- Rep. Ellen Cogen Lipton (D-Huntington Woods)
THREE YEARS AGO, while stumping on the campaign trail, Rick Snyder made a promise to the people of this state:
“Michigan’s citizens are tired of the divisive political culture in Lansing,” the self-proclaimed “one tough nerd” declared. “Midnight deals, closed-doors meetings, lobbyists and special interest influence have stood in the way of long-term solutions.
“As governor, I will ensure that government is open, fair and accountable to the citizens by making Michigan a national leader in transparency and ethics.”
Has Snyder undergone some profound change, or was he feeding us a line from the start?
We can’t answer that question yet, but we can say as of now we are nauseated by the stench of secrecy wafting from Snyder and his administration when it comes to issues of public education.
The sort of sickening feeling that comes from catching a whiff of something truly rank started coming over us a few weeks back, when The Detroit News revealed the existence of a group — aptly dubbed the “skunk works” by its members — secretly working on a plan to radically change Michigan’s public education system.
Leading the group is Snyder’s chief information officer, David Behen. Rod Davenport, the state’s chief technology officer, is also a member. As the News’ Chad Livengood reported, the group also includes “employees from the software and tech companies Vectorform in Royal Oak, InfoReady in Ann Arbor and Billhighway in Troy. Also involved is Tim Cook of the Huizenga Group, a Grand Rapids firm that owns and operates west Michigan manufacturing companies.”
Noticeably absent from the panel are any actual educators.
“This is disturbing to hear of secret group meetings,” John Austin, president of the State Board of Education, told Livengood. “That reflects the ideology and political agenda of the creation of a for-profit and parallel enterprise market for schools. Part of its goal is to take down the education establishment: superintendents, school boards and teachers unions.”
Adding to the stink is the fact that members of the group who are state employees were “instructed in a memo to use ‘alternative’ email accounts. Records show Behen, Davenport and two other Department of Technology, Management and Budget employees have since used private email addresses to correspond.”
Clearly the reason for doing that was to keep reporters and other nosy outsiders from using the Michigan Freedom of Information Act (which applies to records held by the government) to find out details of what was being discussed by the skunksters in their electronic communications with each other.
If they were using government email accounts, the public would have the right to know what was in those messages. Using private accounts is a way to help keep those communications safe from public disclosure.
“Midnight deals, closed-doors meetings, lobbyists and special interest influence have stood in the way of long-term solutions.”
Or maybe not.
Just as smelly as the skunk works, and even more ludicrous, is what state Rep. Ellen Cogen Lipton (D-Huntington Woods) has been going through trying to get information about the Education Achievement Authority (EAA).
That authority was established by Snyder as “a way to redesign public education in Michigan’s lowest performing schools by driving more resources directly into their classrooms and offering greater autonomy to help ensure student achievement increases.”
The EAA — which is essentially a separate, independent school district — currently controls 15 of Detroit’s lowest-performing schools. The governor appoints a majority of the authority’s 11-member board, so his people are in charge of what’s going on.
And what’s going on, in terms of Lipton, is that the EAA is charging her thousands of dollars to provide her with information that the general public — let alone a state legislator trying to make informed policy decisions — has a right to view.
Here’s what she posted on her state Web page about the experience last week:
“Nearly a month ago, I submitted a Freedom of Information Act Request to the Education Achievement Authority because I believe legislators and citizens alike deserve to know how effectively the governor-appointed board is administering the 15 Detroit schools under its control. I sought information on topics such as enrollment numbers for the beginning of the year compared to current enrollment, verification of teacher certificates for teaching staff, information on the accommodation of special needs students and the schools’ financial condition.
“The EAA has dragged its feet in complying with my request. It required me to make a $50 down payment, which I made. Today, I received a portion of the documents I asked for, as well as a demand for $2,642.05 to complete my request. I will pay the amount, because I believe it is vital for parents of children in these schools to have access to this information. I also believe members of the Senate, who will soon decide whether to expand the reach of the EAA, also deserve to know these facts.”
Among other things, the first batch of documents that was turned over revealed that the EAA had used the Detroit Public Schools — an entity in such dire financial straits that it has been placed under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager — as a conduit to borrow $12 million from the state to help meet payroll and pay vendors.
How strong was the desire to keep the deal secret? According to published reports, Mike Duggan — one of Snyder’s appointees to the EAA board and currently a candidate to be Detroit’s next mayor — said the EAA board didn’t even know what was going on.
“The board has never approved a loan from DPS. I’m pretty confident the board was never advised of it, either,” Duggan told the News.
So, is the board not doing its duty and providing oversight, or is the management of EAA hiding information from the people who are supposed to be keeping an eye on things?
Either way, it doesn’t pass the smell test.
As for Lipton, she’s waiting to receive about 600 more pages of documents from the EAA. The way she sees it, whether it’s information about that authority’s financial dealings, or the plans being hatched in the skunk works, operating out of the public eye is not good government. In fact, she told News Hits, it is a cause for “alarm.”
“You need the intellectual courage to do your work in broad daylight, and to welcome public scrutiny,” Lipton said. “To me, that is the foundation of the democratic process.”
News Hits is written by Curt Guyette. Contact the column at 313-202-8004 or NewsHits@metrotimes.com.