Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Rare blooms face survival threats

Capital News Service

LANSING — What botanists might consider the fairest may be the rarest in Michigan.

Pitcher's thistle is one of more than 400 native flowering plants on a list of threatened species in Michigan. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Flowering plants top a list of extremely rare species groups in an analysis of endangered, threatened, extinct and special concern animal and plant species.

They outnumber similar species in mammal, amphibian, reptile, fern and other groups by nearly two to one.

But what’s rare in Michigan may be more common elsewhere.

“The vast majority of our flora is decidedly common outside Michigan,” said Michael Penskar, the lead botanist for the Michigan Natural Resources Inventory, a group that tracks rare species.

Michigan contains the edges of larger populations of plants that aren’t exclusive to the state — much of their population may be in neighboring states where those plants don’t even make the rare species list.

Penskar said there are more plant species on the inventory’s list because there are more plant than animal species. Michigan supports 2,700 to 2,800 plant species, and more than 400 of its 1,800 native flowering plants are on the list.

“So if you have more to begin with, you’re going to have more that will be affected by human settlement and the like,” Penskar said. “We should be concerned about what’s rare in our state regardless of if it’s very common…because that mix of species is part of our natural heritage,” Penskar said.

Those facing extinction tend to be the most finicky, like the Michigan monkey-flower – “the rarest of the rare for Michigan,” Penskar said.

A perennial with tubular yellow flowers, the monkey-flower is found only in 12 isolated populations throughout Michigan. Penskar penned the monkey-flower’s 1997 recovery plan after it obtained endangered species designation in 1990.

The plant is endemic — it has a narrow, specific range that includes the Straits of Mackinac and Grand Traverse regions, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

But the monkey-flower remains rare in Michigan because it’s picky — it likes sticky, sandy soils near streams and lakes. All known populations are associated with the Great Lakes shorelines. There, the monkey-flower likes only cold, flowing spring water.

But with such specific needs, the monkey-flower’s greatest threat is habitat destruction and conversion. Off-road vehicles turn up the soil and destroy habitat. The lure of lakefront property also leaves the monkey-flower in the dust as development progresses.

Habitat destruction along shorelines is also a problem for Hall’s bulrush, found in coastal plain marshes that are not common in southwest Michigan, northern Indiana and part of Illinois.

Off-roading activity often increases when waters recede and create muddy conditions in its habitat, said Brad Slaughter, an inventory botany conservation associate. “They look really ugly and scarred when that happens, especially when they’re wet and you just end up with huge wheel ruts.”

Hall’s bulrush prefers its own specialized pad, and Penskar warned that the bulrush could become the new monkey-flower in Michigan.

The marsh type it prefers is also specialized—it’s characterized by draw-down lakes or ponds, Slaughter said.

“Usually in the late winter, early spring it looks like a lake or a pond but by the end of summer there’s no inlet or outlet to these systems. They’re pretty much just fed by the water table and precipitation so it’ll just draw right down and be dry,” he said.

Some sites can remain dry for more than 10 years.

Hall’s bulrush can be elusive, though.

“It might not even appear above the ground until conditions are right,” Slaughter said.

Instead, Hall’s bulrush remains in a seed state. Slaughter said bulrush was last sighted in Michigan in 2002 and suddenly reappeared in 2008-2009.

Changes in groundwater or precipitation due to climate change could also spell trouble for the bulrush.

Not all stories end with extinction. Recovery plans for Pitcher’s thistle were completed in 2002, though efforts to save the dune dweller began before then, said Tameka Dandridge, an East Lansing-based U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wildlife biologist who works on recovery plans.

There are many populations of the thistle in Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin and Ontario, but Pitcher’s thistle is found only on shorelines or Great Lakes sand dunes.

Dandridge said the fragmented locations of populations make monitoring key to ensuring they don’t disappear. Habitat destruction by off-road vehicles and invasive species threaten the species too.

The thistle doesn’t produce seeds for more than five to 10 years. The seed is large and typically lands near the parent plant because it can’t travel on wind.

