Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Mental health care lacking in state prisons

By CHANTAL COOK
Capital News Services

LANSING – A recent study shows that 65 percent of state corrections inmates suffering from a mental illness or disorder don’t receive proper treatment.

The Department of Corrections and the University of Michigan did the study of a random selection of prisons throughout the state.

Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia and the Ionia Maximum Correctional Facility were two in the study.

Professor Brent Fries and others interviewed 618 inmates, and found 20 percent suffered from a severe mental illness or disorder.

Only 35 percent of mentally ill inmates were getting treatment, the study found.

The study also showed that female inmates suffer from mental illness more often than men.

Fries, of the U-M’s School of Public Health, said lack of treatment could lead to problems.

“It’s not good for people with mental health problems to receive no treatment. It can put people at risk,” Fries said.

People think differently about mental health, he said.

If the study showed 65 percent of inmates don’t receive treatment after an injury like breaking a bone, the public would call that inhumane. However, those same people may not look at inmates without mental treatment the same way, he said.

“Sadly you have those people who think it is easy as saying ‘get over it,’” Fries said.

John Cordell, public information specialist for the Department of Corrections, said mentally unstable people were let back into the community and some ended up in prison because the state closed psychiatric hospitals.

“Prisons weren’t ready to deal with the mentally ill,” Cordell said.

He said the department asked for the report to make sure it delivers care to those who need it.

The study showed what the department is doing right and what it needs to improve, he said.

Under department policy, mental health services shall be provided to prisoners, including appropriate treatment for those seriously mentally ill.

Prisoners who need such services should have reasonable access to care including follow-ups. Prisoners diagnosed with a serious mental illness or disorder should be periodically evaluated, according to the policy.

Fries said one of the problems was prison mental health programs had difficulty targeting inmates with mental problems.

His solution is to create a five-level scale, which includes illnesses like depression and schizophrenia. Illnesses that are more common in prisons would be on the top of the scale and would be treated first. Once that happens, health care workers can treat people suffering from other diseases less common in inmates.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: State Agencies

Recycle new light bulbs and avoid mercury risk

By CHANTAL COOK
Capital News Service

LANSING – The Michigan State Medical Society recently warned Michigan residents of the dangers of not properly disposing of compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs.

The public should correctly dispose of compact fluorescent bulbs because the mercury contained in them can cause public health hazards, MSMS representatives say.

Doctors are concerned about environmental and health risks from mercury in the bulbs.

When released into the environment, mercury starts the cycle of methyl mercury. Methyl mercury exposure has been linked to birth defects, impaired brain and nervous systems, according to Michigan Energy Options’ website.

Joel Wiese, director of marketing for Michigan Energy Options in East Lansing, said small amounts of mercury are found in all fluorescent bulbs.

The organization is non profit and focuses on promoting quality energy efficiency and it has run the Change a Light, Change Michigan program since 2006. It encourages residents to replace old incandescent bulbs with CFLs.

“The biggest risk is with handling or breaking it,” Wiese said.

He said when bulbs break, people should open windows in the area and leave for 15 minutes, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards.

CFLs are found to reduce light costs by 75 percent, Wiese said.

The MSMS said LED bulbs are a good alternative because they contain no mercury and can provide greater energy savings than CFLs.

Robert McCann, press secretary for the Department of Natural Resources and Environment, said LED bulbs cost more.

“LED bulbs are more expensive than fluorescent bulbs and not mainstream. The process has to mature a bit more,” McCann said.

He said a recent problem is that LED bulbs tend to shine light straight up, causing a limited area of light.

Also, people should recycle all bulbs properly and not throw them in the trash, Wiese said.

Areas throughout the state, including the Kalamazoo City Commission, recycle CFBs.

For more information on how and where to go to recycle CFLs, go to http://www.michiganenergyoptions.org.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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Filed under: Environment

School districts face pressure to privatize services

By DANIEL OPSOMMER
Capital News Service

LANSING – For better or worse, school districts throughout Michigan are facing pressure to privatize the purchase of services through for-profit companies in an effort to balance budgets.

Supporters of privatization argue that districts, by and large, pay employees salaries and benefits above the market rate.

By privatizing services such as transportation, custodial and food, districts can cut costs through increased competition from the private sector.

