Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Michigan schools racing to catch up to nation

Capital News Service

LANSING — High schoolers in the Upper Peninsula, following a trend throughout the state, have been slipping behind the rest of the nation when it comes to preparing for college.

But with the implementation of new state high school graduation requirements, that may soon change.

“It’s an ambitious project that requires all students to have a certain amount of requisite classes,” said Michelle Ribant, director of general education at the Eastern Upper Peninsula Intermediate School District. “There are 16 mandatory classes. Students have to take biology, chemistry and a third-year science experience, and now they also have to take algebra II and a fourth-year experience.”

The result, Ribant said, is that students are now graduating with what is typically called a “college prep curriculum.”

Although the state adopted the curriculum three years ago, its impact on student performance remains to be seen.

“This is an interesting time in Michigan history,” Ribant said. “The seniors of this year are not required to have the new classes to graduate, but the juniors are.”

Those juniors will be the first class of high schoolers taking the ACT since the institution of the more rigorous courses, she said.

“This is when we’ll first be able to see whether having them take these courses has an impact on their ACT scores and Michigan Merit Exam scores,” Ribant said.

According to the 2009 national college readiness report released by the ACT organization, only 18 percent of Michigan students who took the standardized ACT admission exam met all four college readiness benchmarks, compared to 23 percent of students nationwide.

The benchmarks include the four categories that ACT measures: English, science, math and social studies.

The average ACT score for students in Michigan was 19.6 out of a possible 36, while students in the rest of the nation averaged 21.1.

John Carroll, a senior consultant with the ACT Michigan office in Lansing, said that the ACT developed the college readiness benchmarks to estimate students’ potential of passing college classes.

“For example, the benchmark in English is an 18,” Carroll said. “Those with at least that score have a reasonable chance of passing college composition in their freshman year. They have a 75 percent chance of getting a B or better, and a 50 percent chance of getting a C or better.”

The report also showed that high school and college faculty disagree sharply on what it means for students to be prepared for rigorous college courses.

“If you ask high school folks if the standards in our curriculum prepare students for college, generally the answer is yes,” Carroll said. “But if you ask college faculty the same question, the answer is no.”

The biggest disagreement on preparedness, Carroll said, is how many topics ought to be the main focus, and how deeply they ought to be explored.

“High schools probably have standards that are far too broad and vague,” he said. “What colleges are looking for is more depth. Colleges really want students to read and write better, but instead, they’re too busy taking economics and other courses.”

The Eastern U.P. ISD’s Ribant said that many high school teachers have protested the new merit curriculum.

“Some schools are screaming that not all students are going to be able to do this,” she said. “But if students know they have to get through all of this in order to graduate, and if they don’t have a choice, it will happen.”

Statistics from Northern Michigan University show that the average ACT score of current freshmen is 22.7. At Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie, the majority of the freshman class entered with an equal score, or one that was even lower.

According to research done by the ACT, the average high schooler from the state who scores a 19 is already below the average NMU freshman with a 22 or a 23. He or she is also on the lower end of the majority of LSSU students, who score within the 18 to 23 range.

And like the rest of the state, Ribant said, U.P. high schoolers aren’t as well prepared for college as their out-of-state counterparts.

“The students that are now in kindergarten through eighth grade have been operating under a new set of standards for five years now,” she said. “The kids coming out of eighth grade are more prepared to enter high school. We hope that will continue to translate upwards so that students coming out of high school are more prepared for college.”

Jim Gadzinski, director of career and academic advisement at NMU, said that the university offers remedial courses in English and math, but they don’t count toward graduation.

Gadzinski said that NMU has always been a “right to try” institution and offers the remedial courses to help students who might be disadvantaged when they graduate from high school.

“Right to try means that students can get admitted under our standards,” he said. “Students who are seemingly at risk on their credentials can bring their skills up to snuff so they can pass college-level courses, but we wouldn’t fully admit them into a bachelor’s-level course.”

Implementing a more challenging curriculum is expensive for high schools, Ribant said, in part because many students are failing these harder courses.

“What is hard is that we have a lot of students who are finding it necessary to take classes over again,” she said. “Students are taking more classes in the summer to meet the requirements. If they have to take a class over again, we have to squish them in with the lower class.

“Our class sizes are gigantic. Just about 20 percent of students are not passing algebra I the first time around. That’s 20 percent more students in that class again. You may have to have three sections of a class, and where are we going to get that extra staff?

