Cleanup needed for leaks in underground gas tanks

By YANG ZHANG
Capital News Service

LANSING – More than a decade ago, an underground storage tank at a former service station in Fraser was found releasing gasoline, which contaminated nearby soil, air and potentially groundwater.

Despite the long passage of time, neither the station operator nor the state has investigated or cleaned the site. State officials estimate that it will cost $100,000 to determine the extent of contamination and more money is needed for remediation.

It is among 456 sites with leaking underground tank in Macomb County that need cleaning up, according to the Department of Natural Resources and Environment (DNRE).

There are more than 9,000 sites known statewide. Among the top 10 counties with the most sites are Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Kent and Berrien.

The site in Fraser may be taken care of if the legislature extends the 5-year-old Refined Petroleum Fund that is scheduled to expire on Dec. 31, 2010.

The money comes from a seven-eighths cent per gallon tax on gas station operators.

The state used the proceeds to clean leaking underground storage tanks when there are no responsible owners of companies that are legally liable or can afford to pay, said Sen. Dennis Olshove, D-Warren. They’re called “orphan sites,”

The fund takes in about $50 million to $60 million per year.

A bill by Olshove to extend the collection of the fee through Dec. 31, 2012, passed the Senate unanimously and is pending in the House.

Olshove said he’s positive that the House will approve it by the end of the year.

Nearly half of the sites across Michigan are orphan sites and need the money for cleanup, he said.

There is reason to worry if the money runs out, experts say.

That’s because chemicals from the underground leaks, such as lead and benzene, can contaminate the soil and groundwater and creating public health hazards according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,

Sharon Goble, a DNRE leaking underground storage tank specialist, said Michigan is particularly vulnerable because nearly half its residents rely on groundwater for drinking, especially in rural areas and the Upper Peninsula.

It costs the state an average of $400,000 to clean up a site, she said.

“If they don’t pass the bill, we wouldn’t have any public fund in the future to address any additional need to clean up orphan sites,” Goble said.

But gas station owners don’t want the fund extended because they can’t use the money for their own cleanups.

Mark Griffin, president of the Michigan Petroleum Association – Michigan Association of Convenience Stores, said, “We clean up sites out of our pockets.

“The only way we could access that fund is after we go bankrupt and our locations become orphan sites,” he said.

Gas station operators and the Clean Water Action, an environmental advocacy group, blame the state for not using the entire fund to clean contaminated sites.

Robert Nowinski, chief of administration section at DNRE’s remediation division, said less than half of the yearly proceeds has been used for cleanups.

DNRE estimates that the fund will generate more than $55 million this year, but only about $20 million is earmarked for the program.

Nowinski said the money has been diverted to other programs, such as state office building leases, fish contaminant monitoring and information technology for the department.

That’s because the state doesn’t have enough general tax dollars for those programs, he said. “But $20 million is not enough for cleaning up the leaking tanks.”

In fact, Goble said the state has severely underfunded the leaking underground storage tank program since the mid-1990s.

The state had the Underground Storage Tank Financial Assurance Fund in the early 1990s, which paid owners about $625 million to clean their sites before it was replaced by the Refined Petroleum Fund in 1995, according to the DNRE.

“Michigan hasn’t had a stable long-term state fund to reimburse operators since then,” she said.

A temporary reimbursement program between 2006 and 2009 helped operators remediate some high-risk sites.

Goble said only two states – California and Florida – have more leaking tanks than Michigan, but they spend about $200 million, 10 times what Michigan’s does.

Griffin said he hopes the state will redirect the entire fund to the program if it’s extended.

Cosponsors were Democratic Sens. Liz Brater of Ann Arbor; Gilda Jacobs of Huntington Woods; Hansen Clarke of Detroit; Tupac Hunter of Detroit; Raymond Basham of Taylor; and Martha Scott of Highland Park; and Republican Sen. Patricia Birkholz of Saugatuck.

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

Share

More candidates tweet, post and blog this campaign season

By LANE BLACKMER
Capital News Service

LANSING—Political candidates in Michigan are increasingly using social media to lure potential voters and share tidbits of information.

One such medium is Facebook, which now boasts more than 500 million users, said Facebook.

The website that once was open only to users with e-mail addresses ending in “edu” now has an average user aged 44, a study by the National Association if State Chief Information Officers said. The study said 61 percent of users are 35 or older.

