May 12, 2016
The Flint water crisis continues to eclipse all other stories in Michigan, but the Detroit Public Schools funding and reform is lately capturing attention in Lansing.
Flint Water Crisis
President’s visit — U.S. President Barack Obama visited Flint on May 4 to tell a thousand people packed into a school gymnasium “I’ve got your back” and to urge residents to participate in the Flush for Flint program to run their water for a few minutes a day to clear out any contaminants that may be sitting in their pipes and better circulate corrosion control treatment to recoat lead pipes. He also said the water was good to drink for children over the age of six and women who are not pregnant so long as a filter is used and properly fitted to the water source.
He said part of what contributed to the water crisis was a corrosive attitude that less government is the highest good no matter what, that environmental rules are optional or an unnecessary burden on business or taxpayers. It’s an ideology that undervalues the common good, he said. To fix that, he said every level of government needed to work together. He tried to discourage the crowd from booing when he mentioned Governor Snyder. The Governor faced the very hostile crowd for three minutes, his first appearance in front of a large Flint audience, and apologized for the water crisis once again.
The President traveled to the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan to meet with federal, state and local officials to discuss recovery efforts, then spoke with a small group of Flint residents, including Hurley Medical Center pediatrician and water crisis whistleblower Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha. And he met with the adorable 8-year old Amariyanna Copeny, “Little Miss Flint,” who had written him an invitation to visit Flint.
United Nations Weighs In — The day before the President’s visit, three United Nations “special rapporteurs” (volunteer appointed experts on issues of poverty, water, sanitation, and housing) reported believing the Flint case “dramatically illustrates the suffering and difficulties that flow from failing to recognize that water is a human right, not ensuring that basic services are provided in a non-discriminatory manner, and treating those who live in poverty in ways that exacerbate their plight.”
Criminal charges filed — At a press conference on April 20, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette announced criminal charges against two state government officials and one Flint employee for actions related to the Flint water crisis and promised more to come soon. Steve Busch, the now-suspended Lansing and Jackson District supervisor in the Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance, was charged with three felonies (misconduct in office, conspiracy and tampering with evidence) and two misdemeanors (violations of the Michigan Safe Water Drinking Act).
Mike Prysby, who recently left his post as a district engineer for another position in state government, was charged with four felonies (two counts of misconduct in office, one count of conspiracy and one count of tampering with evidence) and two misdemeanors (violations of the Michigan Safe Water Drinking Act).
The misconduct in office allegation against Busch and Prysby accuses them of willfully misleading U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials and/or Genesee County Health Department officials. The additional charge against Prysby accuses him of authorizing a permit to the Flint Water Treatment Plant knowing it was deficient in its ability to provide safe drinking water.
Michael Glasgow, now the city of Flint’s utilities director but the supervisor of the Flint Water Treatment Plant’s lab at the time of the events, was charged with one felony for tampering with evidence and one misdemeanor for willful neglect of duty to perform a duty required by the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act.
The misconduct in office charges are punishable by up to five years in prison, a $10,000 fine, or both. The conspiracy charge is punishable by up to four years in prison, a $10,000 fine, or both. The tampering with evidence charges are punishable by up to four years in prison, a $5,000 fine, or both. The misdemeanors are punishable by up to one year in jail, and a fine of $1,000 or $5,000 depending on the charge, or both.
Busch and Prysby turned themselves in, were arraigned on the charges, pled not guilty, and were released on personal recognizance bonds. The DEQ has suspended Busch and Prysby without pay. Busch had been suspended with pay since January while the investigation into discipline against him was conducted. The suspensions under civil service rules last until the disciplinary investigation concludes or the criminal case against them ends.
On May 4, Glasgow pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of willful neglect of duty under the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act. A felony charge of tampering with evidence was dismissed. The judge held the plea agreement in abeyance for one year to determine quarterly if Glasgow cooperates with the team of investigators. If he does, then all charges would be dismissed. In an email made public months ago, Glasgow objected to the decision to switch the water source away from the Detroit system.
Congressional activity — Subcommittees of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee heard testimony on April 13 from Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) Director Nick Lyon, Hurley Children’s Hospital pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Interim Director Keith Creagh, Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response of the U.S. Department for Health and Human Services Nicole Lurie, Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Office of Water for the U.S. Environment Protection Agency Joel Beauvais and several water experts.