“Privatization is something that many districts have to look at in order to balance their budget and ensure they are providing their educational services,” said Linda Wacyk, communications director for the Michigan Association of School Administrators.

However, critics such as the Michigan Education Association (MEA) argue that privatizing support services doesn’t necessarily yield cost savings.

“Paying less for custodial, transportation and food services most often results in a reduction in the quality or quantity of those services,” said Doug Pratt, communications director for the state’s largest union of public school employees. “In some cases, privatization actually results in higher expenditures for those services.”

Pratt said that most school boards, after weighing the costs and benefits of privatization, have previously chosen to keep support services in-house to ensure quality. However, recent cuts to state aid have sparked a renewed interest in privatization.

“Theoretically, a good contract with a private firm could provide the same services with the same quality, responsiveness and accountability as an in-house operation,” Pratt said. “The problem is that to achieve this end, a private contractor will likely charge more than it costs the district to provide the service.”

Pratt said the need for contractors to earn profits and pay taxes and overhead costs typically drive costs up and quality down.

“Time after time, districts that try to save money by hiring private contractors end up with inferior service, higher costs or both,” he said.

Citing cuts in state aid, Grand Ledge Public Schools obtained bids to outsource transportation, food, custodial and maintenance services, according to Tom Goodwin, chief financial officer for the district.

“Regrettably, when you’re a district at the bottom of the funding continuum you’re forced to look at these issues to balance your budget,” Goodwin said. “In this labor market, basically what’s happening is our bidding is bringing down our costs to whatever the relevant labor market price is.”

Grand Ledge obtained a single bid from Dean Transportation to provide bus staff, management and mechanical services.

Once Dean placed its bid, the school district allowed its transportation employees the opportunity to meet the lower cost Dean had proposed. The district’s bus drivers negotiated to reduce their salary and benefits to meet the lower cost.

“There wasn’t any need to privatize our bus drivers because the only purpose was to save money and our employees matched the costs,” Goodwin said.

However, Grand Ledge has contracted with Dean to run its bus garage management, mechanics and special education transportation.

The district also accepted bids to privatize its general custodial staff.

“We wanted to maintain control of the head custodians and maintenance crew, but looked to cut costs with our general custodians,” Goodwin said. “However, our general custodians made enough concessions for us to keep them.”

Goodwin said the district has already shifted its food service management to Chartwells Food Services and is in the process of accepting bids to outsource its food service workers. Goodwin said the district will allow its employees the opportunity to match the bid.

“Regrettably, what we’re seeing is the race to the bottom in regard to salaries and benefits,” Goodwin said. “It’s sort of the law of unintended consequences because what typically happens through outsourcing is people lose their health care coverage in order to retain their job.”

The Legislature may vote to require privatization of services for schools receiving state aid.

Rep. Pam Byrnes, D-Lyndon Township, is the sponsor of a bill that would require public schools, intermediate districts and charter academies receiving state aid to adopt strict written policies governing the privatization of materials, services, insurance, utilities and all other goods or services used by the district.

“We need to make sure our school districts are taking the initiative to decrease their expenditures in every way possible,” Byrnes said. “Requiring privatization guidelines is one of the most effective ways to ensure that districts are being cost-efficient.”

Under her proposal, districts would have to use competitive solicitation and bidding to buy any product or service worth $50,000 or more.

“The Legislature seems to think that school districts aren’t looking to be cost-efficient. I would beg to differ,” Goodwin said. “We’re always looking to reduce costs and it’s not like the Legislature created efficiency and cost containment.”

Byrnes’ bill is pending in the House Appropriations Committee.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

 
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Filed under: Education

More ads pop up at school facilities

By LAURA FOSMIRE
Capital News Service

LANSING – In a time when schools face more and more budget cuts, allowing advertising in sports facilities and auditoriums may give a small but much-needed boost to school funding.

But the complications associated with advertising are creating a struggle for districts trying to find a balance between too much advertising and preserving the sanctity of the learning environment.

St. Ignace Area Schools is featuring banners on its baseball and softball fields for the first time, according to Kathy McLeod, business manager for the district.

“We get sponsors to help our athletic programs,” she said. “If they want to pay to put a banner up on the field, we allow it. Our baseball and softball programs are self-funded, so they do anything they can to get the money needed to pay for referees, equipment, that sort of thing.”