Other popular social media include Twitter, whose users average 39 years old, according to the survey, and YouTube, which did not have an average age listed.

Michigan is among a dozen states the study identified as “moving full speed ahead” in social media.

State political candidates began using social media seriously in the 2008 election.

Professor Cliff Lampe of the Michigan State University Department of Telecommunications, Information Studies and Media, said he’s been studying the use of social media in politics since early 2005.

“It started full-force in 2004,” he said. “It was really actively used by both parties in 2008.”

More recently, he’s seen a trend of social media use in campaigns where candidates link to news sources and pull people into looking at websites and blogs.

“They really see it as a way to micro-broadcast,” Lampe said.

Senate candidate Chuck Fellows, D-Green Oak Township, said that as a nonincumbent politician, he sought campaign advice from a friend and got a three-word answer: “Internet, Internet, Internet.”

“I use the Web and my website as a major communications device and a major vehicle in communicating my issues to the public,” he said.

Fellows links articles to his Facebook page and website and creates video blogs on YouTube.

Fellows is running against Joe Hune, R-Hamburg Township, who has Facebook and Twitter and Todd Richardson, Libertarian-Brighton, has Facebook, Twitter and MySpace.

The importance of social media in his campaign, Fellows said, is to answer voters’ “whys” and “to allow a teachable moment.”

Rep. John Proos, R-St. Joseph, a Senate candidate, uses Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

“It’s been very helpful in reaching a section of the population that we normally don’t reach,” he said.

Proos said he uses social media to help people understand his policy positions by linking to information sources and to personalize himself by discussing personal matters and posting family pictures.

“I think perhaps they’re informed in snippets,” he said.

Proos’ opponent, Scott Elliott, D-Benton Harbor, doesn’t have a campaign website.

Lampe said he doesn’t expect tweets and status updates, known as sound-bite politics, to increase political awareness or get more voters to the polls because a quick Google search can produce the same information.

“Swaying votes is more of the incentive,” Lampe said.

Fellows, however, said sound-bite politics is what he’s trying to avoid and that’s why he isn’t on Twitter.

“It gets easy to make things trivial, to simplify things,” he said.

Proos said only time will tell whether social media increases voter participation, because this is only the second time social media has been used extensively in Michigan political campaigns.

Lampe said one positive effect is that it’s much easier for voters to see information. However, because a candidate’s followers or “friends” tend to belong to the same political party, they don’t get information arguing against the candidate’s viewpoint.

“I think the real value is a citizen-to-citizen group,” he said.

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

Share

Some bars lose business as smokers prefer casinos

By ANGIE JACKSON
Capital News Service

LANSING – The no-smoking law has had mixed effects on Michigan’s bars and restaurants.
The ban that began on May 1 requires businesses to remove ashtrays, post no-smoking signs and ask smokers to step outside or leave if they don’t comply.

“It’s about protecting the employees who are exposed to secondhand smoke with no other choice,” said Linda Buzas, president of the Michigan Association for Local Public Health. “It’s not about taking away rights.”

Andy Deloney, vice president of public relations for the Michigan Restaurant Association, said 60 percent of its members surveyed in August experienced some sort of impact. Among them, 43 percent reported a decline in business, customer traffic or lottery sales.

John Hermanson, owner of Johnny’s Tavern in Newberry, said the ban is not entirely responsible for his slowdown.

“There’s been a decrease in business but I don’t know if I can blame it on the smoking ban. It’s the economy,” he said, also noting that a heightened police presence looking for drunken drivers is a factor.

Tom Sposito, owner of Driftwood Restaurant and Sports Bar in St. Ignace, said that 75 percent of the bar’s clientele were smokers prior to the ban. Although more families are inclined to eat at the sports bar, nighttime business is hurting, he said.

“It’s weird — the bar does decent during the day,” Sposito said. “There used to be a wave of people around 10:30 p.m. We used to have 50 to 100 people then.  Now it’s 20 if we’re lucky.”
Sposito said alcohol sales fell 30 percent shortly after the ban and have lingered at 20 to 30 percent lower than previous years.

Driftwood currently operates year-round, but due to the effects of the ban, Sposito may rethink his months of operation.

“It’ll be harsh. We’ll make it through this winter, but next year we’ll probably be picking a time to close,” he said. “The smaller, outlying bars will definitely be going down.”