It could soon be removed from the rare species list based on continuing recovery plans, better landowner awareness of the plant’s needs, discovery of new populations and assessment of old ones, Dandridge said.

But Slaughter said the situation isn’t ideal.

“It’s a bad sign for the environment,” he said, referring to all rare plant species in the state. “They’re so degraded and fragmented that if we do nothing, they’ll just go away. Even if we do something we might just buy them more time.

Kimberly Hirai writes for Great Lakes Echo


Filed under: Environment

U.P. community colleges, universities battle over programs

Capital News Service

LANSING – The House has narrowly passed a legislation that would allow community colleges to offer baccalaureate degrees in four programs, escalating a battle between the Upper Peninsula’s two-year and four-year colleges.

Upper Peninsula Reps. Mike Lahti, D-Hancock; Steven Lindberg, D-Marquette; and Gary McDowell, D-Rudyard, voted no. Rep. Judy Nerat, D-Wallace, voted yes.

Under the proposal that now goes to the Senate, community colleges would be able to grant bachelor’s degrees in nursing, cement technology, maritime technology and culinary arts.
Current state law limits community colleges to granting associate’s degrees.

Bay de Noc Community College in Escanaba and Gogebic Community College in Ironwood have their sights set on expanding their nursing programs.

Laura Coleman, president of Bay de Noc, said the region’s nursing students need more accessible and affordable programs to obtain their bachelor of science in nursing (BSN).

“My personal concern is that in the next five years, it’s going to become a requirement for RNs to get their BSN,” she said. “Universities can’t branch off and take care of that many nurses.”

But Northern Michigan University counters that universities can meet the educational needs of present and future nurses.

Michigan’s 15 public universities, which are all members of the Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan, have pledged to start a bachelor’s degree-granting program in any area with sufficient demand.

In a letter to lawmakers, the council explained the universities’ opposition to the proposal.
The letter said that allowing community colleges to offer four-year degrees is “unnecessary” and would lead to the “duplication of programs already available through Michigan’s public universities.”

But to representatives of community colleges, duplication is needed.

Michael Hansen, president of the Michigan Community College Association, said that because of their geographic location and limited financial access, the Upper Peninsula’s community colleges are the “poster children” for the House-passed legislation.

And according to Coleman, many of Bay de Noc’s students are “place-bound” adults and some are in the work force, so it’s difficult for them to commute to the universities.

“It’s about providing a whole new chance for these people,” Hansen said, noting that nursing students in Michigan’s rural areas such as the Upper Peninsula are “shut out” of attaining a bachelor’s degree.

Michael Boulus, executive director of the state universities council, disagreed, saying the UP is “very well covered.”

“Nobody in the UP is screaming for more programs,” Boulus said. Northern Michigan offers a bachelor’s degree nursing program a little more than an hour away from Escanaba, he noted.
But Coleman said that driving times are longer winter months, when heavy snowfall makes it unrealistic to commute to Marquette.

“When you get into winter, the drive time is two-and-a-half to three hours. The Upper Peninsula gets 250 inches of snow a year,” she said. “Our whole thing is accessibility.”

Location aside, universities argue that community colleges lack the faculty and resources necessary to provide bachelor’s degree programs.

“Community colleges weren’t established for four-year programs,” Boulus said, pointing out that universities already collaborate with community colleges to offer bachelor’s degree programs.

For example, Lake Superior State University offers 13 degrees at Bay de Noc. The arrangement allows students to take three years of community colleges courses, plus the last year of Lake Superior courses at Bay de Noc at the university’s higher tuition rate.

Coleman said Lake Superior’s tuition deters many students from that option.

If the legislation clears the Senate and is signed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm, community colleges would be required to go through an accreditation process for new programs, which would be almost a four-year undertaking, according to Hansen.

Coleman said the accreditation process would give community colleges sufficient time to meet the predicted increase in nursing degree standards. Bay de Noc’s two-year nursing program is approved by the same organization that accredits Ferris State, Lake Superior State and other universities.

