- Associated Press - Monday, July 4, 2016

The Detroit News. June 28, 2016

State should close dying districts.

All eyes have been on Detroit Public Schools and its glaring debt problems. But the state’s largest school district, which just received a $617 million bailout from the state, is far from the only district that faces financial troubles. A broader solution is needed for other ailing public schools around Michigan.

That solution should include a clearer framework for how to handle districts that have lost so many students it no longer makes sense for them to exist.

Case in point: Highland Park. The state should pull the plug on the dwindling district, which now only enrolls a little over 300 students. It closed its high school last year and it’s expecting to close one of two K-8 schools later this year because of declining enrollment.

One school building does not make a district. The state should facilitate closure of the district as it did with Buena Vista and Inkster schools three years ago. Those districts had generated so much debt due to enrollment loss that the Legislature stepped in to shut them down.

The state tried everything it could to save Highland Park schools. But what happened to this district shows that sometimes even the most substantial interventions aren’t enough to prevent the inevitable.

In Highland Park’s case, the state declared a financial emergency in 2012 and the emergency manager decided to charter the district, as a way to separate the debt from the schools. The 18 mills all traditional districts collect went to pay the debt the “old” district racked up - that debt still totals $7.8 million. The same thing happened in Muskegon Heights, and it’s a similar model included in the DPS bailout.

The Leona Group, the charter operator that took over running Highland Park, tried to revamp buildings in horrific condition and make the remaining schools appealing, but it wasn’t enough to convince families to stay. Most have already chosen to enroll their children in neighboring districts or charter schools.

The revamped Highland Park and Muskegon Heights charter districts eliminated their deficits last year. Yet the old districts saddled with debt remain on the list of 22 districts that the Education Department projects will end the fiscal year in deficit. The good news is that number is down from 41 districts last year and 58 in 2014.

Michigan’s second largest district, Utica Community Schools, faces financial shortfalls, too, although it’s not on the list. The district is planning to fill its $19.3 million deficit from its fund equity, in addition to staff cuts and other savings measures.

For districts that can’t address their deficits internally, outside intervention is required. State Superintendent Brian Whiston is aware which districts are struggling the most, and when districts look beyond repair, he should work closely with the Department of Treasury and the Legislature to determine how to proceed. The Education Department already sends lawmakers a quarterly report on districts in deficit, and early warning legislation passed last year gives Treasury and intermediate school districts more ability to get involved before a financial emergency is declared.

While charter schools with deep deficits often close on their own, that almost never happens with traditional districts. For dying districts like Highland Park, the state needs a strategy for closure and ensuring students have another place to go.

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Detroit Free Press. June 29, 2016

How Volkswagen, Flint speak to regulatory deficiencies.

The Flint water crisis and the Volkswagen emissions scandal point pretty clearly to the dangers of one dynamic: the rhetorical broadsides against the government regulatory community, and the rush to undermine their ability to strike appropriate balances between efficiency and safety, between profit and public good.

Both are disasters of gargantuan proportion - unimaginable in terms of their occurrence in the planet’s wealthiest and most technologically advanced nation, and unacceptable because of their preventable nature.

The Volkswagen scandal was about corporate profiteers deciding to cheat regulatory restraints because they could, and because they knew the likelihood of being caught was low, and that the consequences if they were nabbed would probably have civil limitations.

Volkswagen put software in about 11 million diesel cars that was designed to fool emissions tests for exhaust chemicals that, unchecked, cause respiratory diseases. The actual damage to the environment is virtually incalculable. The company has reached a deal with the government, though, for $14.7 billion in payouts to customers.

Criminal charges could follow, but the way the Environmental Protection Agency’s statutes work, it could be difficult to charge or get convictions in this country.

This all takes place against the backdrop of a continuing struggle in Washington to properly fund and define the scope of the EPA’s work. Much of American conservative thought right now focuses on criticizing the country’s regulatory infrastructure and insisting that business operations and profits suffer because of it.

The strategy has been to challenge the purview of regulatory agencies like the EPA, and to try to starve them of the resources they need to rein in corporate interests so they respect the public good.

It has been working, as the agency has been backed, repeatedly, onto its heels just to defend its existence.

The most extreme iteration of this philosophy is embodied in the Republican Party’s presidential candidate, Donald Trump, who isn’t half-stepping his disdain for regulation. He says he’d scrap the EPA altogether. He said the agency is “going around causing damage, as opposed to saving damage” and is wasting “a tremendous amount of money.”

He’d return responsibility for environmental protection to “the states,” which he imagines are better equipped to strike appropriate balances between business and the environment.

Maybe he hasn’t been to Michigan.

Here, the Flint water crisis suggests the emaciated EPA is nowhere near as tattered as local environmental oversight.

Gov. Rick Snyder and his administration have insisted that the drastic cuts they made to the state’s Department of Environmental Quality had little or nothing to do with the decisions that led to lead tainting Flint’s water supply.

That would be laughable if it were not such tragic self-denial.

In truth, the MDEQ has been on a 10-year budget slide, as first Gov. Jennifer Granholm, and then Snyder, cut the department deeply.

Total staffing was cut 22%, and staffing in the laboratory unit - which is critical in testing drinking water and assessing toxicity - was cut 43%. Just under Snyder’s watch, laboratory funding has fallen 21%.