Deloney said restaurants have fired employees or cut their hours to compensate for the business decline.

“Thank you, government of Michigan, you’re putting a severe strain on those who were already hurting,” he said. “The employees that the legislators were so intent to helping aren’t getting enough hours or making enough money.”

Don Marple, owner of Flanigan’s, a bar in Marquette, has let go half of his employees since the ban went into affect, reducing from 14 people to seven.

Marple said he had no choice because sales were down by $1,500 in June and $1,400 in July. Sales are slowly starting to come back, but not as high as before.

“We’ve done everything we can do. We’re even selling electronic cigarettes,” Marple said. “We own our building, we pay our taxes and the health department tells us what we can and cannot do? That’s like communism to us.”

But Meghan Swain, executive director of the Michigan Association for Local Public Health, said the ban makes “good sense. We need to separate the money issue from the fact that it’s a public health issue.”

Marple and Sposito said there’s an unfair competition with casinos in their areas that are Native-American owned and exempt from the ban.

“I don’t mind the non-smoking so much as that it’s an unfair business advantage. Everyone’s leaving to go smoke and drink there,” Marple said.

Buzas, of the health departments’ association, said that’s not the case everywhere Michigan.
“Until I actually saw data, I would credit that to myth,” she said.

Hermanson is looking on the bright side, noting that the ban has made it easier on the equipment and the building.

“I still think it’s a good idea. We’re just catching up with other states where it’s been the norm,” he said. “Plus, I don’t go through a bottle of Visine each week anymore.”

Hermanson said Johnny’s is attracting non-smokers who otherwise wouldn’t go to the bar. And now when customers do smoke, it’s a social activity, he said.

“Normally, smokers wouldn’t interact, but once they go outside, they have something in common,” he said.

But Hermanson said that the ban makes it difficult to manage smokers, who still sometimes try to light up inside or take alcohol outside.

Sposito said that although he asks customers who try to smoke indoors to stop, some refuse and “that’s just how they are.”

Nick Derusha, the health officer for the Luce Mackinac Alger Schoolcraft District Health Department, said his agency isn’t trying to come down hard on restaurant and bar owners.
“We’re trying to work with folks as much as possible,” he said.

Derusha has received four complaints about people smoking indoors at restaurants but hasn’t issued any citations yet.

Since the ban was enacted, health departments across the state have received 583 complaints about people smoking indoors, according to the Department of Community Health.

Restaurant and bar owners are trying to please their smokers. Marple spent $8,000 for an outdoor area where people can sit but can’t be served alcohol or food. Henderson said he plans to build one this winter.

Deloney said restaurants report that they won’t know the real impact of the ban until winter, when smokers are less inclined to stand outside.

And Marple said that once cold weather hits, he can’t predict how his business will be.

“I’m scared to death and I’m bracing for the worst,” he said. “The best thing to do right now is for everyone to put their businesses up for sale because they’re going to tank soon.”

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

Share

Anti-immigration proposals stall in Lansing

By NYSSA RABINOWITZ
Capital News Service

LANSING – Many immigration-related bills are languishing in House and Senate committees, a fact that could motivate some legal immigrants to leave Michigan, rights advocates say.

“The fear is in every one of the immigrants that are already here,” said Isela Parra, a Grand Rapids chapter member of One Michigan, an activist group whose goal is to increase public awareness about immigration issues.

New laws or rumors of coming laws might be enough to cause some people to move back to their home country, or at least out of Michigan, Parra said.

“It would make families more unstable than they already are,” Parra said.

The pending bills cover a number of topics from reporting couples who don’t put social security numbers on their marriage license application to allowing sheriffs to release inmates to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for deportation.

One proposal would require businesses to use an e-verification system to confirm applicants’ legal status before hiring them. Another would impose additional sanctions for employers who knowingly hiring undocumented workers.

And one of the most controversial proposals resembles the recent Arizona law authorizing law enforcement officers to verify legal status if “reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien and is unlawfully present in the United States,” according to the bill.

Rep. Mark Meadows, D-East Lansing, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said that legislation would allow police to stop everyone who looks different from the general population and demand proof that they are legally in the country.

That would mean everyone would have to carry proof of legal status with them, he said.

Meadows said the bill also would place unfunded mandates on local police, hurting local government budgets.

