Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Superintendents: Collaboration trumps school consolidation

By RACHEL IOVAN
Capital News Service

Lansing — Despite interest in the possibility of public school consolidations across the state, many superintendents agree that collaboration on services is a much more feasible option.

As schools are pressed to make more budget cuts, the issue of consolidation arises again, but it’s controversial because communities worry about a loss of identity.

Meanwhile, Gov. Jennifer Granholm is raising the possibility anew by proposing $50 million from the School Aid Fund to assist with the collaboration of services between districts.

Sheryl Presler, superintendent of Clare-Gladwin Regional Education Service District, said that the school system often serves as the hub of the community in rural districts, and eliminating a school could be devastating.

“Traditionally, Michigan has had a strong belief in local control, and people are used to a community school system with a locally elected school board. People worry that that could be lost in a consolidation,” Presler said.

Doug Pratt, director of public affairs at the Michigan Education Association, said, “It might sound silly, but the biggest thing for voters locally is that they don’t want to kill high school mascots. Rival football teams have been rivals for years, and now all of a sudden you’re talking about a merger. It’s going to upset people.”

The MEA is the state’s largest union of teachers and other school personnel.

The last consolidation in Michigan in which two adjacent districts combined into a single district occurred in 2004 in the Upper Peninsula. The Marenisco School District was unable to survive after its enrollment fell to about 60, so a neighboring district in Wakefield, with about 300 students, suggested consolidation. Although a compromise was necessary on which school colors the newly formed district would use, it was otherwise a smooth transition, said Catherine Shamion, superintendent of the Wakefield-Marenisco School District.

On Aug. 3 in Lenawee County, the Britton-Mason and the Deerfield school districts voted to consolidate into Britton-Deerfield. The merger will go into effect the start of the 2011-12 school year.

Tom House, superintendent of the Harrison School District, said that although consolidation of districts in Clare County has been seriously considered, those proposals failed and the districts chose to collaborate on services instead.

For example, intermediate school districts and countywide service agencies have been able to provide services that were previously overlapping, such as technology, administration and transportation, House said. Much of the savings is based on economy of scale, such as bulk prices for supplies.

Districts were collaborating before Granholm recommended that $50 million of the School Aid Fund be distributed to districts as an incentive to consolidate.

Michael Van Beek, at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, said that because Michigan’s school budget is about $17 billion, plus $2 billion from the federal government, $50 million isn’t much money.

Van Beek is the director of education policy at the Mackinac Center, a free market-oriented think tank.

Van Beek said he’s concerned that districts that wouldn’t benefit from consolidation may still be interested in the money.

“Just because there is a grant for consolidation doesn’t necessarily mean that any district is suited for merging,” Van Beek said.

Still, Clare-Gladwin’s Presler has been looking into programs that could benefit from or be preserved if the governor’s $50 million recommendation wins legislative approval.

But the MEA’s Pratt said that with the Granholm’s gubernatorial career coming to an end soon he’s unsure where the Legislature will go with the recommendation.

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

Filed under: Education

Drive to advance wind energy

By TRENTON JOHNSON
Capital News Service

LANSING—Michigan may soon rely more heavily on wind energy to reduce energy costs for residents, some experts say.

Chuck Hadden, president of the Michigan Manufacturers Association, said, “We started a program to help wind and solar energy. Alternative energy is important because we don’t want to rely on one form of energy.”

The association launched the program, Wind Energy Community, in April.

Hadden cited some benefits of wind energy: It won’t dirty the air or emit pollutants like other energy sources, which means less smog, less acid rain and fewer greenhouse gas emissions. Wind energy is cost-competitive with other fuel sources such as natural gas and is the least expensive of all renewable energy sources.

Turbines convert the kinetic energy of wind into mechanical or electrical power. Modern commercial turbines produce electricity by using rotational energy to drive a generator. Smaller wind turbines can provide power to individual homes.