Granholm’s argument was that state resources were increasingly sparse, and nearly everyone needed to take a hit. Snyder’s argument was twofold: a repeat of Granholm’s, plus an assertion that the state’s regulatory environment needed recasting.

The result, according to the task force Snyder appointed to look into causes of the Flint water crisis, is a department that has the smallest budget among environmental agencies in the Midwest, and among the largest number of community drinking water systems to oversee.

At some level, this is just about cliché: You get what you pay for.

Cut oversight dollars, and watch chaos ensue. That anyone in government is unclear on that dynamic is baffling.

But beyond that, the ideological struggle to defend regulatory schemes as imperative to human safety is tiring, and really just tired.

We don’t need more examples. We just need fortitude to stop accommodating the regulatory doubters and restore funding and staffing and legal backing for agencies like the EPA and the MDEQ to do their jobs much better than they do today.

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Traverse City Record-Eagle. June 30, 2016

Arctic grayling faces a big upriver challenge.

Mankind wielded all three prongs of the spear that killed Michigan’s arctic grayling - we caught too many, we damaged their watery home and we imported invasive species to compete with them.

Now we’ve undertaken the difficult, but worthy, quest to restore the native Michigander to its rightful place in our streams.

But the effort isn’t simple - we’ve failed several times to bring the species back to the Wolverine State. Multiple attempts to restock rivers with the fish fell flat - stretching along a timeline from 1877, when fish from northern Michigan were transplanted to downstate waters, through 1991, when fingerlings were released in multiple rivers and lakes across the state.

A federal grant given to the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians of Manistee will help fund another effort that may have a better chance at success because of more thorough research and specialized introduction methods.

Efforts to restore the grayling to Michigan are possible because similar fish still exist elsewhere. Unlike the passenger pigeon, the grayling hasn’t been eliminated from the planet. In the continental U.S., grayling are native only to Michigan and Montana. The last glacial period isolated the fish in the two locations, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

The grayling was wildly popular with sport fishermen in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They can grow to 30 inches long, are an interesting blue hue and sport flashy dorsal fins. And they apparently were easy prey for sportfishers. Some said it was possible to catch three grayling with a single cast - possibly with three hooks attached to a single line.

The community of Grayling was named for the fish.

Scientists say the arctic grayling disappeared because of a combination of overfishing, habitat damage and competition from non-native brown and rainbow trout.

Reintroduction efforts through the last century have failed, at least in part because we didn’t understand that they can live only in a very particular ecosystem. Man’s hand changed rivers across the state. Grayling no longer can survive in their original waters, which have been modified by a long history of logging and development.

Now the Michigan Department of Natural Resources is ramping up for another run at returning the fish to Michigan streams. A partnership with the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians and Michigan Technological University researchers aims to relocate fish from Montana to the Manistee River watershed. Key to this effort is the realization that the grayling are very dependent on suitable habitat.

“It may seem like there’s a lot of free-flowing water up north, but it may not be ideal to carry out the grayling’s life cycle,” said Todd Grischke, the DNR’s assistant chief of fisheries.

The Manistee River is cold, clear water and its gravelly bottom provides a suitable habitat for staging the comeback, he said.

The Little River Band of Ottawa Indians landed a $200,000 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grant in 2010 to develop a restoration plan for both native grayling and elk. The tribe contracted with Michigan Tech to locate the rivers best suited for grayling. The fish is a part of the Manistee tribe’s heritage and culture and as such is considered important to restore, said Frank Beaver, the band’s director of natural resources.

Questions about rising water temperatures and trout competition cloud the project’s possibility of success.

History has proven that the actions of man can eliminate species. It also has shown that restoring nature’s balance is an uphill battle.

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Lansing State Journal. June 30, 2016

Young people, make votes count.

Why should young people vote? Does it really matter?

The answers to these questions came with great stakes when Great Britain voted June 23 to leave the European Union, a decision dubbed ‘Brexit.’

Only 36 percent of the votes were cast by those ages 18-24, overwhelmingly in favor of remaining. The decision passed by a narrow margin - 52 percent to 48 percent - in large part due to those over 65 who cast their vote for isolation.

The voice of young Brits mattered in this election. Too many opted not to use theirs.

That’s unfortunate considering that voting bloc will be more affected than others.

There are more than 4 million people ages 18-24 in Great Britain, and most accounts agree they will be the ones most affected. Young entrepreneurs suddenly closed off from European markets and those working abroad who may need additional credentials are examples of those who will feel the immediate impacts when Brexit becomes formalized.

And there is an election coming up in the United States where young people also have a chance to broadly influence the outcome. Will young Americans cede that voice to their older counterparts, or will they take advantage of their individual and collective voting power?

In Great Britain, it was a clash between isolationism and globalism. That same issue has been raised in the U.S. with talk of closing borders and building walls.

Voters set records in the Michigan primary election this past March when 2.5 million cast their votes; the most notable increase was in absentee voters. That trend must continue, and young people especially must speak up.

Many believe the best way to secure a prosperous future for America and the world is to engage in a global economy. It will become proportionally more significant for later generations - like those coming of age now, with the opportunity to vote in what may be only their first or second presidential election.

Decisions that have implications this far into the future should bear the most significant weight for those who are going to be there.

People ages 18-35 make up roughly 31 percent of voting age adults in the U.S., according to the Pew Research Center. Of those, fewer than 50 percent turn out to vote in presidential elections (and even fewer in off years).

Now is the time to exercise your right to vote. It matters. Make it count.

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