Civil Rights Commission — The Michigan Civil Rights Commission held its first hearing in Flint on April 29 to gather information about any civil rights issues in the city brought on by the water crisis, as well as proposals for solutions to those problems. The next hearing date might be in late June or early July.
Legionnaires — A recent MDHHS report shows that the death toll from Legionnaires Disease in Genesee County rose from 10 to 12 people The report also said another three cases had been added to the outbreak, bringing to 91 the total number of cases that occurred in Genesee County in 2014 and 2105 combined.
Statewide, disease reporting figures showed that in 2014 there were a total of 236 cases of Legionnaire’s Disease and in 2015 there were 263 cases. Thus far, the state is reporting 40 cases in 2016, but cases tend to increase during warmer weather. While it is not yet scientifically established that the cases in Genesee County are directly related to the contaminated drinking water system, the cases are tied to the crisis politically. Fifty of the cases, or 55 percent, have been tied to a Flint hospital that was served by the Flint drinking water system.
State dollars — The Michigan Senate approved on May 4 SB 777, another supplemental appropriation that would direct $128 million across seven departments to provide a variety of health, infrastructure and educational services to Flint or Genesee County. Three Republicans voted No, an indication that some are becoming Flint-Crisis weary.
The Senate Appropriations Committee approved unanimously another $21 million for enhanced Medicaid services. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services also announced that Flint residents affected by the water crisis since 2014, and who have not been covered by Medicaid benefits prior to this, can begin enrolling for Medicaid benefits on May 9. Eligible for Medicaid services are children up to age 21 and pregnant women with incomes of up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level living in Flint and affected by drinking water that was tainted with lead. An estimated 15,000 people will be eligible for expanded Medicaid coverage retroactive to March 1, or no more than three months from the application for benefits.
Civil lawsuits update — The first judge to receive a federal Flint water lawsuit, U.S. District Judge John Corbett O’Meara, dismissed it on April 19, citing a federal appeals court’s holding that the federal Safe Drinking Water Act precludes all litigation in federal court involving allegations of unsafe public drinking water unless filed under the act, which only allows injunctive relief to prevent future actions. The claims should be filed in state court, O’Meara said. This ruling could have a ripple effect on all the other pending lawsuits in U.S. District Court seeking damages. Attorneys for the plaintiffs plan to appeal.
Federal judge Mark Goldsmith has disqualified himself from hearing a lawsuit filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the American Civil Liberties Union because he worked in Flint for four months and drank the water. Plaintiffs were concerned because the judge and his staff could become parties in class-action lawsuits about Flint water. Judge Goldsmith is now in Detroit.
Joint Select Committee hearings — The Michigan Legislature’s Joint Select Committee on the Flint Water Public Health Emergency conducted is fourth and fifth hearings on April 12 and 25. It received the Governor’s Flint Water Advisory Task Force Report from its Co-Chair Ken Sikkema, former Republican legislative leader. Testimony concerning failings of Michigan’s emergency manager law dominated the discussion as well as the need for a culture change at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. Racially-motivated environmental injustice was also highlighted.
The headline from the April 25 hearing was that Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon did not pressure Genesee County officials to not contact the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about the Legionnaires outbreak. He also testified that he heard nothing about the outbreaks until September 2015 and told the governor only just before the whole issue was released in January 2016. But he acknowledged that the issue should have been elevated sooner than it was, both within the department and to the public. He said the Legionnaire’s outbreak was overshadowed by an international health concern over Ebola in 2015.
On May 10, The Joint Select Committee’s Chair, Sen. Jim Stamas, announced that no further hearings would be conducted and the Committee will only meet with each other to discuss policy recommendations for release by June 1. Primarily, Mr. Stamas said he saw the need for changes to the state’s emergency manager law, infrastructure investment, and ensuring accountability for the executive branch and state departments who were involved in the Flint water crisis - the Department of Environmental Quality and Department of Health and Human Services. Democrats on the Committee stated their belief that more hearings were needed to hear from the Governor, the Emergency Managers, and others central to the crisis. The Chair said he would accept into the record the testimony of those who have testified in other venues, saying the committee needs to focus on solutions, not investigations.
FOIA expansion — On April 28 the Michigan House Oversight and Ethics Committee held its first hearing on bills to expand Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act to the governor’s office, lieutenant governor’s office, and most legislative communications. The bi-partisan package of 10 bills would create a Legislative Open Records Act similar to the present FOIA.