“It’s a logistical nightmare to make this happen,” she said.

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

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Filed under: Education

Parents look for schools with matching demographics

Capital News Service

LANSING – Charter schools in the state operated by for-profit companies are significantly segregated by race, income and language, according to a Western Michigan University research team.

“Charter schools aren’t doing it on purpose, but they are facilitating white and black flight from public schools,” said WMU professor Gary Miron. “The issue is lack of diversity because families are self-selecting charter schools with high concentrations of either white or minority students.”

By comparing enrollment trends for charters operated by private education management organizations to demographics in local public schools, researchers discovered that only one-fourth of student bodies in those charters are relatively similar to local districts.

“A disproportionate number of charter schools served almost wholly minority students, while others catered overwhelmingly to white students,” Miron said. “This pattern of segregation was largely replicated when we examined the student demographics by economic status and English language learners.”

Michigan has 232 charter schools that educate nearly 6 percent of the state’s K-12 students. For-profit companies operate 191 of the charters.

Charters or “public academies” are quasi public schools funded by state aid. They cannot charge tuition.

Miron said, “Michigan leads the nation in terms of the extent that private, for-profit companies are operating public charter schools.”

“Therefore, learning about the companies is especially critical because of the current pressure on low-performing public school districts to hire management companies,” he said.

Michigan Education Association media relation specialist Kerry Birmingham said charters must be held to the same standards as public schools to endure quality education.

“In public schools every child that lives in the district has the opportunity to attend that public school,” Birmingham said. “In a charter school they have selection criteria, and the way certain charters are set up they do exclude certain groups, whether its students with special needs, students of a certain socioeconomic class or whether it’s a racial issue.”

Birmingham said exclusion is one of MEA’s main concerns with charter schools.

“Students need to be in a diverse environment and they learn best when they are surrounded by a diverse population like they are in the real world, and it’s unfortunate that certain groups are excluded,” Birmingham said.

Charters in Detroit, Dearborn and Holland are among the most highly segregated, while charters in Traverse City and Petoskey are among the most similar, according to the study.

Researchers at Western’s College of Education based their analysis on enrollments in 2006-2007.

“Some experts feared that charter schools would serve as a means for white families to leave schools with high concentrations of minorities,” Miron said. “Our findings suggest that it is even more common for minority families to leave district schools to enroll in charter schools that have higher concentrations of minority students.”

According to the study:

  • Charters tend to be less diverse, racially and ethnically diverse, than local public school districts.
  • Charters tend to serve either largely high-income or largely low-income families.
  • More than half of charters enroll far fewer English language learners than local districts.

“In a nutshell, the data paints a pattern of charter schools gravitating to the extremes – regarding race and ethnicity, economic status, and English language learner status – rather than gravitating around the demographics of local districts,” Miron said.

For instance, the Dearborn Academy, which has grades K-8, is significantly less racially diverse than local districts. The student body is about 78 percent white, while districts where its students live are about 73 percent minority.

By comparison, the Advanced Technology Academy, also in Dearborn, is about 98 percent African American, while its sending districts are more than 90 percent white.

“In many cases charter schools are not held to the same standards as public schools,” Birmingham said. “Until charters are held to the same standards as public schools we can’t support the idea that charter schools can just make up their own rules, because that doesn’t ensure that every child gets a high quality education.”

In addition, 73 percent of its students come from low-income families, 21 percent more than its sending districts.

Miron said, “Schools with higher concentrations of low-income students, on average, perform worse on standardized tests and their students are more likely to require remedial support, which would suggest that urban areas wouldn’t be attractive to for-profit companies.”

Black River Public School, a charter in Holland, has about 82 percent white students, while the districts where they live are about 52 percent minority, the study said.

The charter is also significantly segregated by income and language, enrolling 36 percent fewer low-income students and 11 percent fewer English language learners than local districts, researchers said.

Penny Davis, a researcher for the Central Michigan University’s Center for Charter Schools, said that charters serve a high proportion of students qualifying for free or reduced price lunch, which could explain the economic segregation patterns in the study.

A Department of Education study for 2008 found more than half of all charter students qualified for free or reduced price lunch, in comparison with about one-third of public school students statewide.