Hadden said that low operating costs and short construction times means it can provide low cost and clean energy quicker.

Norm Saari, chief of staff for Sen. Jason Allen, R-Alanson, said, “Wind energy provides an important energy mix for the state to achieve. The need for alternate energy will jump-start the market. It will also jump-start what projects and powers need to be used to help better Michigan as a whole.”

Saari also said the utilities will provide an incentive for marketers because wind projects keep more energy dollars in communities where projects are located and provide a steady income through lease payments to the landowners.

Wind projects also pay significant property taxes and state taxes and create local jobs, he said.
However, there are drawbacks that include the location of turbines near residences and the impact they may have on animals, some experts note.

John Sarver, supervisor of technical assistance at the state Energy Office, said, “Local communities are concerned about the visibility of wind turbines and the sound levels, particularly in the rural areas. Residents also have safety concerns about whether the turbines will fall over and blow up.”

Sarver also said the wind turbines can have an impact on birds because the blades can them during a windstorm.

Wind energy production is scattered throughout Michigan, mainly in the Lower Peninsula, including the Thumb and Traverse City area.

Tom Stanton, renewable energy program coordinator at the Public Service Commission, said,  “One region designated as the primary wind energy resource zone, include parts of Bay, Huron, Sanilac and Tuscola counties. Another region includes parts of Allegan County.”

Wind energy proponents are using a variety of strategies to win local support for projects.

Sarver referred to the Wind Outreach Program that provides factual information to the public and attends conferences and forums, as well as answering the questions of residents.

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

Filed under: Environment

What’ll turn things around? Wind energy

By NYSSA RABINOWITZ
Capital News Service
LANSING – With the decline of the automotive industry and Michigan’s economy taking a turn for the worse, workers and businesses are looking for ways to turn things around — and they may have found one answer: Wind energy.

Seventy-six businesses, including ones in Eaton Rapids, Detroit, Fenton, Saginaw and Monroe, affiliated with the Michigan Manufacturers Association have formed a Wind Energy Community, according to Chuck Hadden, president of the association.

“Everyone who shows an interest in the community realizes that Michigan needs to do everything possible to bring manufacturers back into the state,” said Marty Poljan, general manager of Axson North America Inc. in Eaton Rapids and a member of the Wind Energy Community’s leadership group.

Wind power offers those types of opportunities, Poljan said.

The coalition helps local wind energy turbine manufacturers communicate with each other and identify challenges and opportunities for bringing more manufacturers into the state, Poljan said. However, the companies came together only several months ago, which means results have been limited so far.

For Ventower Industries in Monroe, joining the new coalition made perfect sense, said Scott Viciana, vice president of Ventower and member of the community leadership board. Ventower is a specialized company that produces wind energy turbine towers.

Wind energy is a relatively new industry, Viciana said. Having a group of people who understand the industry, know how to market it, and know its role in Michigan is a big selling point for out of state manufacturers who may want to start projects here.

Having all your component-making companies close together will also affect potential project start-ups, Viciana said. It makes logistics easier for companies coming in who may not know where their required resources are and it keeps everything close together and connected.

That makes it easier for companies to build in Michigan, Viciana said.

Other members of the Wind Energy Community include Creative Foam Corp. in Fenton, Dowding Industries in Eaton Rapids, Merrill Technologies Group in Saginaw and W Industries in Detroit.

Moving from cars to wind energy is no coincidence because Michigan is already a manufacturing leader, which makes it well aligned for the wind industry, according to John Sarver of the state Energy Office.

But wind energy isn’t an easy industry to get into because it’s extremely competitive. Therefore, Michigan must compete with other states and countries to secure projects and funding.

That’s where the Wind Energy Community may be able to help, Sarver said. Having an organization to allow members to share information and knowledge and collaborate on projects and developments could go a long way, Sarver said.

Wind is one of the cheapest renewable energy sources, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Wind energy costs between 4 and 6 cents per kilowatt-hour, depending on the amount of wind and the cost of the initial project.

