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Grand Rapids Power Structure: Part VI – The Media

June 18, 2018

Over the past few weeks we have been investigating the Grand Rapids Power Structure, beginning with a discussion about its framework in Part I; the most powerful family in Grand Rapids, the DeVos Family, in Part II and in Part III we looked at other members of the most powerful members of the private sector. In Part IV, we looked at the private sector organizations that have power and which individuals sit on the boards of those organizations. 

Last week, we looked at the next level of the Grand Rapids Power Structure, the local government, in Part VToday, we will investigate the role and function of the media, within Grand Rapids and how it serves power.

One significant misunderstanding about the media, specifically, the news media, is that it is often viewed through a liberal vs conservative lens. While there are nuances within various news media outlets, the main function of most news media is to serve and normalize power. The news media in the Greater Grand Rapids area also reflects this function.

In addition to serving and normalizing power, the local news media also serves the following functions:

  • Consumerism
  • Distraction
  • Pacification
  • Dumbing the public down

Commercial news media functions within the framework of capitalism, which means that it’s primary objective is to make money. This is especially the case, since most local news media is owned by a much larger corporation. For example, WZZM 13 is owned by Gannett, MLive is owned by the Advanced Publications (Newhouse Brothers) and WXMI 17 is now owned by the Sinclair Broadcast Group. In fact, very little local news media is owned locally and none of the daily news entities parent companies are based in Grand Rapids.

Since the commercial news media in Grand Rapids are owned by corporations, their goal is to make a profit, thus promoting consumerism. Commercial news agencies promote consumerism two ways. First, by selling airtime or ad space, commercial news entities promote consumerism by simply being a conduit for advertisers. Ads are everywhere, whether they are sandwiched between news and weather on broadcast stations or in print and online, adjacent to news content. A second way that commercial news entities promote consumerism, is by creating what advertisers call a perfect consuming environment. What advertisers mean when they say that news agencies create a perfect consuming environment, is that the way that news is produced – focusing on crime, violence, disaster and spectacle – provides a cultural climate of hopelessness and powerlessness. When people feel powerless and without agency, they are prone to want to consume stuff. Advertisers have been doing research on this dynamic, thus they know that they way that most news is produced with help create compliant and obedient consumers.

A second function of news media is to distract the public. News outlets distract us by creating stories about celebrities, animal doing cute things or covering events that are primarily about entertainment. News agencies also distract us by getting us to focus on personalities instead of systems of power. For example, it is easier to vilify the head of a corporation than to investigate the system of capitalism. It’s also easier to vilify President Trump, than it is to investigate the political system in the US, which is based on power and corruption.

A third function of news media is to pacify the public. Pacifying the public is closely related to the function of consumerism, since we are meant to feel hopeless and disempowered when watching the news. Crime coverage pacifies us, because we believe the police will take care of it. Political coverage pacifies us, because we think that politicians will take care of things. Economic coverage pacifies us, because we think that businesses will fix things. Watching, reading or listening to the news often leaves us feeling numb and without agency and this is what it is designed to do.

A fourth function of the news media is to dumb us down. Commercial news media over simplifies complex issues, like health care, ecological problems of foreign policy. The dumbing down that takes place is based on how news is produced. You can’t deal with complex issues in a 2 minute segment or a thousand word story. It is far easier to produce news that a 10 year old can understand, rather than investigate the complexities of the city budget. The public often is led to believe that we should just leave it to the “experts,” instead of being informed and engaged.

When a friend of mine and I were facilitating a workshop of racial representation in the local news media, we were confronted by a local TV news personality who was mad that we referred to the news media as some homogenous group. The news personality was Lee Van Ameyde, from WZZM 13. In response we provided six months of data and numerous examples of how the news media under represents some groups or engages in stereotyping of other groups os people. His response was, “I can see that you have done your homework, but you are not the typical news consumer.” We asked him what he meant by that. The WZZM 13 news reader said, “We tend to dumb down the news to a fourth grade level, because we have to reach the broadest number of people with our newscast.”

Each of these four functions, ultimately serves the Grand Rapids Power Structure. If we are distracted, pacified and dumbed down consumers, then we are certainly easier to manipulate. However, beyond these functions, it is critical for all of us to understand that 1) the local news media is part of the local power structure, and 2) they internalize the values of the that same system of power.

The people who runs local news media outlets are people who are paid quite well. These people make six figure salaries and they participate in the very same structures of power that we having previously identified. For instance, Janet Mason, the General Manager of WZZM 13, is also a board member of the Econ Club of Grand Rapids. The President of MLive Media Group, Dan Gaydou, is a board member with the Right Place Inchttps://www.rightplace.org/about-us/board-of-directors

More importantly, the local news agencies internalize the values of the system of power in Grand Rapids. This internalizing of the values of the system can be seen in how news is presented. The local commercial news media presents politics, the economy and societal issues through the eyes of those in power. News coverage of these themes rarely strays from the norm, which means that what is reported on presents business as usual when it comes to politics, economics and other major social issues.