In contrast, the Grand Traverse Academy in Traverse City is relatively similar to local districts in all three criteria. Researchers found less than a 1 percent difference from its local districts racially, while income and language differences are only 6 and 2 percent.

Likewise, Lakeshore Educational Management Inc. of Charlevoix operates charters in Petoskey, Mancelona and Boyne City. According to the study, all three of its charters have demographics similar to their local districts.

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

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Filed under: Education

Charter, public schools differ in special needs students

Capital News Service

LANSING – Charter schools operated by for-profit corporations serve significantly fewer special needs children than local public schools, a Western Michigan University study found.

“Research has shown that charter schools have less capacity for special education children. Therefore, parents tended to chose public schools over charter schools,” said WMU professor Gary Miron.

Researchers examined Individualized Education Program (IEP) enrollment trends for charters operated by education management organizations and compared them to local public school districts across the state.

IEPs are annual plans developed by parents, teachers and other school employees based on each student’s needs.

“Studies show that students with IEPs in charter schools tended to have mild disabilities in nature, mostly speech and language impediments, which are more common in elementary grades, while nearly all students with moderate or severe disabilities such as autism are served by traditional public schools,” Miron said.

Michigan has 232 charters that educate nearly 6 percent of the state’s K-12 students. For-profit companies operate 191 of them.

Charters or “public academies” are quasi-public schools funded by state aid. They cannot charge tuition.

Penny Davis, a researcher for Central Michigan University’s Center for Charter Schools, said her center’s research shows that “many families send their children to charters because they won’t be labeled as special needs.

“Our data indicates that families have chosen charter schools as alternatives to the traditional education process in order to avoid having their children being labeled as ‘special needs,’” Davis said.

A 2008 Department of Education report found that charters serve a higher percentage of students through alternative education programs, particularly at the high school level, than public schools.

Charters in Traverse City, Eaton Rapids and Spring Lake are among those with fewer IEP students than local districts, according to WMU’s analysis of 2006-2007 enrollments. Charters in Highland Park and Dearborn Heights are among those with more IEP students that local districts.

For example, for-profit Advance Educational Services Inc. of Lansing operates charters in Traverse City, Eaton Rapids and two in Spring Lake, all of which the study classifies as having a smaller percentage of IEP students than local districts.

“A small group of charter schools focus on special needs children. As a result those charter schools are ‘highly segregative’ in that regard,” Miron said. “However, some special education experts fear this may be a poor approach to IEP education.”

For example, the ACE Academy, which operates two charters in Highland Park, is designed to serve students who have disengaged from the learning process of traditional school settings.

The same company operates two charters in Dearborn Heights, both serving high-risk students.

Forty-two percent of students at these four charters have IEPs, 26 percent more than their home districts, the study said.

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

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Filed under: Education

State needs more E85 pumps

Capital News Service

LANSING – For ethanol to become the fuel of the future, it has to start at the pump.

General Motors Vice Chair, Tom Stephens said more ethanol gas pumps are needed to keep supplying flexible fuel vehicles for drivers.

Stephens noted that the majority of flex fuels, which use E85, are in populous regions on the East and West coasts, but the majority of E85 pumps are in the Midwest. E85 is 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline.

Around 90 percent of all registered drivers who own flexible fuel cars don’t have ethanol pumps in their ZIP code and half of them don’t have ethanol pumps in their county, he said.

In Michigan, 99 E85 fueling locations were reported as of October 2009.

Tom Welch, of the U.S. Department of Energy, agrees that more ethanol pumps are needed around the country.

“The supply needs to catch up with the demand,” Welch said.

GM has worked with the National Governors Association and ethanol retailers to install 300 additional pumps, Stephens said.

Cindy Zimmerman, editor of online publishing site Domestic Fuel, said the Department of Energy gives federal money to stations and states to put in E85 or blender pumps that store different blends of ethanol.

Tim Shireman, alternative fuel program manager at the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth (DELEG), said incentives tax credits are available to qualified gas stations supplying ethanol.

The tax credit in Michigan goes to gas station owners to install E85 new equipment or convert existing equipment, Shireman said.

Michigan’s current business tax credits cover 30 percent of actual cost or $20,000. Federal tax credits are up to half or $50,000, he said.

Kirk McCauley, director of member relations of the national Service Station Dealers Association, said gas station owners must get government and refinery company approval but it’s not economical now.