And the benefits for Michigan are already starting, Sarver said.

Many companies are now manufacturing small wind turbines, blades and towers in cities like Holland. That could mean opportunities for growth and for high-paying jobs, Sarver said.

“The reality is that wind energy is coming to Michigan,” Viciana said.

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

Filed under: Environment

Invaders threaten Lake Michigan food chain

By JEFF GILLIES
Capital News Service

LANSING — Ten years ago, scientists discovered Lake Michigan’s “doughnut in the desert,” a huge ring-shaped bloom of tiny aquatic plants circling southern Lake Michigan’s frigid offshore winter waters.

Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The bloom of tiny aquatic plants known as phytoplankton that circles southern Lake Michigan in March and April is disappearing, thanks to invasive quagga mussels.

The bloom appears in the southern 100 miles of Lake Michigan when winter winds and storms whip up a counter-clockwise current loaded with nutrients from the lake bottom and tributary rivers.

It likely explains how some animal species survive through the winter in the Great Lakes — a time when biologists previously thought there wasn’t much food to go around.

But that sweet discovery has turned sour: Scientists found the doughnut just in time to watch it disappear.

“Isn’t that frustrating?” said ecology Professor Charles Kerfoot of Michigan Technical University. “You discover something, and then all of a sudden five years later it gets eaten up.”

Literally.

The guilty gluttons are invasive quagga mussels, which hitched a ride in ship ballast tanks and colonized the bottom of Lake Michigan in the late 1990s. They developed a steady doughnut diet throughout the 2000s.

The doughnut bloom’s vanishing act will probably send shock waves up the food chain, according to researchers.

The bloom sends a big dose of food to microscopic animals that wait out the winter in Lake Michigan’s open water, Kerfoot said.

“So rather than starving, they’re actually getting a pulse,” he said. “It will become a starvation period now.”

And if the tiny doughnut-eating animals starve, so could fish that depend on them for a big meal in spring.

Meanwhile, quagga mussels are sitting fat and sassy on the lakebed.

One of the thumbnail-sized critters can filter a quart of water in a day, and as many as 10,000 to 20,000 can cram into a single square yard, said biologist Tom Nalepa of the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor.

The mussels are filter feeders, constantly sucking in lake water and clearing it of everything worth eating.

Kerfoot said the outside edges of the doughnut used to be the most turbid, or clouded with tiny plants, animals and suspended dirt.

“Now they’re the least turbid,” he said “And they’re the ones that overlie the highest concentration of quagga mussels.”

The quagga mussels sitting right under the doughnut aren’t the only problem.

Mussel colonies settled near river mouths can clear up that nutrient-rich water before it can flow out and add fuel to the deep-water bloom.

“The impacts of high numbers of mussels in shallower waters can affect what’s going on in deeper waters,” Nalepa said.

Blooms of tiny aquatic plants are an essential part of the Great Lakes food web. But they’re more commonly known to show up in spring and summer and closer to shore.

The doughnut bloom went unnoticed for years because it shows up in the winter, which is a dangerous time for research boats, Kerfoot said. But a 1998 breakthrough in Great Lakes satellite imagery opened scientists’ eyes.

“All of a sudden, we saw these things that had never been seen before in the open lakes,” he said.

The big doughnut of phytoplankton, complete with a hole in the middle, was so strange that some scientists thought it was a mistake — the result of using ocean-based satellite tools on a freshwater lake.

But biologists managed to take a boat out into Lake Michigan in the winters of 2001 and 2002, when they found plankton samples that showed that this was no technical error, Kerfoot said.

“It’s real and extends all the way to the bottom of the lake,” he said.

But now it’s nearly gone.

Measurements of the doughnut in 2008 showed that around 30 percent more light shines through its water than in 2001, Kerfoot said. Levels of chlorophyll, the green pigment in phytoplankton that drives photosynthesis, have dropped 70 percent.