McLeod said advertising may also be allowed in other places.

“Our scoreboard for our football field has advertising for the First National Bank because they donated the scoreboard,” she said. “Other ads and banners aren’t there yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see them in the near future.”

She said the district is experimenting with advertising because it both generates funds and fosters good relationships with local businesses.

“Our community is really good to the school system,” she said. “They support what we do and we want to support them. As long as the signs aren’t trashy-looking and it’s something nice and neat, what’s the problem?”

St. Ignace joins eight schools in Oakland County that have decided to allow advertising on their campuses.

So far, the ads on its baseball and softball fields have pulled in an additional $2,600 for athletics.

The Traverse City district has permitted advertising for a long time, according to chief financial officer Paul Soma, but it’s been difficult formalizing its system.

“We’ve had informal advertising for a long time,” he said. “By informal, I mean that advertisers can just kind of sponsor a team without having to go through any centralized policy. We just look at each advertiser and each department on a case-by-case basis.”

The district tried to implement a more formal system in 2005, but Soma said the process proved overwhelming.

“The system only works because it’s flexible,” he said. “When we formalized it, we lost that flexibility and it caved in on itself. It was too bureaucratic.”

Like St. Ignace, the ads in the Traverse City district come in the form of signs in athletic fields and on scoreboards. But Soma said companies have found clever ways to insert subtle advertising into district events.

“We had a company sell us instruments for our marching band, and they have their company name written all over each instrument,” he said. “It’s pretty clear out on the field. They didn’t pay us for that advertising but they’re getting it. They’ve really figured it out.”

Soma said the district’s informal and flexible method for dealing with advertisers works well for finding extra money here and there, but the district is still looking for a way to standardize it.

“It helps to pay the extra bills, like for athletic equipment,” he said. “But it’s not going to solve the district crunch. We’re in the process of figuring out some parameters to use when choosing advertisers.”

Soma added that many critics of advertising in schools fear that the focus will move away from education and toward consumerism, but he finds that idea “hilarious.”

“Ads are a part of our culture,” he said. “Kids are going to be exposed to them no matter what. Of course, some ads would be inappropriate for a school setting.”

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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Filed under: Education

Program serves homeless students in Traverse City

By CHENQI GUO
Capital News Service

LANSING – As an 18-year-old high school senior, Haley should be thinking about senior prom and graduation. Instead, she worries about where she’ll sleep at night.

“It would really help to have a job so I could have money to better support myself and I could get a place to live,” she said on the website of to the Student in Transition Empowerment Program (STEP) offered by Traverse City Area Public Schools.

Homeless students face many obstacles to graduation in Traverse City including transportation, housing and school work, according to STEP.

In 2008-09, STEP identified more than 500 students in grades pre-K-12 who qualified as “in residential transition” under federal law. “The number is increasing every day,” said Joan Abbott, regional grants coordinator for the program.

The Traverse City Area Public Schools enrollment is about 10,000.

The law protects the educational rights of homeless children and youth by requiring public schools nationwide to ensure they can stay in class at their same schools.

School board president Marjorie Rich said there is a wide range of reasons why students become homeless.

“Some of them have family situations that make them leave. Some of them live with unemployed parents. Some of them are in trouble with the law,” Rich said.

The number of homeless students enrolled in Michigan public schools jumped from 7,500 in 2007-08 to 14,682 in 2008-09, a 96 percent increase, according to the state Department of Education.

Most of them live with friends and family but some live in a shelter or “couch-surf”, which means they sleep wherever they can on a couch and move from place to place.

Some even live in a car, according to a survey by STEP.

STEP provides job counseling services. It has a transition specialist who helps students develop employment skills such as creating a resume and learning how to interact with interviewers, according to Abbott.

The survey showed that 60 percent of homeless students said they would like to go to college, 55 percent said they want to work, 18 percent would like to get married and 30 percent said “I don’t know” when asked about their post-graduation goals.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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Filed under: State Agencies

New study raises questions for wind energy debate

By JOSH GARVEY
Capital News Service

LANSING- Wind energy paired with coal could cause more pollution than coal itself, a study in Colorado and Texas said.

A coal plant is most efficient when it runs continuously at a certain level of production, says the study by Bentek Energy LLC, a consulting company hired by Colorado’s oil and gas industry.