Sen. Alan Cropsey, R-DeWitt, one of the cosponsors of the bill, said, “People are very concerned about losing jobs to illegal immigrants. They are taking away people’s jobs and they don’t like that.

“That money should not be going to illegal immigrants, it should be going to Michigan citizens,” Cropsey said. “Those are jobs that Michigan citizens need. That’s the motivation.”

Meadows acknowledged that polls show public support for many anti-immigration proposals.

Parra said, “Honestly, I think a lot of people don’t have enough information or awareness of the reality of the life of the immigrants or why they are here or their purpose or goal. They do what seems right for them but they don’t do research to see why undocumented immigrants are here. They don’t take a risk to support immigrants.”

Teresa Hendricks of the Michigan Migrant Legal Assistance Project in Grand Rapids said that people usually support such legislation because of a fear of immigrants in general.

That reaction can stifle public support for an overhaul of federal immigration laws, she said.

She said the proposed legislation could seriously hurt the state’s agriculture industry because farmers “can’t get local folks to pick their crops.”

If migrant workers were to leave Michigan because of such legislation, the state would lose about $11.2 billion, which is the market value of the crops from the agriculture industry, Hendricks said.

Losing migrant workers would mean that crops wouldn’t get harvested, she said.

Parra said many businesses are owned or run by Hispanics who work long hours at their jobs. Losing them “would make a very big hole in Michigan.”

Critics of such proposals say the sponsors are often motivated by politics.

Meadows said one representative sponsored anti-immigration legislation to gain votes in a primary.

Yet, even with public support, Meadows said it’s unlikely any of the bills will be approved this year and he doesn’t plan any Judiciary Committee hearings on them.

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

Share

Lawmaker pushes tax breaks for utility companies

By RACHEL IOVAN
Capital News Service

LANSING — A new bill by Rep. Joel Sheltrown, D-West Branch, would allow tax breaks for utility companies that capture greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. But environmentalists counter that the proposal would only promote “dirty” energy.

Currently, installation of carbon capture equipment does not qualify for state tax breaks.

Sheltrown’s bill would allow power plant operators to offset high installation costs by applying for tax abatements from local governments.

David Barnes, a professor of sedimentology at Western Michigan University, said that carbon sequestration equipment captures carbon dioxide emitted from biomass-burning power plants and pumps it underground for secure and permanent storage.

It reduces the amount of greenhouse gases released into the air, he said, which is important because scientists say excessive carbon dioxide emissions contribute to global climate change.

Ken Bradstreet, the director of communications and government affairs for Wolverine Power Cooperative, said the carbon capture equipment planned for a new Rogers City coal-fired power plant would cost more than $200 million, with $175 million covered by federal grants.

Bradstreet said that Wolverine applied for a grant in anticipation federal legislation setting carbon-capture requirements. The bill died in Congress this summer.

No power plants in Michigan currently use carbon sequestration technology.

Barnes conducted federally and privately funded studies to determine if carbon capture is environmentally and financially feasible. He found a “high likelihood” of feasibility, but said it would be expensive.

Barnes said no laws in Michigan prohibit carbon dioxide emissions, and the high cost means there isn’t enough incentive yet for utility companies to install the technology.

“Carbon sequestration installation ranges from retrofitting old power plants, which is very expensive, to constructing new plants with the sequestration equipment in the original design,” Barnes said.

The financial burden does not end with installation costs. It takes additional energy to separate the carbon dioxide from other chemicals before the gases can be stored underground, according to Barnes.

He said two proposed coal-fire power plants in Rogers City and Holland were to have carbon sequestration machinery. The state denied both permits because regulators didn’t see sufficient need to warrant building them.

According to Sheltrown, a lawsuit is pending to overturn the state’s decision and he expects the Rogers City plant to be built.

Barnes said that although burning coal isn’t a permanent energy solution, Michigan will be relying on such plants for 30 to 50 years.

“The reality is that we’re likely to be dependent on burning biomass for energy for a long time,” Barnes said.

And Sheltrown said, “Those who worry about carbon footprints ought to be in favor of it.”

But they’re not — at least not Michigan Sierra Club’s executive director, Anne Woiwode.

“This bill is badly misguided. It suggests that untested technology is a solution,” said Woiwode, “Two years ago, scientists said that carbon sequestration technology was 10 years away from models that might work.”