“It’s actually gotten to the point right now where the increase in transparency is starting to rival Lake Superior,” he said. “That’s really remarkable clarity for Lake Michigan.”

The doughnut isn’t the only bloom disappearing. Quaggas are sucking up the springtime nearshore bloom, too.

Those two blooms account for around 70 percent of the phytoplankton production in Lake Michigan, Kerfoot said.

“We’re saying, ‘My God, what’s left?’” he said.

And all this ecosystem upheaval is driven by an invasive species that nobody saw coming 20 years ago.

Kerfoot was part of a project in the mid-1980s when researchers were charged with listing the major problems the Great Lakes would face over the 1990s and 2000s.

None of their wildest guesses included what’s playing out now. “I’ll tell you, we never had this — the quaggas or the zebra mussels — as a part of that,” he said.

“The fact that it’s causing the collapse of the third largest freshwater lake in the world right now is just absolutely amazing.”

Jeff Gillies writes for Great Lakes Echo.

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

Filed under: Environment

Prospects for Kirtland’s warbler remain uncertain

By ALICE ROSSIGNOL
Capital News Service

LANSING — The population of one of the Great Lakes region’s rarest birds – the Kirtland’s warbler – has dropped for the first time since 2002.

Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services

The latest unofficial population figure collected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service data shows 1,758 males. Last year the count was 1,826.

The 5-inch long, gray-and-yellow bird lives only in parts of Michigan, Wisconsin and Ontario. Ninety-seven percent of those counted last year live in the northern Lower Peninsula. Only males are audible and easily counted during the census season. Experts estimate that there is most likely one female for every male counted.

But the drop in numbers isn’t considered serious, according to Chris Mensing, a fish and wildlife biologist with the federal agency.

“The decline in our count does not appear to be that significant. We know that the census is more an estimate than an exact count, so going down a few birds isn’t something we are immediately concerned about,” said Mensing, who has worked with Kirtland’s warblers for 11 years.

No matter the exact number in the wild, these rare birds face significant challenges – like long-term funding and the consequences of climate change.

Caleb Putnam, coordinator of the Audubon Society’s Michigan Important Bird Areas, said, “This is a very rare species, the rarest warbler in North America. There are around 4,000 individuals in the entire world and almost all of them nest in Michigan.”

Rarity gives the bird worldwide recognition. In 2009, 35 international visitors  from countries like Australia, Sweden and the United Kingdom went on guided tours in Michigan’s Huron-Manistee National Forest to catch a glimpse.

“A lot of people come from all over to see the Kirtland’s,” said Kim Piccolo, a wildlife biologist at the Mio Ranger District of Huron-Manistee National Forest.

The bird’s recorded population was the lowest in 1974 and 1987, when scientists counted 167 males. The average annual count since 1951 has been 602.

Experts attribute the low numbers to habitat loss and the brown-headed cowbird,  a parasitic bird that lays its own eggs in the warbler’s nest. In 1972, cowbird control began, and a recovery plan to protect habitat and monitor the species began four years later.

Current numbers are well above the original conservation goal of maintaining 1,000 pairs for five years. Each year since 2001 experts counted 1,000 males indicating the presence of 1,000 females to match.
But that doesn’t mean it’s in the clear yet. And it may never be.

Mensing said, “We’re definitely not out of the woods. The second we stop any of that bird management that bird population is going to decrease.”

According to Mensing, some species, like the wolf or bald eagle, have good outlooks for survival once they reach high populations.

But not the warbler.

That’s because the warbler is “conservation-reliant,” meaning it can’t survive without consistent management efforts that may be required into the unforeseeable future.

Its conservation-reliance stems from its needs for a specific habitat because it can live only in sandy areas with jack pines between the ages of 5 and 20.

That habitat requirement makes it unable to adapt easily.

Putnam said, “You can think of these birds as stuck in these islands of habitats that are very limiting.”

