Windmillin'

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Where politics and faith dance in the shadow of the windmill.

On Natural Experiments

As with all victors, there’s always something more. For Rina Baker, that means those “stealthy” elections like the roads tax. MLive explains:

So what’s next on Baker’s to-do list?

She wants to end “stealth” elections and require that city votes take place in November of even-numbered years, when gubernatorial and presidential races are on the ballot. Last May’s vote on a city streets tax – which passed with abysmal voter turnout – partly motivated Baker’s campaign for term limits.

Baker’s complaint is that fewer people voting is tantamount to reduced democracy. Perhaps hidden in all this is the question of neighborhoods; her concern is not enough of her people are voting. This is not a generalized concern as to why few people vote in some parts of the city than others, reasons often overlapped with issues of poverty and inescapably, with race. No. That is not the concern. “Democracy” does not mean getting more people generally to vote, but getting more of your team out.

Politically, that is easily understood. Although, given the margin that these poor neighborhoods turned in for term-limits, you would think that maybe Baker actually should pay more attention (but this is not the point).

In the last election, we already have a natural experiment about voting down ticket on November elections. it’s the school board.

Few people actually voted that far down the ticket. Where on term limits perhaps ten percent did not vote, on the school board races the number is closer to half if not more. (Mathematically, the top vote getter in a precinct was approximately one third of total registered votes). This behavior is not surprising, non-partisan issues and candidates typically fare far worse than the top of the ticket candidates. The difficulty here may not simply be forgetfulness, but the reality of electioneering itself. To get a vote, one must be visible. And in highly competitive election environment that ability to get heard is substantially restricted.

Take the school board race: the incumbents win, and the new comer is a long-time civic activist, Jose Flores. In a dense environment, the most visible win. It is similar to the issue proposals: those well-known get the votes. But becoming well-known? That’s another matter.

In economic terms, we would call this a high barrier to entry.

The advantage of the odd-year election or off-season election is that it is easier to be heard and seen. It opens up the process to other participants. If anything this is the real argument for term limits: opening up the field means more, perhaps not as well-known individuals can step up. Of course if the context is that of a general November election — the school board provides the natural experiment. The unknown voice is far less likely to be heard. Ask Milinda Ysasi or Jamie Scripps.

Baker in effect, wants it both ways: more voice but then a mechanism that cuts that voice. It is a contradiction that at the least suggest that there are other ideologies or commitments at play.

Filed under: Community, Elections, , , , , , ,

The Silent Campaign

Fallen_Tree_Background_by_mysticmorningThat would be the race for the fourth and fifth school board position.

Tomorrow (Tuesday) Grand Rapids residents will elect five members to the school board from list of seven. Four are incumbents: Tony Baker, Wendy Falb, John Matias, and Maureen Slade; the other three are Jose Flores, Jamie Scripps, and Milinda Ysasi.

Without an angry or anxious community, school board races can be dull. For now, the drama has left the stage. At present the school board and the GRPS administration are enjoying success: the most recent teacher contract, powered by far better than expected First Friday numbers makes an upbeat mood; new programs are being launched and civic stakeholders are smiling; and the superintendent is recognized among the best in Michigan.

Of course, there’s work to be done, but it is of the more policy-oriented sort: how does the district begin to get traction on student achievement; how do we raise up students in the face of financial headwinds from Lansing, and the continuing impact of poverty in our community?

When the conversation turns to policy, the challenger’s road becomes steeper, still it’s not as if the candidates have been helping themselves.

Some campaigns have risen to the challenge: Baker and Falb have the strongest public identity, and are closely identified with the current state of success. Matias, too, has some visibility, and enjoys the non-endorsement from the GREA — for the conservatives in the city, this is about as a good a sign as any.

Maureen Slade’s campaign is far more low key. For an incumbent, her vision for GRPS remains remarkably under-developed. One may fairly ask if, at 71, she wants a four-year term. Among the challengers, one can pose a similar question to Flores. This is another campaign by a seasoned school administrator that nonetheless has little in the way of actual visibility. As valuable as he could be as to input, there is little evidence that this campaign is serious.

Two other campaigns are definitely serious, though with weaknesses.

Jamie Scripps brings a strong policy focus, and has won endorsements from some progressive organizations. Still, she  has struggled on the basics of campaigning. Hers has been a puzzling low key race, in part one suspects, because of her “outsider” status.