American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan’s investigative journalist Curt Guyette, who was instrumental in uncovering the Flint water crisis, told the committee that the Flint crisis illustrates how important FOIA is and how important it is that it be expanded. Progress Michigan testified that the bills do not adequately address the excessive fees that public bodies have charged, which have the effect of denying access to records. If enacted, the bills would go into effect on January 1, 2017.
Exemptions from disclosure in the bills include:
Many bills — Over 50 bills have been introduced related to the Flint water crisis.
Detroit Public School Restructuring
In March and after over a year of work and several hearings, the Senate passed a bi-partisan package of bills to re-establish a new locally-elected Detroit Community School District on July 1, 2016, and a Detroit Education Commission with siting authority for all schools - including charters seeking to become a part of the new Detroit Community Schools. What is now known as Detroit Public Schools would be retained solely for the purpose of repaying the district’s debt. State revenues for the reform would total over $700 million.
Detroit teachers closed nearly every Detroit school on May 2 and 3 with a sickout over concerns they would not be paid this summer for work performed during the school year. In a 15-hour marathon session on Mary 4-5 ending at 4:30 a.m., the Michigan House Republicans responded. Without one Democratic vote and 8 Republican defections in two of the six bill package, House Republicans barely passed a DPS restructuring plan designating $500 million toward the restructuring and only $33 million for transition costs. The House plan also splits the existing DPS into two districts, one to keep the debt and receive local tax revenue, and a new community district to educate children.
However, there was not a provision to return an elected local school board and there was no Detroit Education Commission with siting authority over all schools, a major win for the charter school lobby. To punish the unions, the bills would prohibit current collective bargaining agreements from transferring to the new district and would allow the state superintendent or a parent of a pupil to initiate legal proceedings regarding strikes. Under the plan, employees participating in the strike or lockout would have to pay $5,000 per day and members of the school’s governing board would have to pay $250 per day. Another amendment removed the prohibition on collective bargaining over the school calendar or individual employment schedules; another would allow uncertified teachers to teach and require teacher pay be based on performance.
Negative reaction from the American Federation of Teachers was expected, but the Detroit Regional Chamber strongly opposed the House plan, saying “Failing to include the Detroit Education Commission is a glaring omission and potentially fatal flaw that ensures future Legislatures will eventually have to take additional action to address the disastrous financial and academic performances of both public and charter schools in Detroit.” The House plan might balance the short-term finances, the Chamber said, but it doesn’t address the long-term root causes of the DPS crisis.
The House actions have been returned to the Senate where compromise discussions will likely occur. The Michigan Department of Treasury says under the House plan, DPS will run out of cash in August.
The budgets were passed by the House the last week of April. On May 4 the initial Senate versions of the omnibus state department and education budget bills moved, with Democrats raising concerns they did not do enough to help Flint or the Detroit Public Schools. Overall spending for state departments was $38.77 billion ($8.4 billion General Fund). Public schools, community colleges and universities would see $16.1 billion ($1.63 billion GF). The budgets are a half a percent increase and pay off $1 billion in debt. The budget proposes to close two prisons.
The education omnibus bill (SB 801) would provide $16.11 billion ($1.63 billion GF) including a controversial $5 million for private and parochial schools to cover the costs of state health and safety mandates. The Michigan Constitution specifically prohibits the allocation of state dollars to support non-public education.
K-12 schools got $14.11 billion ($226 million GF), $1.6 billion ($1.26 billion GF) for universities and $399.03 million ($138.61 million GF) for community colleges. But overall spending is still less than it was for the 2010-11 fiscal year. Both the House and Senate education budgets increase the per-pupil funding allowance by $60 to $120 per pupil for K-12 schools. The House plan eliminates the MSTEP proficiency tests for K-12 students and charges students for taking college entrance exams.
The spring Revenue Estimating Conference to set the final projected revenue available for the 2017 Fiscal Year is scheduled for May 17, there will be another round of deliberations with the House and a final budget proposal will be sent to the Governor around June 1.
Editor’s note: Mary Pollock is the Lansing SERA Chapter and SERA Council’s Legislative Representative. She may be contacted at 1200 Prescott Drive, East Lansing, MI 48823-2446; Phone 517-351-7292; E-mail email@example.com.
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