McCauley agreed that more ethanol pumps need to be installed but said ethanol isn’t a magic trick to solve all fuel supplies problems.

“Ethanol isn’t more efficient than gas,” McCauley said. “It has 75 percent of the power of gasoline. The only difference is it’s greener and better for the environment.”

Shireman of DELEG said ethanol is unlikely to completely address gas mileage problems but it’s a piece of the puzzle.

“E85 has a place with other fuels today, tomorrow and future,” said Shireman.

In the United States, the primary source of ethanol is corn. Ethanol is 200 proof alcohol, made from fermentation of starch that burns more completely than gasoline alone.

Today, the majority of fuel is E10, which is 10 percent ethanol and 90 percent gasoline. Ethanol is blended into more than 50 percent of the nation’s fuel supply.

Jody Pollok–Newsom, executive director of Michigan Corn, said ethanol could bring opportunities to the state.

“This is an opportunity to grow the state’s economy,” said Pollok-Newsom. “Last year, 250 million gallons of ethanol was produced in Michigan.”

According to Michigan Corn, the state has four ethanol plants. Itself ethanol has boosted the states economy by nearly $500 million, created more than 3,000 jobs and increased household income by more than $200 million.

Pollok–Newsom said in 2009, the state saved $250 million by using ethanol rather than foreign oil and the money saved can create jobs and economic growth in the state,.

“That’s huge, to use money left over for our communities, said Pollock–Newsom.

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

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Filed under: Economy

Craft beer business thrives in Michigan

Capital News Service

LANSING- While many Michigan industries are in decline, the craft beer industry is flourishing, with breweries expanding and bringing tourists to local communities.

Craft beer has been expanding nationally, and even more so in Michigan, said Scott Graham, the executive director of the Michigan Brewers Guild in Lansing.

“Michigan every year outpaces the national growth trend,” he said.

A craft or microbrewery is a smaller, regional producer of beers, often with a distinctive flavor.

Beers produced by the 70 in-state breweries represented 1.8 percent of the 6.6 million barrels sold in Michigan in 2008, according to the most recent statistics, said Rex Halfpenny of the Michigan Beer Guide. Each barrel represents 31.5 gallons or 336 12-ounce bottles.

“Given that things are bad and people are out of jobs, people are still drinking beer and they’re also seeking a better glass of beer,” Halfpenny said.

Founders Brewing Co. President Mike Stevens said his Grand Rapids company is going strong.

“We went from around 10,000 barrels to 18,500. My 2010 forecast is to take it up to about 28,000 barrels,” he said.

With that increase comes the need for more employees. Founders moved to a new facility about two years ago and increased its workforce from 19 to 73.

“We’re constantly hiring just to accommodate our growth and needs there,” he said. Another expansion is expected later this year, which should bring an additional dozen jobs.

Larry Channel, co-owner of Dragonmead Microbrewery in Warren, said that his company sold around 1,500 barrels of beer in 2009, about 200 barrels more than the previous year.

“In the midst of a recession, we’re not at all upset about what we sold,” Channel said. “We couldn’t increase our capacity without some more capital investment.”

To increase its production, Dragonmead would need more fermenters, an investment that depends on how well it does this year.

Channel said that although his business is doing well, he’s still concerned about the economy. “At some point in time, people just have to go elsewhere for work.”

Graham of the Brewer’s Guild said that one reason for the increased popularity of Michigan micro-beers is that other states have been far ahead since the craft beer trend began in the 1970s in California.

“Michigan is lagging behind in terms of volume and share, and just increasing awareness is going to last for quite a while,” he said, expressing optimism about the future.

“I’m sure it would be better if economic times were better, but I think we’re going to see growth for years to come. When the economy bounces back, it’ll pick up and be even faster,” he said.

Travel Michigan, the state’s official tourism promotion agency, doesn’t track the number of tourists coming into the state for beer-related visits.

Even so, industry experts have a number of anecdotal accounts.

For example Larry Bell, the president of Bell’s Brewery Inc. in Galesburg, said visitors from Indiana, Illinois and Ohio. They often make day trips either for an event at Bell’s Eccentric Cafe in Kalamazoo or as a part of a larger tour of Michigan breweries, such as a recent bus trip of 50 Shepard residents.

“We don’t formally give tours. That being said, we give an awful lot of tours,” said Bell.