“We deliver a really good product,” Coleman said. “We know what we’re doing.”

However, university officials, including Cindy Paavola, director of communications at Northern Michigan, remain united in their position that with recent funding cuts for public universities, Michigan can’t afford to establish new programs.

“Until the economy hits an upswing, we don’t believe the state has the funding available,” she said. “The state is having issues funding the four-year programs at public universities.”

Boulus said the bottom line is that implementing four-year degree programs could raise operating costs of community colleges, increase property taxes and tuition rates.

But Coleman said expanding community colleges’ programs would be less expensive than universities presume.

“It won’t affect tuition one bit,” she said. “The last two years of BSN are mainly lectures, with one clinical course. It’s the cheapest area of course delivery.”

Filed under: Education

State ready to cast more fish restrictions

Capital News Service

LANSING – The Department of Natural Resources and Environment (DNRE) has issued its final proposal to impose fishing restrictions on 73 more miles of river, but not without controversy.

The restrictions would require artificial lures only and impose minimum size limits and take-home limits.

There are already 104.9 miles of rivers with restrictions, and the final proposal would bump that up to 177.8 miles on 21 reaches of stream, still nearly 34 miles short of the maximum of 212 miles allowed by law.

The change would affect portions of the AuSable, Black, Fox, Huron, Manistee, Pere Marquette, Pigeon and Paint rivers, Paint Creek and Cooks Run.

For the last two years, DNRE and its Citizens Coldwater Regulations Steering Committee, comprised of sport fishing groups, mulled over which Lower Peninsula and Upper Peninsula rivers could benefit the most from an extension of the limitations.

“We wanted to select reaches of stream that are long enough to have a long-term effect on trout fisheries,” said Todd Grischke, supervisor of the regulatory affairs unit in the DNRE fisheries division.

According to Grischke, when there are significant lengths of river protected, the likelihood of a long-run benefit increases.

Bryan Burroughs, executive director of Michigan Trout Unlimited, said his members are interested in protecting popular fishing holes that are among the most heavily fished.

Trout Unlimited was one member of the steering committee.

Michigan State University fisheries and wildlife professor Daniel Hayes said that gear restrictions are effective because fish have a better chance of survival when hooked with artificial bait.

“The concern with live bait is that the fish tend to swallow it down deeper — into the throat or stomach. The guess is that an artificial fly doesn’t have flavor. It doesn’t taste like food,” said Hayes.

Burroughs said that with artificial lures, fish tend to get hooked in the mouth by grabbing the lure, rather that sucking the lure into its stomach like it might do with real food.

As rivers were reviewed, DNRE and the steering committee took into account biological factors and suggestions from anglers and the general public.

DNRE received more than 500 e-mails during the review process suggesting more than 1,300 miles of streams for protection.

Burroughs said that Trout Unlimited members were concerned about the Pigeon near Gaylord where there was a major die off in 2008 due to an organic sediment spill from a nearby dam. The muddy water clogged the gills of fish so they couldn’t breathe.

“The trout fishery was nearly wiped out, and the river is not being restocked, so they’re depending on a few fish to repopulate it. The gear restrictions should help with that,” Burroughs said.

A 5.3-mile stretch of the Pigeon in Cheboygan and Otsego counties is proposed for new restrictions.

The AuSable, which begins near Grayling and flows almost 130 miles east to Lake Huron, is also targeted for new restrictions. The 23 additional miles in Crawford and Oscoda counties would make a total of 68.5 miles of protection.

Burroughs said that the few complaints about proposed gear restrictions that he’s heard came from nonmembers of his group.

“Most of our members worry about what’s right for the fish first, and what’s right for the angler later,” Burroughs said, “Generally, opponents of gear restrictions believe that they have a right to fish how they see fit, but hunting and fishing is a privilege, not a right.”

One benefit in areas with gear restrictions is that the fish themselves tend to grow much larger.

Fisheries biologist Hayes said that older and larger fish almost always produce more high-quality eggs, leading to a higher survival rate for young fish and thus a larger population.