A U.S. Department of Energy study said cost-effective carbon-capture technologies to capture carbon dioxide will be commercially available by 2020.

WMU’s Barnes said that to prove viability on a commercial scale, the technology must be tested.

But Woiwode said there are smarter ways to invest taxpayer funds in meeting long-term energy needs without relying on coal plants.

“Michigan is turning into a clean energy leader. If we go back to promoting coal, we’re just shoring up a bad idea,” said Woiwode.

“Power plant companies have their head back in the 1950s. Instead of trying to fix the problems with an outdated technology, Michigan should be looking to promote clean energy,” Woiwode said.

She said it’s an unproven and expensive technology.

However, Barnes said it’s nearly impossible to eliminate all uncertainty in the natural world and that there’s only a 1 percent chance of leakage from underground storage facilities.

“We have 99 percent security, and the adverse affects of carbon dioxide in water would not be catastrophic, but you still don’t want it to happen,” said Barnes.

In 2009 a small-scale test in Otsego County pumped 60,000 tons of carbon dioxide into an underground saline formation. Barnes said the test was successful and research is ongoing.

Sheltrown’s bill is pending in the House Energy and Technology Committee.

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

Share

One in five Michigan residents gets food aid

By TRENTON JOHNSON
Capital News Service

LANSING—Almost one in five Michigan residents relies on food assistance as another measure to survive in these times of economic struggle.

People are also using a variety of other measures to make ends meet, including cash assistance and unemployment benefits.

What led to the increase in food assistance cases?

Laura Porter-Keller, manager of the Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank in Comstock Park, said, “Families are having a difficult time. People are losing jobs and they have nothing to replace the job that they lost. They have nowhere else to turn.”

What is food assistance?

Christina Fecher, media relations and online communications specialist for the Department of Human Services, said the Food Assistance Program supplements the food purchasing power of low-income individuals and families.

Fecher said eligibility depends on a household’s financial situation. All people who live together and purchase and prepare food together are considered members of the same food assistance group.

There are other government and nonprofit programs that provide food assistance as well.

They include the Adult and Child Care Program for nonresidential child care and Michigan’s Coordinated Access to Food for the Elderly provides eligible people with money to buy food. Project FRESH provides fruits and vegetables from farmers’ markets to women, infants and children who are nutritionally at risk.

The Food Banks Council of Michigan includes 10 member food banks that gather food and money to stock their shelves to serve people in need.

Meals on Wheels is a nonprofit volunteer-based service that delivers meals to homebound senior citizens.

The use of food assistance in the state has increased over the past year.

Sharon Parks, president of the Michigan League for Human Services, said, “Caseloads increased by 30 percent since last year, bringing the total caseload to 885,070 for the second quarter, with 18.1 percent of the state’s population receiving food assistance.”

The league is a nonprofit nonpartisan organization dedicated to ensuring that low-income residents achieve economic security.

Parks said in Alpena County, the total food assistance rate rose from 17.7 percent of residents in the second quarter of 2009 to 20.7 percent in the same period in 2010. In Emmet County, it rose from 12.3 percent to 14.1 percent. In Grand Traverse County, it went from 11.9 percent to 14 percent.

In Cheboygan County, it rose from 16.4 to 19.5 percent and in Wexford County, it rose from 22.9 percent to 24.6 percent.

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

Share

Deer population fluctuates across state, study finds

By NYSSA RABINOWITZ
Capital News Service

LANSING – Finding that prize-winning buck may be more difficult in some parts of the state this hunting season, according to the Department of Natural Resources and Environment (DNRE).

 

White-tailed deer (credit: Michigan State University).

 

That’s because deer numbers are mostly below the ideal level in the Upper Peninsula, at or below the target in the northwestern Lower Peninsula and above the state goal for most of the southern Lower Peninsula, according to a new report.

U.P and northern Lower Peninsula deer numbers have been down in recent years because of harsh winters. But the 2009-10 winter was mild and spring came early, helping numbers rebound, said Brent Rudolph, deer and elk program leader for DNRE’s Rose Lake Wildlife Research Station in East Lansing.

The southern Lower Peninsula has an abundant herd, with more deer in many places than the DNRE wants, said Rudolph, who wrote the report.

“There are not too many problems with deer making it through the winter” in southern Michigan, Rudolph said because of better habitat and food availability during the spring and summer.