Repeatedly raising and lowering coal energy production to back up wind energy, a process called cycling, causes a coal plant to release more pollutants, such as carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide, than it does when at normal levels.

But critics say the study simply shows a minor problem that will be corrected as Michigan adapts to using more wind energy.

“One problem with wind is that it’s intermittent as a resource,” said Jim Ault, president of the Michigan Electric and Gas Association. “You have to back it up with something for when the wind drops away.”

That intermittent nature can result in coal plants not operating at full capacity or full efficiency when paired with wind energy.

The study recommends against expanding wind turbines until energy types that work more efficiently with wind can be put in place.

Ault said that backing up wind energy is necessary because electrical service has to be provided continually.

“The product is consumed the moment it is generated,” he said.

Skip Pruss, director of the Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth (DELEG), said such concerns can be seen as growing pains as Michigan moves to “a more robust renewable energy future.”

“We’re just in the beginning stages of this overall energy deployment,” he said. “We will work through these sorts of issues with different technologies, and we’re intent on Michigan being the place where those technologies will be developed and deployed.”

Not everyone is as optimistic about Michigan’s wind future, which brings with it the prospect of structures 260 feet tall and higher.

Groups opposed to turbines popping up in picturesque locations around the state began forming after Michigan announced its pro-alternative energy plans. There are currently groups opposed to local wind energy in Allegan, Oceana and Clinton counties and other areas throughout the state.

For example, Clinton County Wind Watch argues that wind power’s stop-and-go nature makes it too unreliable for extensive use.

Pruss said part of the states energy plans involve moving forward with not just wind energy, but also with electricity from sources that complement wind better, such as hybrid combinations that increase the reliability of wind.

“Take a wind farm and hook it up with the latest in natural gas technology, for instance,” he said.

Ault said that natural gas is often suggested in discussions of what to pair with wind.

“If you get a drop in wind, you can start natural gas up pretty quickly compared to coal or nuclear, where you couldn’t,” he said.

Hugh McDiarmid, the communications director for the Michigan Environmental Council, also suggested natural gas as an obvious partner for wind technology.

“It has the advantage of being a little bit less polluting than coal, but it’s also far more adaptable,” he said. “Natural gas plants can peak and stop as needed.”

Another part of implementing wind technology is improving the power infrastructure in the state, according to McDiarmid.

“The move to renewable energy sources necessitates a smarter and more flexible grid,” he said. “We have to move away from the model of a few massive coal plants and huge transmission lines carrying power to every nook and cranny.”

McDiarmid is referring to an energy grid that can adjust to more than one source of electricity, pay rebates to customers who produce energy that goes back into the system and charge different rates for power used at different times.

Such a grid would be necessary to best make use of the wind-generated electricity, according to Pruss.

Michigan currently generates 140 megawatts of energy from wind a year, and DELEG projects that to increase to more than 2,000 megawatts by 2015.

One megawatt is enough to power 300 homes, according to John Sarver, the head of Michigan’s Wind Working Group.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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Filed under: Environment

Grants spotlight lighthouse projects

Whitefish Point Lighthouse
Whitefish Point Lighthouse – National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

By MEGAN DURISIN
Capital News Service

LANSING – Several Michigan lighthouse are seeking grants to keep their lights shining, as well as their roofs, windows and paint in ship-shape condition.

While most lighthouses are in good shape, the people looking after them face a greater challenge than ever before, said Terry Pepper, executive director of the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association in Mackinaw City.

“When they first took ownership, there was a great surge from the public to get them restored,” Pepper said. “But they still need constant maintenance, and it’s more difficult to come up with money in these difficult economic times.”

The state Historic Preservation Office received 10 grants applications this year, including ones for the Cheboygan River Front Range, Grand Traverse and Whitefish Point lighthouses.

The money comes from the Michigan Lighthouse Assistance Program, funded through the sale of “Save Our Lights” specialty license plates, which raised $152,065 in 2009.

Denise Sachau, grants manager at the preservation office, said the program receives about $160,000 a year from the plate sales, a figure which has stayed steady in recent years.

“The license plate fund has stayed pretty consistent even with the economy,” said office architect Bryan Lijewski, with the program funding five to 10 projects each year.

The office has given between $79,000 and $200,000 annually since 2000 and has been able to assist all applicants, he said.