However, Hayes acknowledged that the plan could backfire with a higher population sharing the same food supply.

George King, owner of King’s Sport Center Inc. in Baldwin, which caters to anglers along the Pere Marquette River, opposes the proposed restrictions.

“We should be able to fish any way that we want to instead of setting aside fishing for certain people,” King said, “People who want to catch fish to eat or to mount on a wall won’t be able to.”

King said the restrictions would protect some of the best fish spawning areas without research to back the move.

“Gear restrictions have never been proven to help the rivers,” King said

A total of 11. 4 miles of the Pere Marquette River would be protected if the proposed addition of 2.9 miles goes through.

DNRE will hold three public comment sessions in Lansing and consider comments before issuing a final decision.

The meetings will be held on Oct. 7, Nov. 4 and Dec. 9.

Lynn Davis, owner of the AuSable River Store in Oscoda, said that he doesn’t expect to lose money because of the new restrictions because he makes more selling artificial lures than live bait anyway.

“The biggest complaint that I’ve heard from anglers is that they’re not catching any fish. Gear restrictions help with that,” Davis said.

Filed under: Environment

Lake Michigan College pushes nuclear technology programs

Capital News Service

LANSING—With unfilled jobs on the line at nuclear power plants in Southwest Michigan, a bachelor’s degree program at Lake Michigan College (LMC)—a community college—might provide a solution.

Legislation is being considered to allow community colleges across the state to offer some bachelor’s degree programs, one of them in nuclear technology.

It’s not an unheard-of practice in other parts of the U.S. Seventeen states have similar policies, said Luke Pickelman, legislative director of the Michigan Community College Association.

A House-passed bill would authorize such degrees in nursing, culinary arts, cement technology and manufacturing technologies. Sens. Michael Switalski, D-Roseville, and Jud Gilbert, R-Algonac, have proposed a similar bill in the Senate that included nuclear technology. Switalski
said he is interested in adding nuclear technology to the House bill when the Senate considers it.

All the programs are relevant to the community colleges, but the nuclear technology program has specific significance to Southwest Michigan because of two nuclear power plants in the area, Cook in Bridgman and Palisades in Covert.

In 2008, LMC teamed up with the two plants to offer an associate’s program in nuclear technology and to save time in training new employees.

The first batch of 52 associate’s degree graduates in nuclear technology finished in April 2010, Palisades Nuclear Energy communications manager Mark Savage said.

“What we’re about is training a workforce that makes our communities as attractive as possible to business and industry,” said Dean Souden, executive dean for career education at LMC.

Souden said the plants are finding that they can keep employees in the area if they train people who already reside there.

Matt Pries is enrolled in the nuclear technology associate’s program at LMC.

“A year ago, I got laid off from my job,” he said. “Instead of looking for other jobs and doing that again, I decided it was time to, instead of being a jack of all trades, be a master of one.”

Pries said if a bachelor’s program in nuclear technology is implemented at the community college level, he plans to get it at LMC.

“One of the concentrations that I’m interested in is the chemistry aspect. Nuclear plants are looking for bachelor graduates to hire into those positions,” he said. “If this goes through, my training would be up to a level to what they’re interested in.”

Cost and proximity to where he lives is why Pries says he won’t attend a bachelor’s-granting institution like Western Michigan University, which is an hour away.

But there’s considerable opposition to the legislation; the House bill passed by only a 55-49 vote.

“The bottom line: it duplicates existing programs and it’s costly. We should be doing more collaboration, not duplication,” said Michael Boulus, executive director of the Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan. “There are no unmet needs.”

But Cook’s communications manager, Bill Schalk, sees the proposed four-year program at LMC as a way of creating a more specialized workforce.

“We hire Western Michigan University people – it’s just another opportunity,” said Schalk. “To create more educational options is a good thing, not just for Cook, but that’s a good thing for everybody.”

The proposed bachelor’s program, he said, would be designed to complement the college’s current associate’s program, which allows students to not only be taught by employees of Cook and Palisades, but to take field trips to the power plants.

