Thursday, December 12, 2013

EAA expansion up for a vote in the House

 Please read this important notice from Michigan Parents for Schools
This may be our last chance to stop unlimited expansion of the unaccountable Education Achievement Authority. Yesterday, the Senate passed a version of the EAA bill that doesn't even mention the EAA, but makes sure that the EAA would be eligible to run schools placed in the state "reform district." It's hard to imagine, but they have made the bill even worse.
The bill:
  • Removes all limits on the size of the EAA
  • Removes all limits on the number of new charter schools the EAA could create
  • Removes a provision that would have let schools ask their local ISD to help them instead
  • Removes criteria for deciding when a school can "exit" this nonsense
  • Changes the law to remove any legal doubt that the EAA could be asked to run state "takeover" schools
  • Allows the Legislature to avoid taking any responsibility for the failures of the EAA without actually changing anything.
The bill returns to the House today. They can do one of three things:
  1. Reject the Senate changes, in which case the bill goes to a proverbial "smoke filled room" for behind-closed-doors negotiations and rapid passage of whatever comes out; or
  2. Accept the Senate changes, placing this mess in state law; or
  3. Simply throw the whole thing in the trash and start over in the new year with something that actually works for kids.
We favor option 3, and I think you would, too. Please ask your State Representative to let this mess drop in the garbage can and work to create real, lasting change for our struggling students and schools!

Thank you for your advocacy on behalf of our children and schools!

Steve Norton
Executive Director

 click on this link to send an email to Representative MacGregor.
Contact Rep. MacGregor!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Urgent Legislative Alert re: Third Grade Retention, School Grading, EAA 12/4/13


Things have been relatively quiet this fall on the Lansing front but we are shaping up to have one heck of a week for our community schools.  We need your phone calls and emails TODAY AND TOMORROW MORNING (vote could be as soon at 10:30 am or early next week----so keep calling throughout tomorrow 12/4/13) please please read on and stay tuned!  I know this is long....but this is our only plea this semester and now is the time to jump to action. There are three important items that we are reaching out to you about.  They will require (1) a phone call or email to your State Representative and (2) a phone call or email to your State Senator.  We are asking for 5 minutes of your time for our kids (and please spread to word to your parent networks).  Given how fast these bills are moving (votes possibly tomorrow), we ask that you even call after hours and leave voicemail messages.  

1.  Third Grade Retention.  Several weeks ago, a bill was introduced that would require that public schools automatically flunk any third grader who did not test "proficient" on the MEAP (or other standardized test).  There were zero exceptions (not even for special ed kids or kids learning English).   Those exceptions (and a few others) have been added after hard work by some folks, but the bill still has serious problems.  I heard in testimony countless examples of kids who struggled in reading but excelled in other areas (and were not "special ed"---just late bloomers who "caught on" in 4th or 5th grade).  Flunking those children would have forever devastated them socially and emotionally (and they were ready to move on in other subject areas).  With zero research to back up the "retention argument" (there is ZERO proof that flunking students leads to success and in fact the research shows the dropout rate skyrockets), it is baffling why we are debating this.  About 35,000 students would be held back (stretching across every district in our state), regardless of their ability in other areas, based on a single test score.  A bill has been introduced, tied to the Third Grade Flunk bill, that would offer early intervention programs for kids.   The amended bill also offers some alternative assessment tools, but the end result is still very likely "you flunk--regardless of what is really in your best interest" (especially since the bill has no exception for kids who are just getting accommodations and are not true "special ed").    We as parents ALL know the key to helping struggling kids is early intervention.  You won't find one district in this state that disagrees.   The problem is that many of those excellent intervention programs have been cut along with the severe decrease in school funding.   We have no problem with early intervention (and in fact have fought hard in EGR to maintain it at the best levels possible, despite severe cuts....many other districts have not been so fortunate).    Interventions will now be mandated---with NO extra money.  

Message to your legislator:  Oppose HB 5411.  (1) Tell Lansing to stop mandating more programs while cutting our money at the same time (resulting in cuts to the exact programs they are now going to mandate).  Unfunded mandates mean that every school district in the state will have to cut (yet again) from programs that provide for well-rounded children.    (2) Tell them that parents working directly with their child's teacher---not Lansing--are in the best position to decide if a child should move ahead to the next grade. 

