Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Jewel Gopwani: Is it wrong for a Republican to side with Democrats, or vice versa? | Editorial Blog: Jewel Gopwani | Detroit Free Press | freep.com

Jewel Gopwani: Is it wrong for a Republican to side with Democrats, or vice versa? | Editorial Blog: Jewel Gopwani | Detroit Free Press | freep.com

There's an assumption with this story that one of the two parties' policy position may be correct.  What if neither of them is correct?  What good will one agreeing with the other be to citizens if the policy, fully or partially embraced, simply shouldn't become policy in the first place no matter how agreeably worded?

Inkster Judge Sylvia James removed by Michigan Supreme Court | Wayne County | Detroit Free Press | freep.com

Inkster Judge Sylvia James removed by Michigan Supreme Court | Wayne County | Detroit Free Press | freep.com

My favorite part, "In light of this court’s responsibility to ensure the integrity of our judicial system, both in appearance and in fact.." while one of the court's own justices is being (or should be) investigated.

Maybe the court can cut & paste some of this ruling onto hers.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

When bigger isn't better

"Wilkinson is right that judges are prone to misreading the values of the broader society.

"But even if judges read those values correctly, judicial restraint can mean giving coercive sweep to the values of contemporary majorities. That a majority considers something desirable is not evidence that it is constitutional. "

George Will, The Washington Post, "The Right to Be Left Alone"
This issue often comes up when discussing Obamacare. Too many people believe that because Obamacare's intentions are good it ought to be constitutional. Put another way, the constitution should put no limits on the virtuous intentions of congress. Or the most vulgar interpretation of them all, "The constitution's general welfare clause ordains and encourages congress to do what is good for us."

Against this position, and in addition to Mssrs Wilkinson and Will, is C.S. Lewis:
"Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience."
Or as PLF attorney, Timothy M. Sandefur, said at the Alternatives to Originalism forum in 2011,
"I think all the concern about democracy is overblown because the constitution lays out very clearly what it’s intended to accomplish and democracy is not among those. Protecting the blessings of liberty is the purpose of the constitution, and so where that clashes with democracy we should reject democracy."
All these people are warning against the tyranny of the majority over the minority, and that the constitution makes it clear, or does to some, that individual rights should be protected from popular fashions.

If You Give a Moose a Millage...

In 2008 I advocated against the zoo tax, not because 0.1 mill was excessive, but because of its inevitable consequences outlined in the definitive treatise on tax policy by famed author Laura Numeroff, "If You Give a Moose a Muffin."

If you're not familiar with the children's story, the story tells of a young boy that gives a moose a muffin, then the moose wanted jam, and when the first batch of muffins were gone the boy needed to make more, etc. etc. etc.  Though the boy and the moose get along famously a cynical moral-of-the-story may be, "If you give a zoo a millage, it'll bring friends."

It's as impossible to feed a single pigeon or seagull--word spreads.

Now the Detroit Institute of Arts wants to double-down on the Zoo's millage and is requesting its own 0.2-mill property tax.  That would represent a 200% increase on property taxes for cultural institutions.  Sure, in real numbers the tax is only 0.2 mills, but will it end?

If we pretend neither the zoo or DIA will request increases (the Zoo already has permission to ask for an increase to 0.2 mills), why shouldn't the Holocaust Museum, Museum of African American History, Detroit Historical Museum, Michigan Opera Theater, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, or Detroit Science Center,  get their own 20-year 0.2-mill property tax?  Altogether those taxes would be 1.5-to-1.6 mills.  Which of these cultural centers are less deserving than the zoo, and who will make that argument?

Once increased, do you expect those millages to disappear in 20 years?  How many taxes do you know that have expired?  How many DDA, PSD, or COD taxes do you know that have expired?  Are your school millages expiring or are supporters asking for to extend millages to 2033 or beyond?

As Matt Schonert wrote on WDET's Facebook thread, "If you want to support the DIA, become a member."

Just as many voters believe supporting government welfare spending is charitable (it isn't), so must they believe increasing taxes for cultural institutions makes them patrons of the humanities (it doesn't).

As Mr. Schonert suggested, the best way to feel like a patron is to be a patron.  Buy tickets, take friends, and attend the events.  If those events aren't appealing enough to make time on your schedule or part with your own money, why insist your neighbors part with theirs?

Thursday, February 23, 2012

No goal? No plan? No millage (Part 4)

Whatever other objectives a school system may have, its primary purpose should be to educate children.  It should go without saying that the education a child receives is the foundation they will build their futures on.