Schalk said another benefit would be that individuals trained in the nuclear technology program have a clearer career pathway. He says there are obvious dangers in working at a power plant, and workers should be trained to understand that danger for the safety of themselves, other workers and the surrounding community.

Engineering director and LMC nuclear technology instructor Randy Ebright said another issue the power plants face is that supervisory positions that require a bachelor’s degree might open. Around 15 percent of their workers will reach retirement age within the next 10 to15 years, he estimated.

“If we were to go hire a mechanic, we would still have to train them on our culture,” he said. “If we trained somebody in our program, they would easily be successful. “We train and prepare people on a higher standard than they would get at a traditional academic experience.”

Filed under: Education

Enrollment strong at community colleges

Capital News Service

LANSING — Enrollment rates at some Michigan community colleges in the northern Lower Peninsula are increasing as the economy is in a downward spiral, experts say.

Michael Hansen, president of the Michigan Community College Association, said, “Rates are going up because it’s cheaper for people to come to them as opposed to a four-year college.”

Those with steady or rising enrollments this fall include Kirtland Community College in Roscommon, Alpena Community College, North Central Michigan College in Petoskey and Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City. Reasons for the trend vary, officials say.

Tonya Clayton, admissions specialist at Kirtland, said, “People watch how much money they spend. It’s much cheaper to attend a two-year school than a four-year school.”

Clayton said enrollment at Kirtland has stayed steady for the past two years.

Going to a community college has benefits such as location and general education courses, proponents say.

Mike Kollien, admissions director at Alpena, said, “Community colleges are closer to home. They also have smaller classes. It’s also a good place for people to get core class credits.

“It also prepares them for going to a four-year college if they choose to,” Kollien said.

Young adults are not the only people who attend community college: Older adults are going as well.

Charlie MacInnis, director of public relations at North Central Michigan College, said, “People are getting laid off and they turn to college to prepare them for a different career path.

The core classes give them a chance to figure out what they want to do if they haven’t chosen a new career. “It provides people with new skills they didn’t have before,” he said.

One main reason community colleges are attractive is affordability, MacInnis said.
MacInnis said that enrollment rates at North Central rose 4 percent from last year to a record high this year.

Hansen, of the Community College Association, also said students are being admitted with more academic shortcomings than in the past, and eight out of 10 students need remedial math or writing classes.

Hansen said the colleges are offering new programs to attract students. One is the Michigan New Jobs program that allows colleges to borrow money in exchange for training workers. The loans are repaid through income taxes paid by graduates of the programs.

Hansen pointed to legislation being considered to allow community college students to earn a four-year degree in majors such as culinary arts, cement technology, maritime technology, nursing and nuclear technology.

The increase in community college enrollment rates while the economy is down raises a question, however: What will happen when Michigan’s economy picks up?

Hansen said if the economy recovers, there might be a labor shortage. Also, the state’s population is decreasing because people are moving elsewhere. Therefore, an improvement in the economy might have a negative impact on enrollment.

At the same time, Hansen added, the “new norm” could be that job applicants will need an associate’s degree to compete in the entry-level labor market. If that’s the case, it will keep enrollment up.

Filed under: Education

State short of goal in breastfeeding

Capital News Service

LANSING– Michigan did not meet the national breastfeeding goal for 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The federal agency said 70.1 percent of mothers in Michigan have breastfed. The goal is 75 percent.
“Each mom makes her own decision,” said Diane Revitte, director of the nutrition program and evaluation section in Women Infants Children Division at the state Department of Community Health.

“Not all moms choose to breastfeed, but we hope they will make that choice. We provide support and information for them to make a decision,” Revitte said.

WIC is a federally funded health and nutrition program to help low-income women and children. It promotes breastfeeding on media outlets such as TV, radio and billboards. WIC also provides peer counselors for new mothers to encourage breastfeeding.

The Mother-to-Mother Program, a partnership of WIC and Michigan State University Extension, is an initiative with 42 participating counties.