GR Press Editorial advocating for early intervention and opposing 5411-

2.  Letter Grades for all Public Schools.   Sounds reasonable, right?  I mean, our kids get graded, right?  Yes, except that our child's letter grade reflects work over an entire semester (attendance, homework, quizzes, tests, class participation, etc).  HB 5412 would grade every school in the state on one criterion:  test scores.  We believe this is dangerous since it will inevitably lead to emphasizing test subjects only in school and certainly does not offer parents information they need to make an informed choice about the schools they may be choosing.  For example, some schools have high poverty (and thus low test scores) but in fact are making incredible progress against tremendous odds on their test scores.  Some schools are strong in the arts or offer a specific curriculum area.  Ultimately, we believe parents need more than just a letter grade based on a standardized test to measure a school.  Further,  the Department of Education just implemented its color coding system a few months ago.   Just a few months later, the legislature wants to again change the rules.  Public schools are treated like ping-pong balls and have to constantly figure out what system is going to be used.   

Message to your legislator:  Oppose HB 5112.  Metrics are fine, but "grading" our schools based on one test score is misleading.   We support a full dashboard that shows many different aspects of a school (such as student progress, test scores, access to the arts, extracurricular programming, safety record, etc) so that parents can make a truly informed decision.  Either implement a truly useful dashboard or just keep the Department of Education system in place (which is at least flexible and can be modified to adapt to better measurements as they are developed).  Stop changing the rules every few months.   

Steve Norton at Michigan Parents for Schools does a great job summarizing this issue.  I have cut and pasted his email at the bottom for any of you that want to read it.

3.  Education Achievement Authority (EAA).Okay, this is a blast from the past.  Remember when the state was going to possibly be able to take over ANY empty building in any school district?  That was the EAA. One year ago to be exact.  

Bottom line:  EAA = mega statewide school district with the unprecedented ability to take over schools everywhere.  Because of your great work, we stopped the EAA.   That's the honest truth.  YOU stopped it.  While it was rammed through the House, it stalled in the Senate because of all your work last year.    Well, it's back.  The Senate Education Committee actually still does not have enough votes (thank you Sen. Judy Emmons in Greenville for recognizing the danger of this bill) to get this out of committee.  Using a rare procedure, the bill is now slated to be dumped on the Senate Floor directly without hearings and without a committee majority.   We have learned that moving the bill is critical since the EAA is getting nervous.  The current partner for the EAA is Eastern Michigan University.  Given how non-transparent the EAA has been, many folks there would like to see the charter yanked (making this vote all the more urgent for this mega-statewide district).  In fact, the EMU Education Dean resigned from the EAA Board.  Interestingly, parents have chosen---in droves---to not stay in the EAA.  They lost 27% of their students from last year to this year.  The EAA has well-documented failures regarding staffing, enrollment, serving special ed students,  and lack of transparency.  And yet the state wants to continue expansion.  The response:  "The EAA can just grab more schools to make the EAA viable."  That's pretty appalling in the age of "parent choice."    The State Superintendent plans to grab 10-15 more schools outside of DPS.   Last year, the legislature proposed creating this massive new statewide school district all on an untested idea.  We said "at least pilot it."  Well, turns out the test failed.   And yet they are still demanding expansion.

Message:  Tell your Senator that you oppose the expansion of the EAA and that we don't need Lansing taking over schools all over the state.  While limited to 50 schools, that would still make the EAA the largest school district in the state (with about 50,000 students).     The EAA is not a model that works.  We don't need more of Lansing running our schools.  