It is also important to note that children only get one chance at their education.  They will only pass through elementary, middle, then high school once.  They have as good a chance repeating their education as they do repeating their first day at school.

Because kids only get once chance it's important they get the most out of it as possible.  It is also important that parents and taxpayers know the quality of the education they're paying for when considering whether to support their district administration and school board members.

With those points in mind, let's examine how Ferndale School District (FSD) students perform after 11 years of an FSD education.

According to the ACT test administered to 217 Ferndale High School (FHS) juniors, only 30% of them were proficient in reading, 43% in English, 23% math, and 17% science.  Put another way, our children are 30-45% less prepared for college and their futures than the average Oakland County student--to say nothing of international competition.

FHS is doing an especially poor job of educating its black students.  The district loudly boasts about its diversity in its literature, district reports, and web site, but is less sanguine regarding the academic performance of the high school's black students, many of whom are out-of-district students contributing more to the district's revenue than its academic proficiency.

In the same report mentioned above, white students out-perform black students in reading, math, science, social studies, and writing by 278%, 760%, 760%, 239%, and 310% respectively.  Those numbers are so dramatic every voter in the FSD should demand an explanation from the school board.  Voters should also hope the state committed a huge error collecting the data, and that the margin of error is equally large.

Without another explanation, voters are left to extrapolate the district's intentions from the evidence.  The two most damning pieces of data betraying the administration's objectives are the 46% of out-of-district students worth nearly $1.5 million annually, and the grossly disparate academic proficiency between the two demographics just in the high-school.

The numbers suggest the reason the board of education and administration want a $23 million bond to maintain school buildings with twice the needed capacity is so they can protect or increase the district's $1.5 million annual revenue stream from out-of-district students (1205 from Detroit alone).   A revenue stream so compelling the district considered spending $8 million on the contaminated Hayes-Lemmerz property so it may be converted into an adult-education and charter-school campus capable of housing even more out-of-district students.

The longer voters look at the numbers, the easier it is to reject the school bond, and even easier to reject the school board and the superintendent.

Don't just vote, "No," on Tuesday--vote "Heck no."  And let's begin an honest, open dialog about how our school district may be right-sized, re-purposed, and re-committed to the task of preparing our community's children for the future.

Voting no is the responsible vote.

Friday, February 17, 2012

No goal? No plan? No millage. (Part 3)

Will renewing the bond increase property taxes?

The answer is yes--but it won't increase your tax bill--yet.

Supporters of the bond seem to think taxpayers can be fooled into thinking the $23 million will appear from thin-air.  They want voters to believe they have only to say yes to a $23 million handout, so why would anyone vote no?

Let's use an example to better explain how taxes will be increased, then later visit some legislation that may put Ferndale School District taxpayers at risk for having their taxes increased even more.

A simple example

Let's pretend your monthly mortgage payment (principle and interest) is $1000 and you have only two more years to go before your mortgage is paid-off.  That means that in 24 months your income will increase $1000/month, or $12,000/year.  That's a bigger pay increase than most people will ever see in their lifetime unless they change jobs.

Now, while still two-years away you ask your banker for an $100,000 loan.  Instead of increasing your monthly payment your banker simply adds 10 more years to the end of your mortgage.  Now, instead of getting a $1000 increase in two years you won't be getting it for 12 years.  With interest included you'll have given your banker another $120,000 that would have gone into your pocket.

Did your mortgage go up or stay the same?

For the purposes of this article we'll skip considering that your house is only worth $200,000 and that it's twice as big as it needs to be, your utilities expenses are twice as big as they need to be, your carbon foot-print is twice what it should be, and you spend twice as long cleaning it than you would a home rightsized to your family's size.  Given all that, does it make sense to borrow $100,000 in the first place?

How you may be at risk for increased monthly payments

On December 14, a Detroit News editorial urged readers to keep school bond debt in-check. It starts:
Because of sinking property tax revenues, more and more school districts have turned to a state revolving loan fund to help them meet payments on bonds they sold for new construction or remodeling buildings. Obligations in that fund have shot up to $1.2 billion during the real estate crisis, or the equivalent of $60 per student, and are threatening to more than double in the next 10 years.
Using our example from above, if a school district has to pay $1000/month to its bond holders but when property values drop and the district can only afford to pay $700/month, the state School Aid Fund lends money to the district to make up the $300/month difference.