Aside from the health benefits of breastfeeding, there is also an economic side.

“Formulas are expensive and it’s not the best for babies,” said Pat Benton, program manager of the Breast-Feeding Initiative Program.  “For women employees, it reduces absences because if the mother and baby are both healthy, the mother doesn’t have to worry about taking time off of work to take care of herself or her baby.”

Midwest states are still below the 2010 target of 75 percent of mothers who have ever breastfeed. Ohio is the lowest with 64.8 percent. Indiana and Illinois are at 70.5 and 70.2 percent.

Filed under: Social Policy

State’s teens fall short on fruit, vegetables

Capital News Service

LANSING– Teenagers aren’t eating enough of the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables, a new federal report says. And Michigan teens do worse than the national average.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said a smaller percent of adolescents get the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables in their diet than adults.

The national average is 14 percent for adults and only 9.5 percent for teens. Michigan falls below the national average in both categories.

Michelle Nikolai, a dietitian at Sparrow Food and Nutrition Services in Lansing, says the daily recommendation is five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables or three to five of vegetables and two to four of fruits.

“This applies to both teens and adults,” she said.

In Michigan, 7.4 percent of ninth- to twelfth-graders get the recommended amounts in their diet, compared to 11.8 percent of adults.

Eleventh-grader Rabia Mahmood of East Lansing High School admitted needing help to getting her daily vegetable servings.

“Fruits I get enough of, but my mom has to tell me to eat vegetables,” Mahmood says. “When I eat vegetables they’re usually cooked in something.”

Nikolai said teenagers, who are eating out more, can take advantage of salad options, take-out salads, yogurt fruit parfaits and smoothies made with fruit.”

“If the teenagers see it, they tend to eat it. If they don’t see it, they don’t think to go see it out,” Nikolai said.

Eleventh-grader Roan Ma, also at East Lansing High, said she eats her recommended amount of fruits and vegetables daily.

“I usually eat fruits and vegetables as they are,” Ma said. “My mom makes smoothies so I can get my fruit servings in that way, too.”

Filed under: Social Policy

Alternative energy training thrives at Macomb Community College

Capital News Service

LANSING – After being laid off for half a year, Stanley Sala started a new career path at Macomb Community College.

Supported by federal and state funding, Sala, a 58-year-old electrician from Sterling Heights, enrolled in Macomb’s alternative energy program in August of 2009.

Sala said Macomb’s program will help him land a new job.

Macomb is one of 11 community colleges participating in the Alternative Energy Collaborative, a statewide program initiated by Michigan Community College Association. Among the others are Jackson, Oakland and St. Clair.

The collaborative helps each college develop alternative energy education, create curriculum and share training practices, said Michael Hansen, president of the association.

Lisa Richter, an energy technology instructor at Macomb, said, “We started doing some investigations and seeing some of the key areas we want to focus on.”

The college opened its solar program in 2008, teaching students how solar panels work. After evaluating pilot programs, it developed a model of six alternative-energy pathways:  wind; solar; geothermal; biomass and alternative fuels; green building and sustainable design; and entrepreneurship.

The model lets students choose the technology they want to specialize in, said Bill Stark, director of the college’s Center for Alternative Fuels.

Macomb is also creating a Center for Advanced Automotive Technology to train a skilled workforce for the emerging electric vehicle industry.

It recently received a $1.4 million federal grant to expand the program.

“We feel like that creating one degree wouldn’t do much justice to all the different fields,” Richter said.

Instead, the college offers a certificate in alternative energy that could complement the existing associate’s degree programs, she said.

For example, students taking a management degree can also earn a renewable energy certificate.

The program also benefits laid-off workers who want to get a certificate in a short, intensive period rather than a four-year degree, said John Richter, an adjunct instructor teaching solar technology at the college.

The program had 87 students at its inception and enrollment has increased to 209. Most are high school graduates. Others include laid-off workers, delivery drivers and master’s students in engineering or business.

Even a local chef who wants to open a “green” restaurant took the courses at Macomb, Lisa Richter said.