In contrast, Mike Stevens of Founders said most out-of-town visitors to his brewery are business travelers making a side trip. Many leisure tourists come specifically to see the brewery, such as the 30 passengers on a chartered bus from Indiana who recently came through.

“There’s a whole beer community out there that’s very intrigued and interested in seeing other breweries,” he said. “Mostly they’re from around the Midwest. It’s still a relatively inexpensive weekend for these folks. They charter a bus, pay 50 bucks, get to come to the brewery, see the place and enjoy a day here.”

Dick Gray, an owner of Keweenaw Brewing Co. in Houghton said most of the tourists he sees come in the summer months. Other times of the year the university attracts more university affiliated visitors, such as families coming to Michigan Technological University

“Since I’m a Tech grad, they bring a group of parents and students up to tour the brewery,” Gray said.

Gray said few out-of-state groups visit since Houghton is so far from other states.

The Beer Guide’s Halfpenny said that most fans of microbrews are beer tourists of some sort.

“I’ve been chasing beer since the early 80s all across this country,” he said. “The beer guide belongs in the car, so as you drive around you can find these places.”

Stevens said part of the reason why Michigan’s beer industry is doing so well is the quality of the products.

“ Michigan really does have some of the best breweries in the whole country,” he said.

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

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Filed under: Economy

Lawmakers push scholarships to keep students in Michigan

Capital News Service

LANSING – College students are leaving the state in droves after graduation, and lawmakers are pursuing ways to keep them here.

“We need the best and brightest of our college graduates to stay in Michigan to help create new jobs and help bring Michigan’s economy back,” said Rep. James Bolger, R-Marshall.

Bolger has proposed a Keep Michigan Scholars Program to encourage students to stay in the state.

Co-sponsors include Reps. Matt Lori, R-Constantine, Pete Lund, R-Shelby Township, Kevin Daley, R-Lum, and Tory Rocca, R-Sterling Heights.

The program would establish a scholarship with eligibility requirements similar to those of the suspended Michigan Promise scholarship. However, recipients would have to live and work in Michigan for five years after they graduate.

While details of the proposal are still being determined, the scholarship would likely cost around the same as the Promise scholarship, which had a $160 million-a-year price tag.

Students who don’t stay long enough would have to repay 20 percent of the scholarship for each year of the residency requirement they don’t fulfill.

Recipients would be excused from this provision if they enter the military or become disabled.

Rep. Goeff Hansen, R-Hart, said the proposal would provide an incentive for the best and brightest students to stay and stem the problem of a brain drain.

According to a 2008 report by Michigan Future, a public policy think tank in Ann Arbor, roughly half of the in-state students who graduate leave, most because they can’t find jobs or find a better jobs elsewhere.

Bolger said that the proposal is only part of keeping students in Michigan, and that having jobs for graduates is critical, noting that the children and grandchildren of many constituents leave for that reason.

Bolger said the proposal arose from debate over reinstating the Promise scholarship, because the state failed to fund the program this year to help balance the budget. About 96,000 students had expected the money.

Lawmakers eliminated the $160 million-a-year program this year to help balance the budget.

“If we’re going to replace the Promise scholarship, we ought to do it as a way to also keep our students here,” he said.

He said that the state should carefully evaluate its spending to determine what could be cut to finance the Keep Michigan Scholars Program.

As an example, he suggested eliminating the earned income tax credit, a refundable tax credit geared towards working people, which costs about $330 million in lost revenue, about twice the cost of the Promise scholarship.

Otherwise, Bolger said, the state would need to use existing resources to fund the new program.

Val Meyers, associate director of financial aid at Michigan State University, said there are good and bad points in the proposal.

She said giving students the money upfront is better than giving them a $4,000 tax credit after graduation, as Gov. Jennifer Granholm proposed.

However, she said students should be aware that it could cost them a lot of money if they don’t stay the entire five years after they graduate.

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

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Filed under: Education

Help for older foster kids expands into 10 counties

Capital News Service

LANSING – For children who grow up in the foster care system, support and stability are often difficult to find and even harder to maintain, says Carla Owens, director of communications for the Jim Casey Youth Opportunity Initiative, a national foundation dedicated to helping youth transition from foster care.

The Michigan Youth Opportunities Initiative, a joint venture between Owens’ group and the Department of Human Services (DHS), seeks to change that.