Our sincerest thanks for all you do,

Lucy & Elizabeth

Cut and Paste Letters for Your State Representative and State Senator

Find Your Representative here:
If your are in the 73rd District, 

Michigan Representative Peter MacGregor, 73rd District
Phone: (517) 373-0218
Toll Free: (855) 347-8073

Hello Representative MacGregor--

I am writing to tell you that I oppose HB5411, The Third Grade Retention Law, currently coming up for a vote in the House Education Committee.  I see this as mandating programs while cutting money going to public schools.  Our district had to cut programs for early elementary learning.  While these programs will now be mandated under this law to prevent large numbers of third graders from flunking, our schools will have to take money from other programs that provide for well-rounded children.
Many factors go into a child's education.  Flunking a child who tests poorly could be damaging.  Whether my third grade child moves on to the next grade should be a decision made between me, my child's teacher and the school.  Lansing should not be poking its nose into this decision. 

I am also writing to tell you that I oppose HB 5112, The School Grading Law, currently coming up for a vote in the House Education Committee.  Metrics are fine, but "grading" our schools based on one test score is misleading.  A full dashboard which shows many different aspects of a school would receive my full support.  This dashboard could include student progress, test scores, access to the arts, extracurricular programming, safety records and other areas.  If a truly representative dashboard can't be implemented, please keep the more flexible Michigan Department of Education system in place.  Please stop changing the rules every few months.

Thank you for considering the opinion of your constituent.


If you are in the 86th district, your Senator is Mark Jansen.  
(517) 373-0797
Hello Senator Jansen—

Please oppose the expansion of the EAA.  We do not need Lansing taking over schools all over our state.  While limited to 50 schools, EAA is still the largest school district in the state with about 50,000 students.  The EAA model is not working.  EAA parents are not satisfied.  Too many resources are being diverted to this district.  Please keep Lansing out of our schools.  We elect local school board members to oversee our schools.
Thank you for considering your constituent.


A Superintendent's Perspective on Third Grade Retention

Boosting Early Reading is Good, But What is the Real Cost?

When the concern came up that early elementary kids struggling with reading don't get help anymore due to budget cuts, the solution is mandatory help.  this is great, but will it come with more money?  This looks like another unfunded mandate which will take resources away from other important services.

Here is an article from early Novermber 2013

MLive article on EAA Expansion. Vote in Michigan Senate Soon! Look for an alert on this soon!

In other legislative issues, the Michigan Senate is looking to vote to on the House Bill that will expand the EAA.  The EGRPS PTO Legislative Committee feels that the EAA diverts too many resources away from traditional public schools and their overseeing, publicly elected school boards.  The EAA has not shown it is the entity to save students from poor schools.  We advocate increased support and resources to schools to provide the services needed for Michigan's public school students. Lucy

Legislative Update From Michigan Parents for Schools


I hope you all had a warm and joyful Thanksgiving holiday, and that the school year has been going smoothly for your families.

Things have been a little quieter this fall on the education front in Lansing, but we wanted to contact you about a couple of proposed measures that we think are simply counter-productive.
  • One bill would require that children who don't test as "proficient" in reading in third grade be held back until they do.
  • The other would institute a simplistic "A-F" school rating system based totally on standardized test scores.

Things are rather fluid right now, so we're not asking you to write your lawmakers just yet. But stay alert, because we might need to take quick action if these bills move to a vote in anything like their current form.

Getting all children to read is easy, right?
We at MIPFS absolutely believe, as I am sure you do, that we should do all we can to ensure children are able to read - and to understand and evaluate what they read. Steps to catch children who are having trouble should start early. This kind of effort takes smart people and resources for quality programs.

The bill now in the House Education committee, HB 5111, doesn't address any of these things. It's based on the idea that getting any child to read "proficiently," no matter what struggles they face, is a simple and clear task. Schools and teachers who don't accomplish this feat are simply "not doing their jobs." The answer? Punish kids - and make their parents angry.

They've softened the bill a bit since it was first introduced, but the basic thrust is still the same. Instead of helping schools serve challenged students, instead of providing the resources schools need to run quality reading programs, the bill proposes simply to hold students back. Does this make any sense to you? It certainly doesn't to us.

Why bother helping schools when you can just label them?
Ok, if you're like me, when the Michigan Dept. of Education announced their new color coding system, you went to look up your local school. Was it confusing? Sure - but not because of the colors. Sometimes it was just hard to figure out where your school did well and where it might need improvement.

