find her place at UM and connected her to kids and adults, connections that had been lacking her experience of big classes and dorm living.

But her accounts of life at Vetal were uneven. She said the school had "spirit" despite the surroundings. She was loved the murals in the halls, not so much the locked doors and metal detectors. Many kids came to school dressed, fed and ready to learn, but many others didn't show up for days or weeks at a time, and when they did come back their excuses were things like "My mom didn't feel like getting up." Most of the kids were being raised by single mothers, most were poor, some had firsthand stories of shootings and murders. At one point, the school had no more pencils for the kids to use; the University of Michigan students took up a collection and brought a slew of pencils with them.

Shelagh described teachers who were "awesome," who were making sense and establishing order and teaching despite the neighborhood's chaos and poverty. Her favorite third grade teacher, Mr. Mullane, impressed her in the way he never raised his voice, "He didn't need to," she said, "but he wasn't a softy, he always kept order." He treated all of the kids respectfully, and did whatever it took to make learning happen. He played the guitar and sang to his class, composed songs about history, recorded them on his own time, and all the kids learned their history when they learned the songs.

She also described teachers who were barely there, who spent class time talking on the phone, and hollered at the kids who dared interrupt her conversations. There was a mean kindergarten teacher, hated by her students, who didn't show up and didn't even call on more than one occasion, leaving the class in the care of an aide who was only authorized to let the kids watch TV.

I wanted to write and share these stories as soon as I heard them, as they are an important part of my ongoing look at Michigan school funding. But I didn't tell those stories because I didn't want to give the Detroit bashers or public school bashers any more to work with. I was hoping that other Detroit schools were better than Vetal, but what if they weren't? I was rooting for Vetal Elementary, a school I've never visited, throughout it all.

Today's Detroit Free Press reports that Vetal Elementary, and four high schools, will be "restructured:"
Current administrators will be reassigned to different buildings -- they will not return to their current school. Teachers being transferred away from the schools will have the opportunity to reapply to return.

Principals' contracts end at the end of the school year. If the district wants to keep them, then officials will offer them another contract.

The Turn Around School plan coincides with the governor's small schools initiative. Gov. Jennifer Granholm has asked the Legislature to endorse a plan to create the 21st Century Schools Fund, which would allow schools that enroll more than 800 students and miss federal standards for two years or more to create small high schools of about 400 students.
Shelagh didn't qualify for work study this year, but she is still following the situation at Vetal. "I wish I was graduating this year, I'd apply for a job there." We will be watching to see what happens next.

I wrote a piece on small schools a while back. Here is a Free Press article about the governor's initiative, and the Governor's web page on the Small Schools initiative.

Dibbling Out

From left: Strawberries, onions. tomatoes, peppers, more tomatoes,and basil.

The next step in seed starting happens when the plants have their first two "true leaves." The first leaves, the cotyledons, were packed inside the seed and popped through the soil. These are plain leaves designed to store energy in the seed and then collect light to convert to energy to feed the growing plant. The next set of leaves are usually more ornate and look like the leaves of the adult plant.

When the true leaves show up it is time to "dibble" the plants out into more spacious pots.

Here we have a row of tomato plants on the left, and a couple of tomatoes already enjoying their new home. Tomatoes are very forgiving of root damage, but you have to take care to pick the plants up by the leaves, not the stems. I water the soil before I start working with it and I water again when I'm done, gently, to make sure there's no air around the roots.

I'm using old pots from years gone by. If I keep them out of the UV light as much as possible they will last four or five seasons. I never buy new pots, I just pick them out of other peoples' trash and wash them well.

My one flat of started seeds is now four-plus flats of seedlings. I'm swapping them out under the grow light and hoping for spring.

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