Winters are not as tough as they are in the north, he noted.
Northern Michigan has more forested land and sandy soil, which is not a productive environment for the plants that deer need for food, Rudolph said.

The 2010 archery season opened Oct. 1 and lasts until Nov. 14. The firearm season is open from Nov. 15 to Nov. 30. Then archery resumes from Dec. 1 to Jan. 1, 2011.

Differences in deer populations affect how many antlerless permits are issued for each region, Rudolph said. Fewer antlerless permits, or doe permits, are to be issued for the U.P. and northern Lower Peninsula this season because there is less need to reduce populations there.

Antlerless permits are available in Crystal Falls, Menominee, Norway, Gladstone and Drummond Island in the U.P. None are available in Cheboygan, Otsego, and Kalkaska counties.

Assuming another mild winter, the increase in fawns could mean more antlered deer next season, Rudolph said.

One challenge is convincing hunters to take does instead of bucks to control the size of the herds, Rudolph said. Larger herds cause problems, especially for motor vehicles.

However, Rudolph said he sees growing acceptance among hunters about taking does. More does than bucks were taken statewide last year.
Anne Readette, communications manager for the Office of Highway Safety Planning, said, deer-related crashes tend to happen on two-lane, 55 mph roads at dawn and dusk, mostly in the fall.

According to last year’s crash statistics, 43 percent occurred between October and December. Also, 10 people died in such crashes last year. Eight were motorcycle operators and two were motorcycle passengers, the agency reported.

Vehicle-deer collision occurred most often in the southern Lower Peninsula, with Kent County having the highest number last year with 2,164, the report stated. Statewide, there were 61,486 deer-related crashes last year.

Oakland County had the second-highest number with 1,947 crashes, followed by Jackson County, 1,877, Calhoun County, 1,659 and Montcalm County, 1,641.

Readette said drivers should be extra-alert at this time of year and slow down, especially at dawn and dusk. The agency says drivers who spot one deer should proceed with caution as there are likely to be more nearby.

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

Share

Charter school performance draws cheers, questions

By JULIE MIANECKI

Capital News Service

 

LANSING – At 9-year-old Anthony Foster’s school in Benton Harbor, students don’t study just reading, writing and arithmetic. They raise salmon from eggs and release them in local rivers, work in a school garden, take nature walks, make applesauce and learn about agriculture.

 

Anthony, an Eau Claire resident, attends Countryside Academy, a charter school with a curriculum focused on food, agriculture, renewable resources and the environment (FARE).

 

A charter school, or public school academy, is a tuition-free public school funded by tax dollars. Its admissions policy cannot discriminate based on academic or athletic achievement and its board is not publicly elected.

 

“I feel like parents have a little more control over what goes on at a charter school,” said Rhonda Foster, Anthony’s mother and Parent Teacher Student Organization president at Countryside. “Kids don’t seem to get lost in a system. They hold the kids to a higher standard than a public school, and they teach respect and responsibility.”

 

A new Citizens Research Council of Michigan (CRC) study found that charter school students in the state generally perform slightly better on standardized tests than those at traditional public schools in the same districts, but not as well as the state average.

 

The study also found charter school graduation rates averaged 56 percent, while the National Center for Education Statistics reported it was 76.3 percent for the state as a whole in the 2007-08 school year.

 

Lynn Sperry, the administrator at Countryside, said Benton Harbor was a struggling community when the school opened in 1997. Her position is similar to a superintendent in a traditional public district.

 

The city is still one of the poorest in the country, with about half of its residents living in poverty, according to census data.

 

Countryside has about 500 students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

 

“There was no other option for students that was a free public education,” Sperry said. “Benton Harbor for many years has been in distress, and parents felt the only option they had for their kids was to take them to a private school.”

 

Sperry added that the FARE curriculum is important because it reflects the economic structure of the area, which is largely based on agriculture and teaches good citizenship, respect and responsibility in a way that students can relate to.

 

Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, said charters can be a great way for a struggling district to start over.

 

He said 92 public schools in the state have been identified as performing unacceptably.

 

“They’ve been persistently low-achieving,” Quisenberry said. “The question becomes, what do you do with those 92 buildings? Research will tell you that it’s very, very difficult to transition those schools to success.

 

“What a charter school does is provide an opportunity where you literally can create a new school, start off brand-new, even if you’ve got the same students in the same community with the same challenges, and have a higher probability of success,” he said.