The money for making up the difference between falling property values, the taxes they generate, and what school districts owe has ballooned to $1.2 billion--and because that money comes out of the school-aid fund, there is $60 less per-student to spend on books, curriculum, equipment, and teachers.  You know, the things that have a far greater impact on our children's education than decorating.
A problem under the existing rules is that school districts can roll their state debt into new bond issues for additional construction projects before the old bonds are paid off. State repayment thus can get extended past 30 or 40 years. The state, meanwhile, has issued general obligation bonds to raise the money it loaned the school districts and long since repaid the general obligation bonds.
That should sound familiar.  The Ferndale School District hasn't paid-off a single single bond since at least 1995, and the proposed bond will extend our indebtedness out 29 years--to 2041.
To keep school district bonds from eating further into per-pupil spending, Lansing is considering new legislation. 
Pending Senate legislation (SB-770)would rein in these practices not just by putting a $1.5 billion lid on the total the state could allow school districts to borrow. 
It also would require school districts involved in the state program to at least once a year recalculate the millage rate they use to pay off their construction bonds. A school district would have to raise its millage rate whenever necessary to meet the principal and interest payments on its bonded indebtedness.  
When asking voters to approve a bond proposal, the school district would have to notify them that the proposed millage rate wouldn't necessarily remain the same, but actually could go higher.
This is an easy law to support.  It would require school districts to actually pay for their renovation projects without borrowing money from students.  The bite is that when property values fall taxpayers may be required to pay more.

Our $1000/month may go up when we can least afford it--when our property values are falling.

Given this background, it's more important than it has been that taxpayers hold their school boards and administrations accountable for student performance.  The relationship between schools and property values is student performance and property values, and a strong inverse relationship between standardized test scores and foreclosure rates--the higher the scores the lower the foreclosure rate.

Without our district's board and administrators having a clear goal to increase our community's student performance, and a clearer goal for achieving that objective, taxpayers should vote no on the new school millage.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

No goal? No plan? No millage. (Part 2)

At Sunday's issue forum (now available on YouTube) I recommend voters say, "Not now," as in, "Vote no," on the school millage proposal on February 28th.  I recommend "not now" so voters will have the time to get some important questions answered from both administrators and school board members.

Questions like:

  • Why are 1-in-4 Ferndale district students' parents choosing to send their kids to other districts?  Why are the numbers 1-in-10 for Royal Oak and 1-in-25 in Berkley?
  • Do (low) district-wide test scores reflect our community's commitment or the district's commitment to educating our children?
  • Should nearly half (47%) of our district's enrollment be coming from out-of-district?
  • What are the district's objectives for increasing student proficiency and college preparedness?
  • What is the district's plan to achieve those objectives and when will students, parents, and taxpayers see those results?
In Rob Bokram's closing remarks at Sunday's forum, he said, "For 40 years Ferndale has consistently supported millages and the citizens have rallied around every single millage proposal because they recognize the value of doing so."

Not true.

In 2003 Ferndale districts taxpayers voted-down a millage proposal, and in doing so, sent a message to the school board, administration, and bond supporters that sometimes more time is necessary to make a better case.  Overlooking 2003's election isn't Mr. Bokram's fault, and I don't point it out to discredit him, but to remind voters they've voted "not yet" before, and should do so again on February 28th.

From Ferndale Patch (13Dec2011)
Since Meier has been superintendent at Ferndale, he has attempted two bonds: one in 2003 and one in 2004. The 2003 bond failed because, he said, there may not have been enough time to get the information into the community.
After giving both voters and the district more time, the bond request passed in 2004 by a 3-to-2 margin.

Now's a better time for Ferndale voter's to repeat their 2003 decision, and vote "No."  Or if you prefer, and I recommend, "Not yet," on Tuesday, February 28th.

No goal? No plan? No millage. (Part 1)

Sunday's issue forum on the $23 million school bond proposal should be available soon on youtube.  During the discussion, pro-bond supporter and member of Citizens for Quality Schools, Robert Bokram, took issue with some of my numbers (available here for anyone to review).  He insisted that Ferndale's core K-12 program is populated with 87% in-district students.

Let's pretend his number is correct.  Does that number reflect any better on our community's schools?  Do we really believe that our community's students, after 13-years of a Ferndale School District education are only capable of a 36% proficiency in math?  53% in reading?  54% in science?

I would expect that if we believe Mr. Bokram's number is accurate, our community should be embarrassed that its dedication to its school system, that $62 million spent since 1995, and another $23 million proposed in two weeks has only managed to educate our students--to prepare them for their future--so disproportionately less-achieving than two other districts that share a boundary with ours.