Pepper’s association owns the Cheboygan River Front Range Lighthouse and St. Helena Lighthouse, about 10 miles west of Mackinac Island. It wants the money to excavate the stone and brick foundation at the Cheboygan lighthouse and replace the drain, which leaks water into the basement during heavy rains, he said.

The association also received money in 2009. As a result, “the lantern no longer leaks and the deck around it no longer leaks,” Pepper said. “It looks the way it did in 1910.”

Michigan has 128 lighthouses – the most of any state – and most located on the shore are in good to excellent condition, Pepper said.

“In the water, it’s a different kettle of fish,” Pepper said. “Some are in deteriorated condition because the Coast Guard’s not maintaining them.”

The Coast Guard originally owned all Michigan lighthouses, but it transferred more than 70 to the state in 1999, which Sally Frye, secretary-treasurer at the Michigan Lighthouse Alliance in Traverse City, said was due to advances in GPS technology.

Since then, the agency has given others to government groups and nonprofit organizations.

The Coast Guard has maintained the lenses on active lighthouses, but the rest of their structures have needed significant attention, Frye said.

“It’s extremely expensive,” Frye said. “Many have not been used, so there’s maintaining the foundation, re-roofing, windows. It takes a great deal of money.”

Frye said the Coast Guard will transfer four or five more lighthouses to groups at the 2010 Great Lakes Lighthouse Preservation Conference in June, including two on Lake Huron and one on Lake Michigan.

Overall, lighthouse tourism is a big asset to the state, Frye said.

“They are the jewels of Michigan,” Frye said. “They are a wonderful draw in these economic times and can help the state if we work with tourism and the government.”

The Whitefish Point Lighthouse in Paradise attracts about 65,000 visitors each year, said Sean Ley, development officer for the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Sault Ste. Marie.

Whitefish Point, the oldest operating lighthouse on Lake Superior, has applied for a grant this year, which Ley said would be used to restore the iron-pile skeletal tower.

Ley said it’s become more difficult for lighthouse keepers to obtain the matching funds necessary for grants in recent years, but his museum has been successful getting funds from the Michigan Lighthouse Assistance Program.

“We have a strong earned income from what we do,” Ley said, including bringing school groups to the museum and historic buildings at the site. “We manage the facility well.”

Frye said that most people who work as lighthouse keepers volunteer in the museums and gift shops and lead tours.

“Lots of groups are finding it successful by turning it into keeper programs,” Frye said. “People pay to stay a week or two and help with anything they’re interested in.”

Frye describes herself as “a lighthouse nut” and said she’s worked as a keeper at the Grand Traverse Lighthouse, among others.

Pepper said one of the biggest concerns for lighthouse groups around the country is how to attract younger people to their sites and on lighthouse cruises.

“It you look around at the gift shops, most of the people tend to be older,” Pepper said. “The gray-haired group tends to gravitate towards lighthouses.”

His association has a successful record involving young people, with groups of Boy Scouts from Ann Arbor doing “incredible things” at the St. Helena Lighthouse, Pepper said.

“We’ve had close to 1,000 Boy Scouts stay in the last 20 years,” Pepper said, with 27 earning their Eagle Scout awards by installing windows, preserving the ceiling and building an exact replica of its 1895 boathouse.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: Budget

Grants will help U.P. agencies fight invasive plants

Garlic Mustard - Elizabeth Coyne, Central Upper Peninsula Cooperative Weed Management Area

Garlic Mustard - Elizabeth Coyne, Central Upper Peninsula Cooperative Weed Management Area

By LAURA FOSMIRE
Capital News Service

LANSING – While most of the media focus is on the Asian carp invasion of Lake Michigan, other alien species are slipping into the Upper Peninsula.

These are plants, not fish or animals, and several programs are fighting these threats to forests and parks.

For example, the Upper Peninsula Resources Conservation and Development Council received a $150,000 grant through the federal Sustain Our Great Lakes program to add the U.P. to an information network for identifying and controlling invasive plants.

Elizabeth Coyne, coordinator for the Central Upper Peninsula Cooperative Weed Management Area in Marquette, said plant species endangering the U.P. include garlic mustard, purple loosestrife, phragmites and Eurasian water-milfoil.