But it’s a challenge for community colleges to find qualified instructors, Hansen said.

To complement existing faculty, the college has recruited renewable energy specialists from industry.

One of them is Lawrence Muhammad, who began teaching a geothermal class part time last summer. He’s a certified trainer in geothermal technology and owns a business in Detroit that installs municipal geothermal utilities.

Muhammad said the training not only gives community college students opportunities to find jobs, but also helps create a workforce for businesses to grow. He said his company, Geo NetZero, will hire some students from his class upon graduation.

A Franklin-based renewable-energy company, Franklin Wind Energy Group, is providing training and internship opportunities for Macomb students.

“But we don’t have job openings for them right now. Maybe in the future,” said David Koyle, the chief executive officer.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm identified alternative energy as one of the key areas for diversifying and developing Michigan’s economy.

Experts predict that renewable energy and energy efficiency alone will add $4.5 trillion to the U.S. economy by 2030 and create millions of jobs, according to the governor’s office.

John Richter said, “If you look at the solar technology industry, it’s been growing more than 30 percent every year for the past 10 years. There is a need to train more people.”

Recently Michigan was ranked the third across the nation by Business Facilities magazine among “Alternative Energy Leaders.”

As for Sala, the laid-off electrician plans to graduate and get his renewable energy certificate in December with hope for better chance at a wind or solar system design job.

Filed under: Education

Proposal would let police quickly check for drug use

Capital News Service

LANSING – Law enforcement officers may receive a new tool to test drivers suspected of driving under the influence of drugs.

The device would also be allowed to check operators of boats, snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles.

Rep. Mark Meadows, D-East Lansing, has introduced legislation to allow officers to use portable “preliminary chemical breath analysis” tools.

“I think it’s a great idea,” said Sgt. Keith Koeman of the Ottawa County Sheriff Marine Patrol. It’s “another tool in the officer’s toolbox that he can use to keep everyone safe.”

The new device is similar to the portable Breathalyzers police already use, said Rep. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, one of the co-sponsors. It analyzes saliva and produces results in 10 minutes.

Breathalyzers measure only the blood alcohol content. These new devices would measure the levels of drugs in a person’s system.

It would “shave police time greatly,” Jones said. Officers would be able to administer the preliminary test on site without needing to wait for a prosecutor to issue a warrant for a blood test that may take months to get results.

Meadows said there hasn’t been a way to legally test drivers and operators on site for any intoxicant other than alcohol.

Meadows said he was unsure whether the drug tests would distinguish between prescribed medications and illegal drugs, but that an appeal process similar to the one in place for Breathalyzer tests would be created for suspects to dispute their test results.

“We don’t want people under the influence, whether by alcohol or drugs,” said Bill Manson, executive director of the Michigan Snowmobile Association in Grand Rapids. “I don’t know of any drug problems when it comes to snowmobiles,” he said, but added that the group’s board of directors wouldn’t oppose the legislation.

Koeman said, “Quite often you get a combination of alcohol and drug abuse.” However, law enforcement officers see only the alcohol violation because they can’t test immediately for the drug use.

Koeman said his only concern is how much it would cost for the initial units to equip all his department’s deputies and boats.

He said the public safety benefit probably outweighs their cost.

Other sponsors of the bill are Reps. Dian Slavens, D-Canton Township, Richard Ball, R–Bennington Township, and Lesia Liss, D-Warren.

The proposal is pending in the House Judiciary Committee.

Jones said, “Our goal is to have it in effect by the end of the year.”

Filed under: Social Policy

Privatization debate divides Oakland, Macomb schools

Capital News Service

LANSING – Romeo Community Schools would have saved $848,000 in two years if it had privatized its custodial and transportation services, but the school board decided against it.

“We have wonderful employees,” said Superintendent Nancy Campbell. “These are the people that we know, they live here and they work here. The only reason privatization was brought up was for financial reasons. Schools have nowhere else to look.”

The board’s decision made Romeo the odd man out, according to a study by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which found that more districts privatized support services in the past year than ever before.