Since 2003, the program has helped youth ages 14 to 21 make the transition from foster care to independence. It’s now active in 30 counties, with roughly 500 youth involved.

This year, it plans to expand into 10 more counties: Barry, Eaton, Chippewa, Luce, Gogebic, Ontonagon, Ingham, Marquette, Oakland and St. Clair.

The program started in Michigan in Wayne County and the northwestern Lower Peninsula and could eventually serve all 83 counties, Owens said.

Rich Miketinac, director of the Marquette County DHS, said, “It’s going to be a very good thing for older kids in foster care who are aging out of the foster care system and who don’t have a family to return to.”

The county is in the early stages of developing its program but is already targeting 10 to 12 youth, Miketinac said.

Foster children often struggle when they turn 18. Many don’t graduate from college or even high school, and a large percentage have trouble finding work, according to a study by the Chapin Hall Center for Children, an independent policy research center at the University of Chicago.

The initiative seeks to create a network of resources to help them.

Youth who choose to participate undergo eight hours of financial literacy training, for example, and then the program helps them open two bank accounts.

One is for personal use and the other is an “individual development account.” The state matches deposits in the development account up to a $1,000 per year for large expenses like housing, education or transportation.

Owens said, “Whereas a parent might sit down and say, here’s how you manage a checkbook and they will even allow them to make mistakes, as everyone does, a lot of people in foster care don’t have that experience.”

Shannon Brower, a DHS consultant from Harbor Light, said that the program focuses on financial literacy because foster children typically aren’t taught basic money management skills and often get in trouble as a result.

The program also works to empower youth.

Owens said, “It’s one thing for adults to sit in a room and determine what’s best for a young person, but we believe that young person needs to be at the table, helping make the decision.”

In addition, countywide youth leader boards allow participants to discuss the problems they face while in foster care and as they age out of it and how they can resolve them.

They give youth the opportunity to build relationships with one another and work towards changes in the foster care system.

The program also builds community partnerships, including ones that help youth find jobs or give discounts at local shops.

Paula Young, manager of the Michigan Youth Opportunity Initiative said, “We know that the best way to not only engage youth but also make the most difference is engaging their communities. So those two aspects really go hand in hand.”

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

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Filed under: Social Policy

State to end inspections of migrant housing

Capital News Service

LANSING — Migrant workers may not get their housing inspected by the Department of Agriculture due to budget cuts.

The governor’s proposed state budget would eliminate funding for the Migrant Labor Housing Program and replace it with a $30 per occupant fee.

Without the proposed inspection fee or an alternative funding source, Agriculture will no longer conduct any migrant labor housing inspections.

“The program provides a critical service by helping to protect the health, safety and welfare of migrant laborers and their families,” said Jennifer Holton, public information officer for the Department of Agriculture.

“Without sufficient funding, the department will no longer be able to inspect more than 4,400 migrant housing units around the state, putting 22,000 migrants and their families at risk,” she said.

Denise Donohue, executive director of the Michigan Apple Committee in DeWitt ,said ,“It’ll be very bad for counties such as Grand Traverse County, Charlevoix County and Berrien County where most the apples come from.”

Quality housing helps attract migrant workers needed by Michigan’s growing agriculture industry, said Craig Anderson, manager of the Michigan Farm Bureau Agricultural Labor and Safety Services program.

Ruben Martinez, director of the Julian Samora Research Institute at Michigan State University said they live on the state farm and their children attend public schools in Michigan.

“Migrant laborers work seasonally, and their employment depends on whether the agriculture industry is in good shape.”

Holton said, “In the past, inspectors have identified cases of children playing in the waste of inadequate septic systems. Nationally, there have been deaths associated with children falling into uncovered wells and septic systems and migrant labor housing camps.”

“So, clearly the potential risks for injury or even death are significant without this program,” she said.

Without the inspection program, Michigan’s producers would be forced to either operate migrant labor camps without a license and risk large fines and penalties from the U.S. Department of Labor or allow approximately $2.3 billion in agricultural commodities like fruits and vegetable to rot in the field, according to Holton.

That could worsen the problem Michigan growers and farmers already face in hiring enough seasonal help, Donohue said.

“We are very worried about the apple industry because all the apples are picked by migrant workers. We need it to be done at state level,” Donohue said.

“Because the apple season is 10 weeks long, the apple growers usually have housing for migrant workers,” she said.

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Filed under: State Agencies

Endangered snake, mussel await more federal protection.