Management-reliant species peck at federal funds and time, leaving less money for other species, and it’s unclear whether that high level of management is sustainable in the long-term.

Mensing said, “From our standpoint, we want to, we need to protect these species. We need too look at how we can do this forever.”

To create a sustainable long-term management plan for the warbler, the Fish and Wildlife Service paired up with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to raise money for an endowment.

Using private money would not only guarantee the warbler long-term management but free federal money to aid other species.

If done correctly this endowment-model could also be used for the management of other species, Mensing said. “If we don’t do it right we’re back at square one. And if we do, do it right it could benefit the Kirtland’s warbler and many other species.”

At the same time, the unknown consequences of climate change loom, according to Putnam.
“The Union of Concerned Scientists is predicting in Michigan…rising temperatures in winter and in summer, by the end of the century as high as 10 degrees Fahrenheit,” he said. The temperature shift also may create dryer habitats for birds due to increased evaporation.

An Audubon Society report last year show that North American birds reacted to climate shifts that in the last 40 years by moving migration patterns further northward and inland. But the same factor that makes the warbler conservation-reliant – its specific habitat needs – may make such migration change impossible.

“When you have a species that is rare and is very stuck in that habitat type, if the climate conditions change such that it makes them want to shift north, there may not be anywhere to go,” Putnam said.

Alice Rossignol writes for Great Lakes Echo.

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

Filed under: Environment

First Michigan-made wind turbine is a biggie

By ANGIE JACKSON
Capital News Service

LANSING – A Saginaw company is paving the way to boost Michigan’s role in the wind energy industry.

Within the next two months, Merrill Technologies Group plans to unveil the first Michigan-made wind turbine, a prototype that will be installed in Missaukee County.

Its Northwind 2.2 megawatt turbine uses breakthrough advances in direct drive gearless construction capable of producing enough energy to supply more than 300 homes. According to the company, it is lighter, requires less maintenance and is a more efficient producer of electricity than other technologies.

Although a company of Vermont owns the design, the turbine is being assembled in Michigan. The 136,000-ton machine has blades extending 150 feet and will be placed on a tower nearly 300 feet high at the Stoney Corners wind farm in McBain, southeast of Cadillac. It will be used to test the advantages of direct-drive technology in comparison to alternative designs, Merrill said.

The ability to produce the wind machine is a result of Merrill’s diversification, said Nate Jonker, public affairs official for the company. Merrill, which began as a General Motors supplier, has four manufacturing divisions that produce components for a variety of industries.

Jonker said the turbine may serve as a model for Michigan manufacturing in the industry.

“We have windmills in Michigan now that were made almost entirely in China,” Jonker said. “Merrill, and others of course, hope to turn that around.”

Merrill’s supply chain for the project provides components from across the state, including Grand Rapids and Lansing.

With 8,000 parts in a wind turbine, the project is a collaborative effort, even with Merrill’s competitors, such as Energetx Composites of Holland, Jonker said.

Energetx, which recently diversified from the marine industry to produce wind energy components, is building blades for the project.

Another company to contribute to the project is Betz Industries of Grand Rapids.

Limiting production to Michigan companies is a practical step toward using the state’s skilled labor force and meeting the state’s wind turbine demands, which Jonker said is high enough to justify production of  “over 2,000 windmills tomorrow.”

The future of the wind energy industry looks bright to many other Michigan manufacturing companies despite this year’s dismal numbers.

Nationally, the wind industry closed the second quarter of 2010 with 1,239 megawatts of newly installed capacity, nearly 70 percent lower than the level for the same period in 2009, the American Wind Energy Association reported.

John Patten, director of the Manufacturing Research Center at Western Michigan University and creator of a wind manufacturing group in Michigan, described 2010’s slow start as a “minor hiccup.

“We’ll be back on track,” Patten said. “Everybody’s planning for it.”