“We’re really focused on garlic mustard because of the potential it has of damage to timber resources,” she said. “It manages to dominate the understory, which then represses tree regeneration.”

Phragmites are a reed and pose a problem in the southern U.P. along the Lake Michigan shore, she added.

Coyne said invasive plants tend to dominate the competition, jeopardizing native habitats.

“They can either suppress other plants through chemicals that they release into the soil, or they just grow so fast that they have a competitive advantage,” she said.

Garlic mustard, for example, sprouts earlier than many native plants – as soon as the snow’s gone, she said.

Coyne said the goal of the management area isn’t to eradicate invasives because that’s impossible.

“Instead, we try to control them everywhere they occur,” she said. “We focus on areas that haven’t yet been subjected to invasion, where we use rapid response or early detection methods.”

Early detection, Coyne explained, is key to preventing invaders from overwhelming an area, and there are a number of tactics to keep them down.

“In some cases like garlic mustard, it’s effective to just pull the whole plant out of the ground,” she said. “With others, if you break off a part of the plant, it can just grow back. So we use other methods like mowing, herbicides or even controlled burning.”

But the difficulty is that different plants respond best to different tactics, Coyne said. “Some species are invigorated by burning or can just grow back,” she said.

Coyne said people spread invasive plants without knowing it.

“You can easily pick up seeds on your clothes or shoes or even your car,” she said. “With aquatic plants that grow from fragments, they can stick to your boat. When you move your boat to another lake, if you don’t entirely clean off those fragments, you can bring it to the next lake.”

Darcy Rutkowski, executive assistant for the council, said much of the grant will be spent to train volunteers who will contribute information to the network.

She said that their experience is valuable because there is little to no information about the U.P. on the current map of invasive species in Michigan.

Rutkowski said many U.P. organizations are already combating invasives, and the network will help them to cooperate with each other.

“Almost every county in the state has a conservation group associated with it,” she said. “In each county we have a rapid response team to provide early detection and control in their areas. We’re trying to pull together a lot of the agencies and other groups.”

The council will sponsor workshops in the U.P. to help agencies collaborate, Rutkowski said.

She said it’s important for agencies to work together because it’s easier if a united front fights invasives.

“Invasive species don’t recognize boundaries between national forests and park lands,” she said. “If one group is trying to control a particular species, it’s not going to do a lot of good if you don’t control it in the surrounding areas.”

Rutkowski said although only trained volunteers can put data into the network, the public can view its information on the Michigan Invasive Species Information website.

The weeds management area’s Coyne said that a statewide network for identifying these plants and their locations would be extremely useful.

“Early detection is really key,” she said. “If we can figure out where they are and get to them before it becomes a large infestation, then we might be able to make a difference.”

Other groups benefiting from the federal grant program include the Grand Rapids-based Schrems West Michigan chapter of Trout Unlimited to improve habitat on the Coldwater River in Branch County and the Grayling-based Huron Pines Resource Conservation and Development Council for a project along Silver Creek in Presque Isle County.

The others are Lake Superior State University to research piping plover, the Michigan Natural Features Inventory to fight phragmites along Lake Huron and the Ann Arbor-based Stewardship Network, which will coordinate volunteer efforts to remove garlic mustard across the Great Lakes basin.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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Filed under: Environment

St. Joseph County schools address dropout problems

By BRANDON HOWELL
Capital News Service

LANSING – Some St. Joseph County high schools are seeing increases in dropout rates although the state’s rate has declined by 3 percent.

For example, White Pigeon Junior-Senior High School experienced a big jump from 2008 to 2009, going from 1.3 to 7.94 percent. The district’s superintendent questions the accuracy of those figures from the state Budget Office’s Center for Educational Performance and Information.

In Sturgis, the dropout rate rose from 6.82 percent in 2008 to 6.94 in 2009, according to Assistant Superintendent Julie Evans.

Both schools remain well below the 11 percent state average.

White Pigeon Community Schools Superintendent Ronald Drzewicki said he’s mystified that his school apparently moved in the opposite direction.

“The way it’s all reported is unbelievably confusing,” he said. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense.

“If you take our 87.3 four-year graduation rate and add that to 7.94, you don’t get 100. How they figure that 7.94 percent I don’t know.”

Drzewicki said his school’s rate is better measured in numbers of students instead of percentages.