Now we have HB 5112, which proposes to scrap that whole (brand new) system and replace it with a simplistic rating that gives every school and district a letter grade from A to F. Not only that, but this "grade" would be based almost entirely on standardized test scores and would grade schools "on a curve," ensuring that some will always "fail."

We're not shopping for toaster-ovens here. Trying to tote up all a school's characteristics into one color or letter is a bad idea to begin with, and basing it all entirely on one or two days' worth of bubble tests makes it even worse. As parents, there are lots of things we want to know about our local schools - everything from academic achievement to access to the arts and music, from hallway safety to classroom technology, from bus routes to teacher expertise.

If they want to require schools to post information, fine. Just make it the kinds of key information that parents and other citizens really care about, and stop trying to turn it into a single rating. We're not looking at small appliances. We want to know where our schools shine, and where they need help to become better for our children and our communities. We're not shopping - we are looking to support and improve OUR schools.

Your voice is important on these issues. You can help remind our lawmakers that we want to help our schools, not just beat them down.Please keep your eyes peeled for an urgent call to action!

Steve Norton
Executive Director, MIPFS

Are You Having Trouble Deciding What You Think About Third Grade Retention?

Here is a link Steve Norton shared in an alert from Michigan Parents for Schools

A friend who is a Reading Intervention teacher in Ann Arbor recommended this article for non-specialists. It describes the chasm between what researchers know works to help kids read and policies which have actually been implemented. Hint: money doesn't help if it's used to buy mandated, but unproven and ill-advised, commercial programs.
Richard L. Allington, "What Really Matters When Working With Struggling Readers." The Reading Teacher, April 2013.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

minutes from the 11/4 meeting, amended

1.    Common Core: EGRPS PTO Legislative Committee supports the EGRPS district administration and school board in their advocacy that the assessment, which matches the curriculum, be passed swiftly by the Michigan Legislature.

2.     School Aid Fund Tax Cuts: The EGRPS PTO Legislative Committee advocates that the revenue be replaced for all School Aid Fund taxes that are cut.  We do not wish to burden parents and community members with each and every bill that is introduced.  Maintain the School Aid Fund revenue and fund K-12 Schools.
3.     Third Grade Assessment Bills:  EGRPS PTO Legislative Committee supports full funding of K-12 schools so that districts (including districts with high levels of poverty and special education children) can afford to offer reading support and reading recovery programs for early elementary students. 
4.     Open Carry:  EGRPS PTO Legislative Committee supports our Administrators and School Board in collaborating with the East Grand Rapids City officials and public safety officials in devising a plan to lessen the public in our schools on voting days.  Alternative locations can be found which would allow the right to open carry without the danger of children being exposed to arms.  We also support our District in pursuing a change of status so that schools will be exempt from open carry laws.

5. Letter Grades:We used to have letter grades assessing our schools.  Then we moved to a color coding system last year.  Now the legislature wants to reinstate the use of letter grades. The grades themselves, whether colors or letters, seem to favor those schools with fewer categories to grade, resulting in excellent schools faring worse than those that offer a mediocre education with fewer services.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

cyber schools already making plans

Okemos Parents for Schools reports that 32 cyber schools are set to open in Michigan in 2013-14.  These will operate throughout the state and will compete with our schools for dollars.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Action alert from Tri-County Alliance for Public Education

Yesterday, the State's leading economists agreed that there is an additional and unexpected $483 million surplus for the current fiscal year.

On the heels of the well-documented financial crises in Buena Vista, Pontiac and now Albion, we think there should be no debate: It's time to do the right thing and invest in education.

This money could go a long way to restoring the devastating cuts enacted by Lansing politicians over the past few years.

Governor Snyder talks a lot about Michigan being the "Comeback State", but with headlines detailing schools closing early and high schools ceasing to exist, it's clear that mantra will never be realized without our Governor and Legislative leadership finally funding schools.

Please TAKE ACTION to tell Lansing that it's time to do the right thing and invest in education!

Monday, May 13, 2013

Why will funding roads take money from schools

A brief summary by Steve Norton, Michigan Parents for Schools

Why will funding roads take money from schools?