If Scripps struggles with the outsider status, Milinda Ysasi is the opposite: her ability to solicit endorsements is impressive, speaking well of her relationship building and of her progressive creds.  Of course, unless one were on her Facebook page, one would never know. What is also clear from the Facebook postings is how her campaign has only recently gotten its act together.

The relative silence of Scripps and Ysasi is a shame. Both deserve far more public recognition. As it is, in the mid-term election, the Scripps name may have the advantage if only because it will seem more familiar (i.e. Anglo-Saxon) to the electorate.

Filed under: Community, Elections, , , , , , ,

Pulling on a Political Scab

Something is under James White’s skin. Perhaps it is only the robo-call by school board president Wendy Falb, but the irritation may run a little deeper.

The schools and the City need to work hand in hand, so it’s no surprise that as the Third Ward race heats up, school board members take sides:  Maureen Slade, Rev. Nathaniel Moody and recent member Jane Geitzen for Senita Lenear; Tony Baker, Wendy Falb, and Jon O’Connor  for  Michael Tuffelmire. I the support for Tuffelmire fears a potential polarization, or more accurately an alienation. In response to Falb’s robo-call, City Commissioner Whites took to the press.

(Falb)  “runs the risk of polarizing her own board, the parents and the community” by actively campaigning for the opponent of her former board colleague, Senita Lenear, in the city race.

At first glance this a peculiar accusation, since White himself is also on board with the Lenear  campaign. As White further explains in the article, the endorsement threatens the necessary working together of city and schools.

“The school district must work closely with and gain support from city, county, state, and federal sources.
“It is unwise to do harm to those relationships by embroiling the school district in the political arena where it has never been before.”

Never before? Even reporter Monica Scott finds herself wondering

Mr. White thinks that the GRPS board has gotten more political and said he didn’t like the direction it is going in. Do you think the board is more political now or the same as in previous years?

Given the sort of controversies that have roiled the school board over the years, the present board is far from the divisive mode of even a few years ago. What is characteristic about the board is its general public unanimity, in part because of the strength of Superintendent Neal. If anything, the addition of John Matias promises to keep the board functioning in a productive fashion.

However there is little danger of a rift breaking out between the schools and the city. Here, White’s complaint sounds stretched, but underneath there are a couple of very real issues at work.

First, is the question of class.

Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Community, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Family Language

Monday night, the GRPS School Board chose John Matias as the new member. And from his interview  it was easy to see why. He demonstrated a rather well-integrated understanding of what the task was before GRPS. Of all the candidates, he showed the greatest familiarity with what was happening in the schools. More than a simple familiarity, he also conveyed an appreciation for how the schools themselves are made up of communities. For him, the sadness in the Transformation Plan was the impact it would have on the communities those schools represented. And he’s right.This is the needle that the schools are trying to thread — the need to be sensitive to parents who have invested in the schools, and the administrative discipline necessary to deliver on the promise.

On MLive the commentators thought that perhaps  Matias was  the pick going in, that this was something of a show. Formally, this was an odd comment, given that Matias’ Hispanic roots never made to the press. And looking at the panel, three others had far more public resumes with the kind of civic visibility.  Their presentations, however, were hampered in various ways, often by simply the manner of speaking — too jocular, too fast, or too stiff.

Now what will Matias actually bring to the table? If his manner and experience is any indication, it will be plenty. First, he has a conciliatory style that will certainly be an asset as the Board continues to wrestle with the challenges. Second, he will likely bring a greater voice to parents in the system. At present, the Board tilts to the professional class, folks whose children are in or have been in City High School. Matias knows that community, but his work at Burton with parents gives him access to other parental voices. These are the voices of those who may be poor but have big dreams for the children. They’re strivers. These are the real future of GRPS, those who believe.

And as any conversation with parents reveals, there continues to be a disconnect, particularly in the Hispanic community — another plus for Matias. Often the parent voice gets framed as objection, or a defensive huddle. Matias calmer voice and manner suggests another possible path to go. It is the language of family. It is the possibility of listening.

When the school board chose John Matias they chose to listen. And whether they realized it or not, they chose to also change how they will speak.

Filed under: Community, ,

Known by the Company They Keep

The numbers alone indicated the interest in Grand Rapids Public Schools. The quality of the candidates spoke volumes about  the community’s assessment of the present condition of the schools. Basically, it’s all good.