“For us, the usual rate is roughly one kid,” he said. “We have about 60 kids in a typical graduation class, so one kid counts for almost 2 percent.”

Kerry Birmingham, public information officer for the Michigan Education Association (MEA) – the state’s largest union of teachers and other public school employees – said a 2008 MEA study showed that students value connections in the classroom.

“We talked to students and teachers and parents and principals and everyone we could to try and figure out what was causing students to drop out,” she said. She said the top indicator of what makes a difference in a student staying is the involvement of caring adults.

Evans said that kind of involvement happens in Sturgis.

“We’re a smaller school and we work hard to stay connected with kids,” she said. “We focus a lot on our dropout rate in terms of doing our very best with students. We don’t want to see anybody not graduate.”

Evans said the school has a “credit recovery program” that helps students in academic trouble to meet graduation requirements.

Drzewicki said his school works hard to connect with students, too. “We build strong relationships with our kids,” he said. “The fact that we’re a small school helps.”

Like Sturgis, White Pigeon reaches out to students when they struggle.

“Our curriculum is responsive,” Drzewicki said, “meaning that if a kid’s not understanding something or struggling in a particular class, we respond to that quickly. We get kids remedial help if needed and we get kids into different classes if needed.”

Drzewicki also credits the school’s standards for its high graduation rate.

“We’re rigorous and we have high expectations,” he said. “When you’ve got quality teachers and quality instruction, kids are getting the content that they need. Typically, then, kids are successful in classes.”

The MEA’s Birmingham said Michigan’s dropout rate could rise due to the education funding crisis.

“These numbers, in many cases, are a year behind and don’t reflect a lot of the budget cuts and layoffs we’re seeing right now,” she said.

Evans shared that sentiment.

“Shrinking state dollars affects some of what we’re able to do,” she said. “We’re having to cut teaching positions as well as other positions, so that’s a concern.”

And Drzewicki warned that budget cuts and layoffs could eliminate valuable services, like remedial classes.

Drzewicki said he hopes budget cuts won’t hurt White Pigeon students but said the state’s dropout rate will worsen if state aid continues to drop.

“You’re making class sizes larger, which makes it more difficult to provide instruction,” he said. “It’s going to have impact. Whether it impacts us locally is hard to say, but it’s certainly going to impact the state in general.”

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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Filed under: Education

Grants smaller but arts groups still thankful

By CHENQI GUO
Capital News Service

LANSING – Although aid from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs was only $1.5 million this year, down dramatically from $7.9 million last year, recipients say they’re happy to get anything.

“I planned our budget on getting zero from the grants this year, so to me it was $7,500 that we didn’t expect,” said Liz Ahrens, executive director of Crooked Tree Arts Council in Petoskey. “We’ve a million dollar operating budget, and the grant definitely helps us in art exhibitions, concerts and programs for students,”

The council received almost twice as much in 2009.

“It’s a nice surprise and it contributes overall to our programs that we offer to our community,” Ahrens said of the 2010 grant.

Despite the chop in state support, she said the council hasn’t raised its prices.

Cultural organizations in other parts of the northern Lower Peninsula report similar experiences.

For example, Pam Westover, executive director of the Cheboygan Area Arts Council, said, “Everybody has to tighten the belt and try to hang on. But we’re aware of the cut, we’re more prepared.”

The council also received $7,500, about half of its grant last year.

The largest grants from the state council went to the Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Edison Institute and College for Creative Studies in Wayne County and Interlochen Center for the Arts, each receiving $20,000.

Many organizations didn’t bother to apply because they had been cutting staffs and didn’t have enough staff to write the grant proposals, according to Ahrens.

The Association for Harbor Arts in Harbor Springs, one of the cultural institutions which has never received direct state grants, is working hard to keep its operation going.

“Funding is a big problem since stage production cost is skyrocketing. It’s getting harder and harder,” said Sulane Hamilton, president of the association.

The association has received some general grants from local agencies like the Petoskey-Harbor Springs Area Community Foundation. “It’s not as generous as previous years but we appreciate it, considering the economy,” Hamilton said.

Although funding is not as bountiful as in the past, the association still tries to maintain its programs, she said.

“We have one major musical production, we support young adult community theatre and the other half of our mission is scholarships supporting individuals in the arts,” Hamilton said.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: Budget

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