So, what's up with roads and schools?
Dear Friends,

First off, let me thank the hundreds of you who have already contacted your State Representatives about road funding and the threat to our schools. Your message is important and is getting through.

Many people have asked for a bit more information about this whole deal - and I certainly understand, because it's somewhat complicated. I'm reprinting our earlier action alert below, but let me sketch out what is happening on this issue:

The Governor wants to find $1.2 billion to repair state roads. The Legislature would like to do this for the Governor, but a majority of legislators have signed "no new taxes" pledges to help them get elected. Since the state doesn't have $1.2 billion sitting around, that means finding new revenue. So, what to do?

Our lawmakers have been very clever - or sneaky, depending on your point of view. Right now, there are two kinds of taxes on fuel: "specific" taxes, like excise taxes, and the regular sales tax. The "specific" taxes on fuel are already legally earmarked for transportation, but they don't bring in enough money to fund the Governor's program. The regular sales tax on gasoline and diesel fuel brings in some $1 billion, but that mostly goes to schools, with the rest going to local governments and the state general fund.

So, to find money for roads, lawmakers are trying to have their cake and eat it too: they want to increase the "specific" taxes on fuel that are legally earmarked for transportation so they generate the money the Governor wants. Then, they want to eliminate the sales tax on fuel, so that they can say they didn't raise taxes.

Where does this leave schools, which stand to lose some $750 million out of the deal (almost $500 per student)? Well, they're "working on it." Discussions have been going on for months about how to "replace" the revenue to schools and local government. So far, there are only some ideas floating around and no agreement on anything. The idea that seems to come up most often is to increase the sales tax from 6% to 7%, hopefully making up the difference to schools. Sounds good, right?

We have some real problems with this "arrangement":
  1. Increasing the sales tax would require a vote of all the people to amend the state Constitution. The earliest this could take place is November, and even then, no one knows for sure that it would pass. (We just voted down a whole passel of proposed amendments last fall, remember?)
  2. One of the problems school funding has faced is that the sales tax, which right now covers retail goods, is not keeping up with growth in the economy even in good times. This proposal would require a huge effort to pass an amendment that would not solve this problem.
  3. The current sales tax falls hardest on families with limited incomes. Instead of finding a more fair way to fund our schools, this proposal would make things harder for these families.
  4. Finally, lawmakers want to move these bills that change fuel taxes NOW, even though we would not know until November whether schools would get replacement funding!
This is nonsense, plain and simple. This whole exercise is simply to allow our state "leaders" to push responsibility for finding new revenue off onto the people. If we want to invest in our roads, we need to find a sensible way to fund that and not put our schools at risk. If we are going to change school funding, we need to address the fact that current funding levels simply are not adequate to deliver an excellent education to all our children.

If you'd like to know more about these bills, you can read the non-partisan House Fiscal Agency analyses here and here. For a review of transportation funding and spending, read this for lots of detail.

Thanks for taking action to protect our public schools.

Steven Norton
Executive Director
Michigan Parents for Schools

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Legislative Committee Communication 5/8/13 (note additional house bills)

To:  EGRPS Families
From:  PTA Legislative Committee
Several legislative policies currently under consideration in Lansing could severely impact the school budget for East Grand Rapids Public Schools. The PTA Legislative Committee wants to make sure that EGRPS parents are aware of the proposals and what is at stake so that you can let our legislators know that this community supports its public schools and does not support policies that will decimate the programs that make EGRPS a successful district.
ISSUE: The School Aid Budget
Currently, with the three budget proposals (Governor’s, House’s, and Senate’s), local school districts can expect a net cut of between $2 and $52 per pupil. (Please click here for a detailed analysis by Michigan Parents for Schools.)  In addition to the proposed funding cuts, we are concerned about a provision that is common in all three of the school aid budgets.  This provision would require school districts to pay private online vendors, who are unaccountable for student academic performance, for up to two classes per year if students choose this option. This could potentially siphon more money away from EGRPS’ per pupil funding.
ISSUE: Roads vs. Schools (House Bills 4571, 4572, 4677 and 4539)
House Bills 4571, 4572, 4677, and 4539 would shift gas taxes, which benefit schools, to other fuel taxes that are exclusively committed to transportation. This would result in about an $800 million reduction in the School Aid Fund.  The effect of such a shift would be at least a $500 per pupil cut on top of the funding decreases we are already trying to manage. This would be devastating to EGRPS. Replacement revenue has not been guaranteed. (Click here and here for the House Fiscal Committee’s legislative analyses of these bills.)
If you share the same concerns, call and/or email:
·    Representative Pete MacGregor at (517) 373-0218,, and
·    Senator Mark Jansen at (517) 373-0797,, and
· Governor Snyder at (517) 373-3400,