“We contacted all 551 public school districts in Michigan to find out whether they contract out for food, custodial and transportation services,” said James Hohman, the fiscal policy analyst in charge of the survey at the Midland-based center, a free market-oriented think tank. “We found this year that contracting out these services is at a record level – nearly half of all districts contract out for one of them.”

Hohman said the amount saved by privatizing services varies, but it is usually in the range of 10 to 25 percent.

Rochester Community Schools hires outside workers as substitute teachers, hall monitors and food services workers, said staff director of communications Debbi Hartman.

“The savings are significant,” Hartman said. “With the hall monitors we saved $65,000. With the food service it was over $200,000.”

Troy School District privatized custodial, transportation and food services, Kerry Birmingham, director of community and media relations said. Contracting these jobs out has saved the district about $3 million a year.

“It certainly wasn’t a decision that Troy schools took lightly,” Birmingham said. “We felt in these tight economic times that putting as much of our resources as possible toward the instruction and programming for the kids was the right thing to do.”

L’Anse Creuse Public Schools is also feeling the burn from tight economic times, community liaison Michelle Irwin said, but chose alternative methods to save money.

“We get very creative,” Irwin said. “We streamline things as best we can. We ask people to take on greater responsibilities. We’ve made lots of cuts throughout the last 10 years and, lastly, we look for alternative funding that’s out there. We look for grants.”

Irwin added that L’Anse Creuse also receives $35,000 to $50,000 a year from the L’Anse Creuse Foundation, a volunteer fundraising group.

Hartman and Birmingham both said that so far neither the Rochester nor Troy districts has seen a change in quality of services, but Doug Pratt, director of public relations at the Michigan Education Association

The MEA is the state’s largest union of public school employees.

“All over the state we hear from people about classrooms that aren’t being cleaned effectively,” Pratt said.

“We hear from schools where in the cafeteria, the private contractor instead of serving healthy meals day in, day out, is serving pop and pizza every day because that’s what maximizes their profits. So we think quality’s a huge issue.”

Risk of lower quality is minimized, however, because districts generally contract out only services not directly related to the education of students, said Brian Jacob, an economics and educational policy professor at the University of Michigan.

“People rarely talk about privatizing your third-grade math teacher or privatizing the principal,” Jacob said.

The Mackinac Center’s Hohman, on the other hand, said that 90 percent of districts studied said they were satisfied with their services from private companies.

Nevertheless, the MEA’s Pratt said the union also questions whether privatization creates real savings.

He said savings often don’t materialize because private contractors offer a low estimate to win the contract, then have the freedom to do as they wish with prices.

“The best example is with transportation,” Pratt said. “You’ve got a contractor who comes to a school district and says, ‘Privatize with us and we’ll take care of your transportation and we’ll even buy your buses from you.’

“And so the school district then accepts the lowball offer and sells its buses. Then the contractor can hold them over a barrel because the schools aren’t going to have enough money to buy new buses,” he said.
“They’re stuck.”

However, Hohman said most contracts have escape clauses that districts can use to cancel their agreements with contractors.

Although U-M’s Jacob said the basic economic principle of privatization is redistribution, not elimination, of jobs, Pratt questions exactly where those jobs are going.

“It’s the same companies that do it all over the place, and in fact the majority of them are out-of-state or out-of country organizations,” Pratt said.

One example is Chartwells, a British-owned food service company that supplies districts around Michigan, including Rochester.

“The profits from these contracts aren’t staying in our communities,” Pratt said. “They’re being sent overseas or to other states. You’re eliminating good jobs in your community and sending a check to someplace else.”

With such conflicting factors, school districts face a difficult decision when it comes to privatization.
Some, like Rochester and Troy, take the savings and risk a change in quality, Pratt said. Others, like Romeo and L’Anse Creuse, choose to retain employees over possible savings.

“Our number-one business is instruction,” Campbell of Romeo said. “The money to operate the districts will have to come from somewhere else.”

Filed under: Education

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