Eastern massasauga, Michigan’s only venomous snake. Credit: University of Illinois.

Capital News Service

LANSING — Michigan’s gray wolf may be getting the most attention, but it isn’t the only species jumping on and off the endangered species list.

Scientists say many other animals and plants face extinction in the Midwest.

Development, habitat destruction and alien rivals are to blame.

The eastern massasauga, Michigan’s only venomous snake, has candidate status on the federal endangered species list. Although not considered endangered within Michigan, its fate is of special concern.

The rayed bean, a type of freshwater mussel that is endangered in Michigan, also has candidate status on the federal list.

“Candidate listing means that a species should be listed, but they haven’t gotten around to placing it on the list yet,” said Chris Hoving, the endangered species coordinator with the Department of Natural Resources and Environment (DNRE). “It could also mean that a species is in near-threatened status and they want to move it up to that level.”

According to the DNRE, a species may be endangered in Michigan but not on the federal list if it’s found in other states. Conversely, a species common in Michigan but not elsewhere may be on the federal list but not the state list.

The state list is updated every two years. The most recent update came last April.

Hoving said that the primary differences between the two lists are based on separate state and federal laws.

The Endangered Species Act, he said, defines the federal list. It includes all species in the United States, as well as species that the government works to protect in other countries against illegal trading, such as importing ivory.

The state list is compiled under a 1994 law, Hoving said.

“In Michigan, we have about 24 or 25 federally endangered species,” he said. “On the state list we have a total of about 400 endangered or threatened species.”

Hoving said that the federal law offers habitat protection and prohibits removing listed plants or animals from their habitat. Plants, however, are not protected on private land.

On the other hand, the state law doesn’t offer the same kind of habitat protection. It does protect endangered plants on private land.

T.J. Miller, chief of the endangered species sector of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Minnesota, said his agency, which is responsible for the region that contains Michigan, takes several factors into account when evaluating a species’ risk.

“One is habitat destruction,” he said. “Another is if there are any diseases or threats that a species is undergoing that might cause it to become endangered. We also consider if a species is being over-utilized for either commercial, recreational or educational purposes.”

Habitat destruction is a large contributing factor to the troubles facing the massasauga.

But Randy Worden, president of the Michigan Society of Herpetologists, said there are others.

“Probably the biggest reason it’s dying out is human persecution,” he said. “People think if it’s a snake, it’s automatically evil and must be killed.

“The second-biggest is probably habitat destruction. It likes to live in fens — bogs with flowing water — but people drain them to build houses and other things on them.”

The rayed bean, on the other hand, has fallen victim to another animal. It owes its depletion largely to invasive zebra mussels in the Great Lakes and connecting streams and rivers.

“Since zebra mussels arrived in the late 1980s, they’ve really done a number on the native species,” said Peter Badra, a conservation scientist with the Michigan Natural Features Inventory.

“The zebra mussel has to attach to a hard surface to survive. If you have a sandy stream, a lot of times the only thing to attach to is the native mussels like the rayed bean,” he explained. “Then you get a native mussel with a lot of zebra mussels globbed onto it. It interferes with their filter feeding and kills them.”

As with the massasauga, the rayed bean and almost every other endangered species, habitat destruction plays a large role.

“Over the past 150 years, we’ve had a lot of changes on the landscape,” Badra said, “so there’s some indirect impacts like agriculture and urbanization that change the water quality. If you have a watershed that’s full of urban development, that really changes the water quality and the habitat available in the streams.”

Despite the risk Michigan’s candidate species face, public knowledge about them is scarce. Badra said that “prettier” species usually get more attention.

“It’s tough,” he said. “There’s a phrase that we use: ‘charismatic mega-fauna.’ The bigger, prettier species get most of the attention.

“The mussels have that going against them — they’re not really dramatic to look at unless you look close at them,” Badra said.

But that doesn’t mean such species are boring or unnecessary.

For instance, Badra said the rayed bean uses a lure system to attract fish so it can attach its larvae to them. The eastern massasauga, meanwhile, boasts prestige as Michigan’s only rattlesnake.

“Nobody’s really sure why no others rattlers have come,” Herpetologists Society president Worden said. “No one has a positive answer. It could be that glaciers pushed most of them out of the state and this is the only species that’s found its way back.”

Scientists are studying the snake and rayed bean with local experts.