Missing from the pack were those with obvious chips on the shoulder. Or those with the anti-tax crowd that once populated the board. There were not the candidates of “no” or of opposition to the direction of the schools. This is due in large measure both to the board, and the GRPS superintendent, Teresa Weatherall Neal.

Last Monday, the Board whittled down the list to six finalists, and looking at them one can begin to see the outlines of what the Board’s concerns are for the schools.

Our six candidates include:

Tracey Braeme, assistant dean at Thomas Cooley Law School, but more importantly, daughter-in-law of long-time head of the Grand Rapids Urban League Walter Braeme. Her obvious strengths are connections with one of the GRPS core constituencies, and with it a real feel for the questions of poverty and race.

C.J. Shroll, a current business consultant, but he brings more than 20 years of workforce development at Grand Rapids Community College — he was also instrumental of the Advanced Tech Center on the campus. The first appeal here is obviously how to improve Grand Rapids Public School graduates.

Paul Ippel, recently retired head of Network 180. The connection with the justice system and with rehabilitation makes his background especially attractive as the schools face the challenge of dropouts. One of the ongoing needs in Grand Rapids continues to be that of opening the doors to more possibilities to those who are minority and poor.

John Matias is a therapist and community schools coordinator. The mental health aspect also dovetails with the themes of Paul Ippel — clearly for some on the board, the question is not simply schooling, but promoting a broader community health. Of interest here, Matias also has two students at Grand Rapids City High School.

Jamie Scripps is best known as an environmental lawyer. She is the youngest of the panel, and so could bring a solid voice for younger families in the district. She is also perhaps the most political of the six with clear connections to the Democratic party (her husband Dan Scripps served in the State legislature, 2008-2010, representing Traverse City). At the same time, like Matias, she brings a certain middle class vibe that represents the growing edge of the GRPS transformation model. Her interview will be interesting.

Mohan Krishnan, is also relatively young, and is the director of Children’s Services for Hope Network. There is some immediate appeal as to background, even more, his work with children could make an important contribution as the schools look to roll out more early childhood programs.
In short, six solid professionals, each with significant accomplishments — and there were others (professors!) left off this list — give a picture of the sorts of questions on the Board’s collective mind. The issues at hand appear to be how to effectively intervene with high school dropouts. Is it a matter of underdevelopment with the early education? A failure to connect with the minority profile? (Here, the hidden question will be which of the six will be most in tune with Hispanic concerns). The question of emotional health, of the soft connections that make the schools more than places of schooling, but real communities — that’s here. And finally there is the question of economics: how do we help our students succeed?
Tonight, we will find out more about the direction of our schools. In the meantime, it’s something of a rich man’s problem, for once the reveling in a kind of social wealth.

Filed under: Community, , , , , , , , , ,

Lisa, Lisa, Lisa

During the debate on HB 4813, a measure to provide for the dissolving of the Buena Vista and Inkster school districts,  Rep. Lisa Posthumus Lyons uttered the famous words, heard round the state.

“Pigs get fat, and hogs get slaughtered. I am done now talking about political parties and adult interests. I want to focus on the problem that these adults created.”

Not surprisingly, many took the words as referring to teachers. The representative has been on the defensive ever since. In today’s Grand Rapids Press she tries to explain herself. It wasn’t teachers she was referring to , but

“special interest union leaders who were playing political games with amendments and the bills.”

This packs an  unusual amount of irony, given the legislative history of the measure. In her column Lyons summarizes the bill

After much negotiation, Democrat and Republican lawmakers agreed to an amendment in the bill that would have provided for displaced teachers from the dissolved districts to be the first hired in the receiving districts.

Exactly. The only difficulty was that wasn’t the bill that came before the chamber. The substitute measure (H-4) stripped those very protections from the bill. The “special interests” standing in the way of children? That was the proposed amendments from the Democrats, seeking to restore the teacher protection.

The legislative history is abundantly clear on this, it wasn’t the unions or Democrats who brought forward the measure, but the Republican caucus. Trying to blame it on the unions then, is misplaced, and instead only shows the pique of the GOP leadership. The tragedy here s that a real bipartisan bill had been crafted, but the animus of some to teachers apparently was such that  “just to show them” they made the bill more onerous and destroyed the bipartisan cooperation.

Oh, there certainly were political pigs in the room.