Again, voters must ask themselves what is the district's goal for our students?  What is its plan to achieve that goal?  If there is a goal and there is a plan, is that goal and plan to increase our student's readiness for college and jobs in health-care, engineering, alternative power, or other high-tech industries our state is trying to grow?

The good news, if you can call it that, is that Ferndale is performing better than either Oak Park or Hazel Park.  But with those two districts performing near the bottom, we should be careful not to brag too much.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Vote "No" on Ferndale School District Millage

With voting day (February 28th) only a couple weeks away, it's time some facts regarding the Ferndale School District are published so they may be discussed and voters' better informed whether raising their taxes to cover another $22.8 million to chase down the $62 million preceding it in recent years is a good investment.. or not.

Watch your porch for this month's issue of Ferndale Friends, which includes two op-ed pieces arguing for and against the millage.  One is from Citizens for Quality Schools' representative Robert Bokram, and the other is written by myself.

Earlier today, The Ferndale Review published excerpts of an email exchange I had with Review reporter Charles Sercombe.  In it I discuss a few reasons I'm opposed to the millage.  More complete (but still word-limited) reasons are in the Ferndale Friends article.

Citizens for a Fair Ferndale is sponsoring a forum to inform voters on the ballot issue this Sunday, February 12, from 2-3PM at the Ferndale Public Library.  You can either wait until then to ask your questions, or post them here or at the Ferndale Review.  If you post them here, I'll do my best to provide timely answers.

To my knowledge the Ferndale Patch has not investigated or reported any anti-millage sentiments.

Vote "No" on February 28 School Bond Proposal

[Note: This article originally appeared in the February 2012 edition of Ferndale Friends] 

Regardless the virtues proposed for school bond proposals, each must be critically examined to determine if the fanfare and marketing that precede them isn’t intended to distract voters from serious questions school districts would rather not discuss.

Such is the case with this February’s ballot question asking Ferndale School District voters for  $23 million and another 10 years’ property tax that won’t be paid off until 2033.

Some of the questions the district doesn’t want to discuss, and I have the emails from the Superintendent, Director of Public Relations, and Executive Director of Curriculum Instruction to prove it include:

  • Why won’t they provide per-building expenses and revenue so residents may consider board policies, budget, maintenance, or even new construction?
  • Why haven’t they appraised district buildings to verify if the $53 million in assets isn’t actually worth much less than that?
  • What does it say for the district when 46% (nearly half) of its students don’t live in the district (1205 from Detroit) and nearly one-third of in-district students don’t attend Ferndale public schools?
  • What would be the best strategy be going forward if the board and voters focused on the 2096 district students remaining?
  • How will Ferndale Schools ever positively impact property values when the schools perform poorly on standardized tests, due in-part to its out-of-district students?
  • Is borrowing $23 million for repairs to facilities not likely worth the $53 million the district has on the books the best use of taxpayer money for 2096 students?
  • Why should the board obligate taxpayers to a $23 million bond when area property values barely cover $13 million?
By the numbers, the ballot question deserves a resounding no-vote from taxpayers.  But more important is what taxpayers deserved from the district.

For instance, taxpayers deserve to know which schools generate revenue and which do not, and as importantly, they need to know how much the district profits from schools-in-the-black vs how much it loses on schools-in-the-red.  Facts like this would help residents better weigh if the district’s commitment to University High and Taft are truly in the interest of education or in the interest of profits.  It would help residents better understand why the school district turns a deaf ear to residents complaining of vandalism, reckless driving, loitering, and drug use near Taft.

One of the arguments in-favor of the passing the bond is that an investment in schools is sure to increase property values.  If there was indeed a direct relationship between spending on buildings and property values residents should ask why stop at $23 million?

The more direct relationship is between academic performance and property values.  Fair or not, most potential home buyers purchase school districts, not houses.  Long before they drive-by Ferndale’s tree-lined streets they’ll look at MEAP and ACT scores to see if its worth $3.50/gallon to make the trip.  

Lastly (not really, but there’s a word limit in these articles), as the bond obligates taxpayers until 2033 the district ought to provide a plan with enrollment and maintenance expenses projected at least 10-years into the future.  And as Ferndale’s population loss has been primarily in the under-18 age group since the 1970 census and with increasing numbers of parents choosing to send their children to other districts, the district had better devise a plan with more realistic expectations than they used for 1995’s $47 million bond, some of which was spent on buildings that were closed in 2002’s consolidation.

District taxpayers, residents, and parents deserve a 10-year plan, and a superintendent making over $200,000/year for a less-than-six-square-mile district should be capable of delivering it.