Despite Michigan’s economic slump, many manufacturing companies predict the industry will experience steady growth due to the U.S. Department of Energy’s analysis that the nation has the potential to meet 20 percent of its energy needs from wind by 2030.

Given the projected demand for wind energy, Jonker said Merrill envisions Michigan becoming the hub for windmill production for the eastern United States.

According to Patten, Michigan is an ideal location for supplying that broad geographic area.

“In terms of logistics, there’s a lot of potential for shipping. It’s a good, central location,” Patten said, highlighting that Michigan’s waterways give manufacturers an advantage that other states in the industry lack.

Jonker said he hopes Michigan-made wind machines will eventually have the potential to be sold globally, but estimated that it may take five years until Michigan can produce the thousands of turbines necessary to meet demand.

The project, while it may be a breakthrough for Michigan’s wind turbine manufacturing future, is a costly commitment for Merrill.

“It’s a huge multi-million dollar venture,” Jonker said. “In one plant, we had to replace the floor because the machine’s weight required a new reinforced base.”

Among other expenses, some of Merrill’s new, high-tech machines cost more than $1 million each.

To cover some of the costs, Merrill received a $3 million federal Clean Energy Advanced Manufacturing grant. Merrill was one of five companies to receive such grant.

Although such projects require large investments, Michelle Cordano, advocacy specialist for the Michigan Manufacturers Association, said involvement in the wind energy industry will have long-term benefits.

“It’s a new, growing field,” she said. “We know it’s going to be substantial enough for Michigan manufacturers to get involved.”

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

Filed under: Environment

West Michigan hunts more foreign companies

By YANG ZHANG
Capital News Service

LANSING – There are fewer foreign-owned companies in West Michigan this year than last due to company consolidations, but the area continues seeking more foreign investment, a nonprofit economic growth organization study shows.

Foreign companies have 74 facilities in West Michigan, 17 percent fewer than in 2009, according to the Right Place Inc., which promotes West Michigan’s economic growth.

“It was sort of the nature of the result of what happened with such economic conditions,” said Tim Mroz, the vice president of marketing and communication with the Grand Rapids-based organization.

West Michigan is no exception to the economic difficulties facing the state, Mroz said.

As a result, he said, companies decided it’s best to consolidate some jobs or locations into a single location.

Many international companies in West Michigan consolidated last year, plus two or three so far this year. For example, Siemens Energy and Automation in Grand Rapids was consolidated with a larger facility in Texas last year. The United Kingdom-based Hart & Cooley Inc. consolidated its facility in Canada with the one in Grand Rapids.

The Right Place has had a fairly strong business relationship with Europe for more than 25 years, Mroz said, and will continue to expand that connection.

More than 80 percent of the foreign companies in West Michigan are based in Europe, the data show. Germany accounts for the most, including Benteler Automotive Corp. and Erwin Quarder Inc. in  the automotive industry and other companies in various fields.

Mroz said that’s because Right Place President Birgit Klohs is a German native, which is helpful to develop business ties and attract those companies.

Klohs makes trade missions to Europe every year and is scheduled to visit the region starting Sept. 20.

Located between Chicago and Detroit, West Michigan, especially Kent County, has convenient transportation, which, Mroz said is an important advantage. That includes highways, railways and the Gerald R. Ford International Airport that provides connections to many major markets.

Foreign companies are attracted by a chance for successful investment, a good workforce and help to grow, said Chuck Hadden, president of the Michigan Manufacturers Association.

They can find all of them in Michigan, he said.

Jill Murphy, chief of protocol with Michigan Economic Development Corp., said: “Automotive, heavy manufacturing and the world-class research development universities in Michigan are attractive for people to come to, particularly for those companies that are seeking a highly skilled workforce.”

Twenty-four colleges and universities are in West Michigan with an enrollment of 75,000 students. The region also has nearly 700,000 highly skilled workers, one-third of them with a college degree, according to the Right Place.