Other state representatives’ information can be found here: 

Tell Them:
  1. To oppose any reduction to the total per pupil funding.  It is dishonest for legislators to claim that they are increasing per pupil funding while simultaneously reducing other types of aid that our public schools depend on, resulting, in fact, in a net loss to school budgets.
  2. To remove from the final school aid budget the provision requiring school districts to allow students to take two online classes per year.  This would siphon money from our schools, while giving it to private online vendors who are not held accountable for student academic performance, while at the same time holding our schools accountable for the students’ academic performance in those online classes.
  3. Not to resolve the road crisis on the backs of our schools. The legislature would be acting in a highly irresponsible way by removing the funding that gas taxes provide for schools without an assured funding replacement – one that does not rely on a ballot measure.
  4. To stop using money from the School Aid Fund for purposes other than K-12 funding.  The School Aid Fund has enough money to restore the per pupil funding cuts of the last several years and actually invest in K-12 public education, but not if those funds continue to be divided among other recipients, such as universities and community colleges.
The Legislative Committee wants to thank everyone who has made calls to our legislators in the past as our voices have been heard.  Thank you for your continued commitment to East Grand Rapids Public Schools!
Who We Are: As a committee of the EGRPS PTA Council, the Legislative Committee comprises parents, teachers, and Board of Education members.  The Superintendent and Assistant Superintendent of Business, while not members of the committee, regularly attend our meetings so that we can share information and work collaboratively to set and advance legislative priorities that benefit EGRPS.  The Committee provides information to EGRPS families through the PTA Blasts and the blog; regularly communicates with state legislators and mobilizes other parents to do so; and supports similar grassroots parent advocacy groups in school districts across the state.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Education reform group -- calling itself "skunk works" -- developing plans for "value schools"