So until these questions can be answered in writing, with an appraisal of the district’s assets, a budget showing per-school revenues and expenses, and a plan to address our schools’ academic performance, taxpayers should vote no and not give the benefit of the doubt to either the board or an administration that doesn’t give the benefit of transparency to its taxpayers.

2010 MEAP, ACT, and MME data from the State Department of Education

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

"It's f***ing cold!"

The following story first appeared as a comment to a story reported in The Ferndale Patch.  I'm repeating here because a) it cracks me up and b) it's easier for me to find here than there because of the swearing.
About four years ago when our youngest was three, my neighbor Mike (and he'll confirm this) and his wife were over for dinner. Mike and I were out tending the grill in the cold with our coats on, drinking beers, and talking out-of-earshot of the spouses.
The youngest comes out on the deck and declares, "It's f***ing cold out here."
I don't know what expression Mike had on his face but I felt my ears get HOT.
Not believing what I heard, I asked my son to repeat himself. "What did you say?"
"I said, 'It's f***ing cold out here.'"
I still didn't believe such a word would escape his lips, so I had him come off the deck, onto the driveway, look right into my face, and asked him to repeat himself very s-l-o-w-l-y. He looked at me like I was deaf and declared clearly and slowly for all to hear...
"I can hardly wait to see how you handle this," Mike said laughing his a** off.
I put on my meanest, most serious face, used my daddy-is-really-pi**ed-off big-voice and told the little guy, "we NEVER say the words f***, f***er, or f***ing. Got it?"
He ran inside scared, cried, and I haven't heard those words from him since.
Glad it was over, and while Mike was still laughing, he and I both agreed the three-year old used the word properly in a sentence.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Why does Detroit make it so hard?

In "The Return of the King", the third book in "The Lord of the Rings," Samwise Gangee observes after finally entering Mordor that, 
"As he gazed at it suddenly Sam understood, almost with a shock, that this stronghold had been built not to keep enemies out of Mordorbut to keep them in."
Perhaps a nod to the USSR's iron curtain, or to Detroit's traffic management and neglect of its visitors.

Tonight I left our house in Ferndale to head to Ford Field an hour before a Monster Truck event.  Only 16 minutes away under ordinary conditions, we were trapped in our car for over 90 minutes trying to work our way downtown.

The closer we got to Detroit, the slower traffic moved.  I felt like the JoBeth Williams in Poltergeist trying to reach her screaming children when the hallway stretches longer and longer as she ran towards their bedroom.

Detroit proponents may protest that between the Monster Truck show, the auto show, and concerts at both the Fox and Fillmore theaters that some delays ought to be expected.  If Detroit wants these events to bring people down, they need to make sure these events don't end-up driving them away.

I was reminded why I don't go downtown for an event but maybe twice a year--tops.

90 minutes with two eight-year olds in the car?  Do you have any idea how many thumb-wars that is?

Someone once told me that the spacing between a woman's children is approximately the time it takes her to forget how painful the previous child's delivery was.  Perhaps there's a similar to affect on how frequently suburbanites visit Detroit.

After more than an hour, I gave-up trying to reach the Madison exit (the correct exit for Ford Field) and bailed-out onto Mack.

Bad idea.

Though not as bad as Judgement Night, so many streets were closed off I had to travel west from I-75 past Woodward before making my way toward Grand Circus Park.  Lots of cars.  Lots of pedestrians.  None of them looking happy to have made it as far as they did, with many more blocks to walk from where they abandoned their cars in neighborhoods as dissimilar from their suburban homes as Mordor is to the Shire.

Leaving the city was only slightly easier than trying to get into it.  I felt like Kurt Russell trying to escape from Detroit's sidestreets.  Just as the approach to Detroit, there wasn't a police officer in sight directing traffic, or sufficient signage to assist visitors find the quickest paths to freeways.

Some may say this is an argument in-favor of public transportation.  Rather, I think, it's an argument against building a new Joe Louis Arena for the Red Wings downtown, and a reminder about the appeal Pontiac's Silverdome had for the Lions, or Auburn Hills' Palace has for the Pistons.  Or for that matter, why it's so much more enjoyable to patronize restaurants in Ferndale, Southfield, Dearborn, Troy, or even Rochester (OK, maybe not Rochester) than to pay the price of going downtown--especially when other events are going on.

Figure out how to bring people in and get them out, and perhaps they'll do more of both.

In the meantime, my next dinner reservation will be at Howe's Bayou.