Likewise, Rep. Lyons displays a remarkable lack of understanding about the structural problems that have been driving Michigan schools into crisis. It’s all the fault of the school districts:

Funding isn’t the problem; mismanagement and administrative negligence led to this crisis.

That might be true were it not for the fact that over the Recession most school districts (GRPS being one of the few exceptions) actually had their fiscal problems worsen. The challenges schools face are structural. Schools have seen a decrease in enrollment from the Recession coupled with the rising role of schools of choice (Bridge  reports Pontiac lost roughly $14 million because of transfers). Add to this the Legislature’s shifting of money away from the schools that only compounded the economic impact of the loss from enrollment. This was the storm that has hit not only Buena Vista and Inkster, but Muskegon Heights  and others.

The fact is, if we really believe that opportunity should not be restricted to Zip Codes (oh, like 49331), then we had better be passing appropriations and legislation that actually back that up. And if that won’t work, how about this: quit blaming the unions for the failure of your own party. Deal?

Filed under: Education Policy, Republican Folly, , , , , , , ,

Mixed Messages

Trevor Thomas formally kicked off his campaign for the Third Congressional seat with a special guest: Bob Eleveld. If the name sounds familiar, it should. Eleveld is a former chair of the Kent County GOP and helped in the local McCain campaign in 2000. So what brings him out? As MLive reported

While Thomas supports the environment, woman’s rights and LGBT rights, he’s strong in his beliefs and will not waver, Eleveld said.
“He’s not going to be anybody else but what he is to get votes. He’s just going to be Trevor,” Eleveld said. “He thinks for himself.”

Eleveld, you see, is that most rare of endangered species, a liberal/centrist Republican, socially liberal but economically conservative.

His endorsement is a prize for the Thomas team,  but it also is one that adds some new challenges.

When combined with the theme of “Jerry Ford values”, the endorsement suggests a real move to the center. There’s more than a whiff of the “post-partisan”  when Thomas touts his ability to put aside partisanship.

Then again this is the same campaign that has vilified the Pestka campaign for being in the center and insufficiently progressive. Clearly a message is getting confused. Who could blame Democrats for wondering which is the real Thomas?

The presence of Eleveld on the campaign team, and even the messaging of “Jerry Ford values” create more distance between the campaign and the minority community. Those with memory know that the long time “progressive” Republicans nonetheless held to conservative economics. It’s Suburbs v. City, Forest Hills v. GRPS.

The desire to be post-partisan, to be a bridge-builder is admirable; the lessons of the past four years in Washington, offer abundant evidence that a tougher mindset may be needed.

Of course, it may also be that “progressive values” really do end up as a set of social issues and leave off economics and the question of jobs. In a word, suburban values.

But make no mistake, it’s going to take a tougher mind to fight the Austrian economics of Amash and the Tea Party.

Filed under: Democratic Party, Elections, , , , , , ,

The Party of Self-Destruction

Once again in the recent school board election, the conservative wing decided to self-destruct. In this case, by making union support the deciding issue.

So late last week came this card:

Two flaws present themselves:

First, there is the delicious faux populism, comparing average  salaries: teachers $55,000, and “the average salary for you and me” of $33,000. This latter number is something of a mystery, to wit: per capita (i.e. individual) income in the metro area is roughly $33,000 and $20,800 in the city– but that’s calculated spreading total income over total individuals. A more realistic number is that of Household Income, and here too the numbers are off. Median Grand Rapids income is $43,900. Not to belabor this, but the “average salary” seems to be an entirely fabricated number.

And then, there is the over the top language, “Stop the Union Takeover ….” The issue at hand for the school board is not the question of Reform, or Excellence, but of the dreaded teachers and their union, the conservatives whipping boy/gal de jour. Now in fairness to the mailer, this sort of approach is a motivator for the conservative side of the fence, a fear-mongering, yes, but a motivator all the same.

Still, it is so fundamentally stupid. Stupid, for misreading the situation (none believe that Raynard Ross or Monica Randles are tools of the union — at least none who have met them).  But even more so, for how it corrupts the discussion that must take place. Grand Rapids Public Schools is up against financial constraints and the challenge of preparing children in poverty. This will take a coalition drawn from across the community. And one member of that coalition will most definitely be the teachers. Given that, where — why?– does one gain by attacking teachers?