Education reform group forges voucher-like plan for Michigan
Thu, Apr 18
Lansing — A secret work group that includes top aides to Gov. Rick Snyder has been meeting since December to develop a lower-cost model for K-12 public education with a funding mechanism that resembles school vouchers.
The education reform advisory team has dubbed itself a "skunk works" project working outside of the government bureaucracy and education establishment with a goal of creating a "value school" that costs $5,000 per child annually to operate, according to meeting minutes and reports obtained by The Detroit News.
The records show designers of the "value school" are in talks with Bay Mills Community College about opening a technology-centric charter school by August 2014. The school would seek to maximize the roughly $7,000 annual per-pupil funding regular schools get from taxpayers by applying "concepts familiar in the private sector — getting higher value for less money."
Other records distributed to group members indicate they want to explore using fewer teachers and more instruction through long-distance video conferencing. Each "value school" student would receive a "Michigan Education Card" to pay for their "tuition" — similar to the electronic benefits transfer used to distribute food stamps and cash assistance for the poor.
Students could use leftover money on the "EduCard" for high school Advanced Placement courses, music lessons, sport team fees, remedial education or cyber courses, according to an outline of the advisory team's agenda.
Snyder confirmed Thursday the existence of the work group, but told The News "there is not a specific outcome" for the project.
The Republican governor has urged changing how education is delivered by having tax dollars follow the student instead of locking them into a traditional classroom setting and school year.
"It wasn't a directive of the governor," Snyder spokeswoman Sara Wurfel said, "but he's always interested in seeing what people can come up with" in education innovation.
The group's minutes indicate members planned to pitch their concept to Snyder this month ahead of the Governor's Education Summit on Monday in East Lansing.
But Snyder's chief information officer, David Behen, who leads the group, said it has experienced "a bunch of false starts" and is not ready.
"It's in line with what he wants to do, though," Behen said of the project's focus.
The initiative is "very unnerving" given the history of Lansing lawyer Richard McLellan, a work group member, in pursuing vouchers, said John Austin, president of the State Board of Education, who was unaware of the "skunk works" project. A voucher system lets parents use tax dollars to choose between private and public schools — something prohibited by the state Constitution.
"This is disturbing to hear of secret group meetings," Austin said. "That reflects the ideology and political agenda of the creation of a for-profit and parallel enterprise market for schools. Part of its goal is to take down the education establishment: superintendents, school boards and teachers unions."
The panel's quiet proceedings began in mid-December after GOP lawmakers abandoned controversial legislation in the lame-duck session that would have allowed corporations, municipalities and cultural institutions to run charter schools.
McLellan helped draft the legislation and proposed sweeping changes in November to the way Michigan schools are funded. The plan was developed at Snyder's request by the Oxford Foundation, of which McLellan is a director, but has not been delivered to the governor.
Records obtained by The News show the education reform team got a $20,000 "initial grant" from the Oxford Foundation to assist "the Team in creating the technology intensive school." McLellan asked to be the group's treasurer, according to notes from a Jan. 10 meeting.
'Special kind of school'
The group consists of nearly 20 individuals, mostly from the information technology field, including Behen and the state's chief technology officer, Rod Davenport. The group includes employees from the software and tech companies Vectorform in Royal Oak, InfoReady in Ann Arbor and Billhighway in Troy. Also involved is Tim Cook of the Huizenga Group, a Grand Rapids firm that owns and operates West Michigan manufacturing companies.
One of the original members, Judy Wright of the accounting firm Plante & Moran, quit the project because of "potential client conflicts," said Dan Artman, the firm's spokesman. The accounting firm works for public school districts across the state.
The group had one educator, Paul Galbenski, an Oakland Schools business teacher and Michigan's 2011 Educator of the Year, but he left the group.
"It really kind of looked like for me that they were discussing a special kind of school being created outside of the Michigan public school system," Galbenski said. "That's when I started questioning my involvement."
Records show the group has strived to remain secretive, even adopting the "skunk works" alias, which dates to defense contractor Lockheed Martin's secret development of fighter planes during World War II.
In January, participants were instructed in a memo to use "alternative" email accounts. Records show Behen, Davenport and two other Department of Technology, Management and Budget employees have since used private email addresses to correspond.
A Department of Education official, Bruce Umpstead, joined the group after the private email directive and has used his government email, records show.
A different approach
Behen said he and the other four state employees are mostly working after-hours on the project with Friday evening and Saturday meetings.
"Why are we using private email addresses? Because it's just easier," Behen said. "There's nothing secret or anything about this."
McLellan said the other participants are justified in using private emails. "Well, they should," he said. "It's not a government project."
"Isn't a skunk works by definition unorganized, backroom?" he asked rhetorically.
Behen said he formed the group after meeting with McLellan and Rich Baird, a close adviser and friend of Snyder who called the governor's "transformation manager" on a staff list.
One memo crafting the group's mission said it wanted to avoid working with education consultants who "are so wedded to the education establishment that pays their bills and to the existing paradigm that an outside team of creative thinkers has a much better chance of succeeding."
Behen said he "purposely didn't put a bunch of teachers on (the panel)" to generate a different approach to delivering K-12 education through rapidly changing technology.
"Just like if I was going to do something new with law firms, I wouldn't bring a bunch of lawyers in," Behen said.
Patrick Shannon, director of charter schools at Bay Mills Community College, said the Upper Peninsula tribal college that charters 42 public school academies across the state is "very interested" in helping launch a "value school." Shannon has attended one of the group's meetings as has an official with the Educational Achievement Authority in Detroit, records show.
"We're very much into the online and digital type of oversight as well. Let's try something different," Shannon said.
Staff Writer Jennifer Chambers contributed.