 

Doug Pratt, director of public affairs at the Michigan Education Association (MEA), said one advantage of charter schools is that parents are more likely to be involved.

 

The MEA is the state’s largest union of school employees, including teachers.

 

“What you have are parents who have made a conscious decision to have an active role in their child’s education,” Pratt said. “They, at a minimum, took a step to move their child from their neighborhood public school into this charter environment.”

 

However, Pratt said it takes more than parental engagement to make a great school, and not all Michigan charters have all the ingredients necessary for success.

 

“There are certainly some charters that are doing a great job in this state, but there are also charters that made the list of consistently low-performing schools,” Pratt said. “In education reform debates, it gets painted with broad brushes that charters are better. That’s just not the case.

 

“Some charters are better. Some aren’t.”

 

The study by the CRC, a nonprofit think tank, detailed results from the 2009 MEAP tests and compared student proficiency in charter and traditional public schools. In math, for example, charter students scored higher than in similar districts but lower than the state average.

 

Mark O’Keefe, the executive vice president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said a recent Stanford University national study found that only 17 percent of charters outperformed traditional public schools in the same district, and 36 percent performed worse.

 

“That means that if you were to go from a traditional public school to a charter school in the same neighborhood, you would be twice as likely to end up in a school that performed worse as you would be to end up in one that performs better,” he said.

 

That 2009 study by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes evaluated charter schools in 16 states, not including Michigan.

 

O’Keefe said it’s hard to judge schools solely by test scores because of the many additional factors that affect student achievement.

 

For example, charters often have modified curriculums in areas such as technology or the arts, or targeted student bodies, such as low-performing students or those from low-income areas.

 

“Each school is different – getting all students to college might not be the objective of that school,” said Penny Davis, director of communications at the Center for Charter Schools at Central Michigan University. The university authorizes and oversees many charter schools in the state.

 

“The objective of that school might be to get students to graduate, or preparing special needs students for work,” she said. “So achievement is subjective – you can’t base it all on the MEAP or an assessment.”

 

The CRC study said in 2008-09, 87.1 percent of the 241 charter schools in the state met standards for adequate yearly progress set by the Department of Education.

 

Rhonda Foster, for her part, is content with her decision to educate Anthony in a charter school. She said her son is an excellent student, earning all As and Bs.

 

But does attending Countryside make it easier to get him on the bus in the morning?

 

“He enjoys school as much as a 9-year-old boy can,” Foster said. “He does really well, but if Mom says ‘Oh, you can stay home for the day,’ you better believe that he’s going to do that.”

 

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

 

Share

More unemployed qualify for state-aid programs

By TRENTON JOHNSON

Capital News Service

LANSING— While the economy’s recovery remains uncertain, the long-term unemployed in Michigan continue to rely on public assistance, experts say.

Sharon Parks, president of the Michigan League for Human Services, said long-term unemployment is reaching crisis levels.

“One important reason for unemployment is people without a secondary education are having a hard time getting a job. It’s happening to a combination of older and younger people,” she said.

The league is a nonprofit, nonpartisan statewide policy and advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring economic security for low-income residents.

Judy Putnam, communications director for the league, said, “Everybody is affected by unemployment. Retail sales are down, as well as sales of appliances and automobiles.”

Parks said another reason why many people are unemployed is because of a ripple effect from major cutbacks in the auto industry that displaced blue-collar and white-collar workers.

Parks said being unemployed for half a year or more has devastating consequences for workers and their families. Such workers often rely on savings, earnings from a spouse or help from friends and family, which may not be enough to pay the rent or mortgage or maintain the family car.

However, there are ways for long-term unemployed workers to get help from the state.

They include cash assistance and unemployment compensation.

Gisgie Davila Gendreau, marketing and public relations director for the Department of Human Services, said cash assistance provides temporary benefits and support services to workers and their families.

Cash assistance programs include the Family Independence, Refugee Assistance and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance programs.

Gendreau said the Family Independence Program (FIP) assists families with dependent children who cannot provide for their basic needs. It also helps pregnant women.

The Refugee Assistance Program helps people admitted into the U.S. as refugees to become self-sufficient, Gendreau said. It provides cash benefits and medical aid to those who are not eligible for the FIP or Medicaid for up to eight months.