“We have graduate students who track the massasauga through a chip that is implanted surgically in the snake,” Worden said. “We’re actually kind of blessed that we’re located in Lansing because the person who implants the chip is a veterinarian, Tara Harrison, at Potter Park Zoo.”

Badra is also working in the Port Huron area to study the rayed bean.

“There’s a large concentration of them in the Black River,” he said. “We’re hoping to get some funding to do some surveying over there.

“There was a big fish kill because of a manure spill in the river,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to get out there this summer and see if there’s a big impact from the manure.”

Both Badra and Worden say they hope that by listing a species as endangered, more can be done to help protect it from extinction.

“We have this big database that the state uses if there’s a project going through for permitting or if they need a permit issued,” Badra said. “The location will be run through our database to see if there’s a rare species at that location. We want to provide information on biodiversity to the decision-makers.

“If the rayed bean is a federal endangered species, then that really gives it a much higher standing in terms of protecting it, and more resources might go to studying it,” he said.

Worden said that although the massasauga is not yet listed as endangered in the state, it ought to be.

“We raise money for conservation research on the snake,” he said. “In the last three years we’ve donated $2,000, and it goes out in packages of $500 grants for graduate research students in Michigan.

“It’s one of our pet species,” he said.

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

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Filed under: Environment

Volunteers pick up slack on grooming trails

Capital News Service

LANSING- As its budget woes mount, the Department of Natural Resources and Environment (DNRE) and a major union have come to an agreement that allows volunteers to groom cross country ski trails that used to be tended by state employees.That arrangement with the Michigan State Employees Association allows volunteers to take over grooming responsibilities in some areas where state employees used to do the work.

In December, the DNRE announced that only eight state forest ski trails would be groomed, and mostly by volunteer organizations. Grooming involves removing debris, adding or removing snow and creating a level amount of snow, to improve skiing conditions.

Mary Dettloff, an information officer at the DNRE, said that there we was no other way to keep the trails clear.

“We just don’t have the money to pay for it. It’s a $266,000 expenditure every year to keep the trails groomed,” she said.

Under a previous agreement with the union, volunteers groomed only five trails.

Then when the DNRE announced that it could afford to groom only three of its most popular routes this season, those organizations offered to do more.

Under the new agreement volunteers and DNRE staff are looking after 13 of 23 state forest trails.

They are in Alpena, Cheboygan, Chippewa, Grand Traverse, Luce, Marquette, Ogemaw, Otsego, Presque Isle and Wexford Counties.

Vince Call, the president of the Thunder Bay Trails Association in Alpena, said that his group proposed taking up some of the slack. It was already grooming the Norway Ridge and Chippewa trails in Alpena County and a small portion of the Black Mountain recreation area in Presque Isle County.

“The DNRE had an employee that grooms most of Black Mountain and they had to pull him off because there was no money for it,” Call said. “We told them that we’ve already purchased equipment, we’re grooming seven miles of that trail and we’re more than willing to go ahead and groom the remainder of the trail.”

The annual Black Mountain Classic race attracts more than 170 participants in the first weekend in March, according to Call. For it to take place, the trail has to be groomed.

In the past, the Thunder Bay couldn’t do the grooming because the volunteers were prohibited from doing the work of state employees.

“They said there was no way the grooming was going to be done, so we took up the cause,” Call said.

Taking up the cause involved writing to legislators, conducting a phone and e-mail campaign and asking DNRE Director Rebecca Humphries to review the case.

“We told them that we have insurance, we’ve worked with them for a number of years and we wish to be able to continue to do so and continue grooming all of Black Mountain,” he said.

But Dettloff said affected state employees may feel left out by the new agreement.

“It’s a very delicate situation,” she said. “Many state employees are feeling under siege because of the budget situation. Any time that there’s a volunteer agreement involved, it’s tough.“We’re very sensitive to that, because we don’t want employees to think that we’re taking work away from them, but we simply didn’t have a way to pay for that work to be done,” she said.

Call said his group had no interest in getting in the middle of a dispute.

“We had hoped not to do this, and we hope that we can continue to have a positive working relationship with the DNRE,” he said. “We’re more than willing to work with them, and we do not want to get involved in the politics.”

The Michigan State Employees Association’s director of communications, Karen Murphy, declined to comment on the agreement.

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

Filed under: State Agencies

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