Two foreign companies, Canada-based Magna International Corp. in Newaygo and Germany-based Benteler Automotive, are among the top 65 employers in the region.

Mroz said West Michigan’s diverse economy and clusters of manufacturers appeal to international companies.

The area ranks high in 18 industry clusters among 173 U.S. metropolitan regions, according to the Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness at Harvard Business School.

Both state and local organizations are helping foreign companies to develop.

They include the Michigan Economic Growth Authority, which provides tax credits to companies expanding or relocating operations in Michigan.

Murphy also cited tax-free zones, corporate infrastructure assistance, business real estate help and corporate relocation services.

“We aggressively seek business investment from around the world,” she said.

The Right Place provides services to foreign companies interested in West Michigan. But international business attraction is not an overnight thing and needs long-run strategies, Mroz said.

“You got a company in Spain that knows nothing about West Michigan. They are trying to decide where one building for them should be located. We can help out with that,” he said.

“We can make sure that they are close to any local business partners they need to be. We can make sure that they are taking advantages of many taxes if they are available,” he said.

West Michigan is looking now at Asia.

For example, the Right Place has completed one trade mission to Asia and a South Korean company, LG Chem Ltd., has started a $300 million lithium-ion battery plant in Holland.

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

Filed under: Economy

Wait for federal aid worries some schools

By LANE BLACKMER
Capital News Service

LANSING—No stranger to budget cuts, public schools have been forced to cut some classes and give out pink slips, despite hoped-for help from Uncle Sam.

President Obama’s recent $26 billion package to aid state employees—$10 billion of which will go to education—would seem to be just what some Southwest Michigan schools need.

However, some officials say they’re worried they might not benefit from the money.

The federal legislation passed in August—after districts decided to lay off teachers and other employees due to lack of cash.

Michigan will get $318 million from Washington, but state lawmakers haven’t yet decided how much each district will get, let alone how schools can use the money, school officials said.

Sturgis, Three Rivers and St. Joseph are among the districts waiting for the decision.

“The timing is not ideal,” Al Skibbe, superintendent of St. Joseph Public Schools, said. “We always welcome the influx of money, but as of right now, there is no guarantee that we’ll get any money.”

Skibbe said his district cut eight teachers, in addition to other budget cuts, to lessen costs by $800,000. That means larger class sizes for his high school of about 970 students this fall.

Although class already started, Skibbe said it may be possible to add more teachers with the money the district might get, but timeliness is key.

“As you get into a midyear kind of thing, then to totally disrupt a classroom becomes almost undoable,” he said.

Although Skibbe’s district isn’t alone in worrying, the director of public affairs at the Michigan Education Association (MEA), Doug Pratt, says the poor timing of the law hurts only some districts. The MEA is the state’s largest union of school employees.

The federal government’s intentions couldn’t be clearer, he said.

“There are school districts that can take this money right now and add people,” said Pratt.

Three Rivers Community Schools is one of the districts that won’t have problems with the timing of the aid, but Superintendent Roger Rathburn said he understands why other districts do.

“It impacts every district a little bit differently,” he said. “A lot of times, timing is a problem. It’s hard to go in there and restructure your entire district after the school year has started.”

Rathburn said he remains hopeful that the federal government is trying to do its best for all public schools.

“There’s difficult decisions to be made and none of them are good” for everybody, said Rathburn. “Fortunately, at least the federal government recognizes it.”

Sturgis Superintendent Robert Olsen said the money will be welcome, but won’t be a long-term solution to the district’s financial needs.

The stimulus money is a one-time-only bailout, meaning if a school district doesn’t use the money, it may not be able to get more anytime soon, he said.

Olsen said Sturgis didn’t lay off teachers this year, but he understands why the extra money may come too late in the game for some districts.

“We’ve already started school,” said Olsen. “The feds and the state government, because of their inability to create a budget at a state level, left all school districts in Michigan hanging.”