Gendreau said the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program uses federal money to help families pay energy bills.

Bruce Weaver, economic analyst for the Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth, said recipients of unemployment benefits must be physically and mentally able to work and available for job-hunting.

Parks said there are 64 counties in which the use of cash assistance increased during the second quarter of this year, including some in the northern Lower Peninsula.

Parks said the number in Alpena County rose from 203 families using cash assistance in the second quarter of 2009 to 221 families. The number in Cheboygan County rose from 149 families to 190 families.

Participants in Emmet County remained steady with 51 families. In Grand Traverse County, they  rose from 147 families to 164 families.

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

Share

Poor pickings plague apple growers this year

By JULIE MIANECKI

Capital News Service

LANSING – Phyllis Kilcherman, co-owner of Christmas Cove Farm in Northport, normally expects her 20 snow apple trees to produce about 60 bushels of fruit.

This year, they yielded only two.

“We had a visit by Jack Frost in early May,” Kilcherman said. “But we’re lucky we got any apples. We’re blessed to have what we have.”

An unusually warm week in spring followed by a late freeze caused this year’s apple crop to be smaller than usual, according to Denise Donohue, executive director of the Michigan Apple Committee.

The committee works to improve the profitability of the state’s apple industry through market development, research and education.

Donohue said the crop is about 20 to 25 percent smaller than usual, but about 47 percent smaller than last year’s crop, the largest in Michigan’s history. The stress that such a big crop put on trees added to this year’s problems, she said.

“Someone I was talking to had been growing for years. He was about 50 year old and told me this was the earliest he could ever remember being done picking,” Donohue said.

In addition to producing fewer apples, growing conditions caused those apples to mature more quickly, which means orchards must pick them sooner than usual, she said.

Carol Ross, co-owner of Stony Creek Orchard and Cider Mill in Romeo, said that hurts sales at orchards that allow visitors to pick apples themselves.

“Usually you can offer U-pick until the end of October,” Ross said. “On the average, everything’s running about two weeks early. If you don’t harvest, then the apples are just going to fall on the ground. Everything’s ripe now, so that means you need to get them off or you’re going to lose them all.”

Ross said her employees will pick the remaining apples, which will then be sold commercially. She added that although the farm will still make money, it will be less than usual.

“You make more with U-pick because you get families out and they’ll buy donuts, they’ll buy cider,” Ross said. “There’s going to be a profit loss.”

Shirley Hartstock, manager of Klackle Orchards in Greenville, said the west side of the state is experiencing the same situation.

And although there are fewer apples, prices won’t go up because Michigan doesn’t control the apple market, she said.

“Across the country there is a good crop, so prices are not going to jump,” Hartstock said.

The Apple Committee’s Donohue said farms often expand into other crops or services to

provide financial security when apple crops don’t do as well as expected.

For example, Klackle Orchards has a pavilion for sporting and other events, such as weddings. Stony Creek sells products such as jams, butters and salad dressings. Christmas Cove  also grows cherries, peaches and plums, and specializes in what Kilcherman called “apples with a history”.

“Our oldest apple dates back to the time of Christ,” Kilcherman said. “It was one that the Romans and Napoleon would have been eating during that time.”

Donohue said the Apple Committee is working to diversify the state’s markets as well.

“We export, in a typical year, somewhere between 3 and 5 percent of our total crop,” she said. “Where Michigan can be very competitive is straight south, so we are exporting primarily to all of Latin America, Mexico, islands in the Caribbean.”

Buyers come to Michigan from around the world to taste apples and observe orchards and processing facilities, Donohue said.

“The group that I gave a tour to last weekend was from India, Russia, Malaysia and Thailand,” Donohue said.

Although Washington state is the biggest American exporter to countries across the Pacific Ocean, an innovative trade route through Egypt can put Michigan on a level playing field.

“Believe it or not, when they cut through the Suez Canal, we can be competitive there,” she said.

Ken Nye, a commodity specialist who works with fruits and vegetables at the Michigan Farm Bureau, said this year’s small crop has damaged trade relationships formed during last year’s record growing season.

“Unfortunately, there’s usually someone else available to take those export markets if we don’t have the volume,” Nye said. “You’d like to have a little more consistent production so you can develop a market over time. The problem is, here in 2010, we’ve kind of given away some of those markets and it will take some long-term activity to get those back.”

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

Share