Sadly, the post card is a microcosm of the same political notion at work in our state, notions that imagine that there is something like a free lunch when it comes to education. The attacks on teachers and even the notion of public schools to judge from some both function to degrade the schools we have, and leave our children and our community under-prepared for tomorrow.

Filed under: Elections, , , , , ,

Mapping the School Race (and our City)

As so often happens, the School Board election, now concluded, functioned as a sort of proxy conflict for various parties in the city.

There were two challengers  from the civic-Dem coalition: Raynard Ross and Monica Randles, both enjoying endorsement and monetary support from the Kent County Dems and the local education union.

Opposed has been a cluster of candidates favored by the Chamber/GOP interests: incumbent Catherine Mueller, a leader in the present direction of the schools; one enjoying fairly explicit Republican support, David Clark; and a representative from the older, broad civic leadership cadre, former Urban League president Walter Brame.

The conventional read on such a split is that of a division between those supporting the GRPS administration and Bernard Taylor, and those favoring a change of direction and emphasis. It is better, perhaps to think of the divisions taking place along two axes:

Axis One: Reform v. Continuity

The obvious split is between Taylor and the teachers (and their allies). This, however masks the underlying issue. Like him or not, Taylor has pushed a number of reform issues focused on the general schools. Teachers and parents from the specialty programs have pushed back. This battle has been fought along several fronts, beginning with a real rift between the administration and the teachers, a rift further compounded by the consolidation of programs and closures of schools — both creating great displeasure on the west side of the city. The split gets fought over essentially educational policy issues, such as H grade or blended classes, overlay this with the conflict between Taylor and the teaching staff. For the neighborhoods this is a question of preserving conventional traditional schools, for teachers there is the continued disruption made all the more painful of the way things once were. For residents and staff alike the memory of what once (imagined) was, serves as a sort of grief. This was the axis of the last school board battle, and it has taken the same shape in some unfortunate ads this cycle as well.

Axis Two: Sending v. Stakeholder

But there is a second division that is no less significant for Grand Rapids Public Schools, that of the division between the sending community — those homes that have their children in the general education programs of the school system — and the stakeholder community with children in specialized, charter, schools  of choice or private settings. This latter division is one riven by issues of race and class. The sending community is predominantly, overwhelmingly minority and poor; the stakeholder community is better off, conventionally middle class, with many choosing to stay in the city. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Elections, Horace Mann, , , , , , , , ,

Dying. Really?

All the hoopla of the Newsweek article listing Grand Rapids as a “dying city” certainly stirred up a discussion.  And most of it off track.

A great deal of the defense turned on the vitality of the downtown shows. From Rob Bliss to Art Prize, how could this not be an alive, happening place?  However, if staging a great party were a sign of health, New Orleans would be in the pink of things. But of course, it’s not.

Rather the commotion touches one of the key questions before any metro region: do all parts share in the prosperity, in the distribution of various social goods? Looking past the events and the Rob Bliss adventures, another story may be unfolding,  in effect are we looking at a Potemkin village that hides a creeping collapse?

That skeptical question is important.  After all, the City is different from the County, the neighborhoods  different from downtown. A metro area may thrive while  individual municipalities or neighborhoods suffer. , e.g. one need only travel west down the 28th Street corridor in to see something that indeed looks like collapse, from the vacant stores, the empty lots to the plans for urban redevelopment to look at all the vacant stores and sense the collapse. Yet even here, Wyoming itself has not yet suffered a collapse, even if its northern neighborhoods do appear on the decline.

However to understand if Grand Rapids is in decline we need to confront both the metrics and the rhetoric.

Fear of a black (planet)

The language of decline does not simply refer to a set of metrics, but participates in a narrative urban dysfunction. To speak of decline we do not mean declining fortunes or opportunities — from a middle class perspective, we can always escape — rather, the object is that of the increase in a certain kind of community: the urban poor, the urban minority poor.  In Eugene Robinson’s words, these are the Abandoned, this (growing) urban underclass. The narrative carries with it an inevitable racial cast; while Sioux City may decline, Buffalo dies. In the narrative of the urban poor, the dying city is to be blamed (e.g. too many social services, too much social dysfunction), or ignored, and certainly separated from, even if that means crossing a municipal boundary or moving to the townships.

The dying city narrative at its best is one of condescension that barely masks a despair underneath.

Should Grand Rapids be considered in this narrative or not?  The condition of the city will not be found by press release, but by data.  Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Economy, , , , , , , , ,

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