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

Filed under: Education

Oakland County draws diverse global businesses

By JULIE MIANECKI
Capital News Service

LANSING – Made in China? Not necessarily.

Oakland County’s efforts to diversity its economic base have attracted firms from countries other than China, Japan and South Korea – think Finland, Ireland, Israel, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Nigeria and Sweden, for example.

“In Oakland County there’s a combination of people from different ethnic backgrounds and everyone seems to get along really well,” said Fatin Hawley, an export sales manager for Nigerian company Morpol Industrial Corp. “I definitely think that diverse backgrounds, depending on where your business is taking you, can really help.”

Morpol, located in West Bloomfield, provides engineering services, primarily for the oil and gas industry. Hawley’s father and uncle are the co-owners who brought it to Michigan.

Their story is only one example – in July 2010, the county reported being home to 859 foreign businesses representing 37 countries.

“We’re very aggressive in international attraction,” said Maureen Krauss, the county’s director of economic development and community affairs. “One of the things that I think has been impressive to people is how many people in Oakland County are employed by foreign firms.”

The attractions for foreign companies include an ongoing workforce development program, Krauss added. It helps retrain domestic workers to upgrade their skills to fit the needs of incoming companies.

Representatives from the county work with foreign companies already in the United States, in addition to traveling abroad to recruit new firms, she said. In the next year, trips to China, Italy, India and Japan are planned.

Krauss added that although the county has specific programs and strategies to persuade foreign businesses to relocate to the area, the community’s assets often do much of the work.

“We have a highly educated workforce – 44 percent of our adults have a bachelor’s degree or greater,” she said. “The national average is about 24 percent.”

Krauss added that an already established foreign presence, a well-developed network of suppliers and a cultural support system help companies grow.

“For instance, there’s a Japan school,” she said. “It supports Japanese families that might be coming over here, helps their kids maintain their language. There’s a German school, there’s a Swedish school. There are a lot of support businesses that help  companies focus on the business aspect and not worry so much about the personal aspect of bringing people over.”

Opus International Consultants Inc. in West Bloomfield is another example of a foreign firm from an unexpected country now comfortably settled in the county. The engineering and planning consulting company is based in New Zealand.

“There’s tremendous opportunity here,” said Jeffrey Bagdade, the vice president of Opus’s Detroit-area office. “They’ve got more than 90 offices and more than 2,500 staff around the world and this is the first U.S. office.”

Opportunities are often associated with automobiles, but Krauss said her team also helps companies expand into other fields once they’re here.

For example, India-based Tata Group originally came to Michigan to be close to the automotive industry.
“Since we first met them several years ago, they now have five different divisions in Oakland County,” Krauss said. “A company may have come here for an automotive perspective, but when we get to know the parent company, get to know these large organizations, there might be a component that works on electric vehicles that makes sense here, or the wind industry or medical device industry.”

Tata is located in both Troy and Novi, and continues to work cooperatively with the county, according to Daniel Saad, its director of communications.

“There really isn’t any better place to be,” Saad said. “Just a week ago, the North American headquarters stayed within Novi. We moved from one facility that we’d been in for more than 16 years to a new building here in Novi. The decision was made to remain here and we literally just moved an eighth of a mile east.”

Retention of established companies is another key factor in the county’s plan to attract new firms.
“The best-selling feature I have when talking to a foreign firm is the list of who is already here from their country,” Krauss said.

Oakland County is not alone in its efforts to attract foreign businesses – state government is also actively involved in recruitment and development.

Mike Shore, vice president of communications for the Michigan Economic Development Corp., said Gov. Jennifer Granholm has traveled abroad 10 times during her tenure to draw foreign investment to the state.
Shore said the trips resulted in 47 foreign companies locating in Michigan, creation of more than 20,000 jobs and more than $1.8 billion in total investment.

“By definition, the marketplace today is global,” Shore said. “If you’re going to be a player in any significant way, you are going to be talking to companies from overseas.”

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

Filed under: Economy

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