For instance, look at how those who make up the local news are reported on. When was the last time you can remember a news story that really challenged a DeVos, Van Andel, Secchia, Kennedy or any other member of the Grand Rapids Power Structure? In fact, not only does the local news normalize the values of the local system of power, they often celebrate it and frame the local power structure as great pillars of this community. A recent example of how the news media defends or acts as apologists for power, can be seen in this video clip below, where a local news reporter begins a question by making the statement that the “DeVos family has done so much for Grand Rapids and West Michigan.”

Another way that the local news media internalizes the values of those in power can be seen even when there is some mild questioning of power. Think about all the news coverage in the past year about Wolverine Worldwide and the environmental contamination that company has been engaged in for decades. The news media isn’t really questioning the Wolverine Worldwide corporation as a whole, rather they are presenting the contamination as an aberration or at lest a flawed practice that took place in the past. More importantly, the way that news media has reported on the Wolverine Worldwide environmental contamination has not led them to challenge the very nature of capitalism, which has a historical track record of pollution and contamination.

Another example is how the news media reports on police abuse or more accurately mistakes made by a few officers in the police department. The GRPD or any other local law enforcement agency is general presenting as serving the public good and when there are issues that arise, it is usually just another aberration, since they are essential to public safety. In other words, the very nature and function of the GRPD is never questioned or investigated, despite the significant levels of mistrust and cynicism that exists in this community about police behavior.

Capitalism, systemic violence, white supremacy, patriarchy, settler colonialism, ablism, homophobia and transphobia are almost never the topics of local news media. These are complex issues, which are deeply woven into the very fabric of Grand Rapids and West Michigan. To report on or investigate these systems of oppression, would not only create a culture of informed and engaged people, it would inherently question, expose and challenge the very nature of the Grand Rapids Power Structure.

 

Betsy DeVos and the Covert Privatization of Grand Rapids Public Schools: Part III

June 14, 2018

(The following three part series, was written by Jack Prince. Jack is a retired educator with 30 years experience on the High School and college level. He spent 10 years as a teacher with the Grand Rapids Public Schools.)

Grand Rapids Schools sells its’ property at bargain prices. The Vandenberg building went for 400 thousand on a lot of nearly three acres. The lot alone is worth more than 400K. Shawnee Park was sold to a private Christian school for 50 K less than the appraised value in 2014.  After the contentious sale of Oakdale, Lexington, and Eastern schools, school board Vice President Maureen Slade said, “We learned our lesson, referring to the sale of the Shawnee Park and Hillcrest Schools. Evidently the lesson she referred to was gained after the Oakdale School ended up in a charter schools’ hands and was mentioned in an Feb. 11th 2014 MLIVE article.

It would be embarrassing to be fooled again with an immediate transfer to a charter school like the transition Bruce Michael pulled off to National Heritage Academies. NHA has opened a large number of charter schools in Kent County like the one at Oakdale where it clearly competes for GRPS students and the state per pupil funding that travels with them. Evidently inherent in the lesson mentioned by the GRPS board member is that charter schools do compete with public as NHA currently has over 500 students that when added to the Child Discovery Center students we find a large number of displaced public teachers and retirement fund payments. This is clearly damaging to the public school system and for a public school defender such as a superintendent or a public school board to enhance that conversion is unconscionable.

Grand Rapids Christian, the largest private school association in Michigan, has been given $350,000 by the DeVos’ resulting  in naming the worship and art center after the billionaire family. DeVos gave Potters House $200,000,  another private Christian school here in Grand Rapids.* From the New York Times we read: “It is hard to find anyone more passionate about the idea of steering public dollars away from traditional public schools than Betsy DeVos. For nearly 30 years she has been an activist and Republican fund raiser. She has pushed to give families taxpayer money in the form of vouchers to attend private and parochial schools, pressed to expand publicly funded but privately run charter schools and tried to strip teachers unions of their influence.”*

While stripping unions of their influence does not curiously appear to upset the local GREA or statewide MEA the animosity certainly exists between DeVos and AFT President Randi Weingarten.” Meanwhile Weingarten characterized the rift between the two sides as a David versus Goliath battle. Historically she said school choice efforts were rooted in a desire for segregation.

This privatization and disinvestment are only slightly more polite cousins of segregation. We are in the same fight against the same forces who are keeping the same children from getting the public education they deserve.  And what better way to pave the path to privatize education than to starve public schools to the breaking point, then criticize their shortcomings and let the market handle the rest. All in the name of choice.* That’s patently false, DeVos said adding that wealthy people can choose to move to areas with good schools or pay tuition for private schools.* We must note that GRPS adds “your choice” to its’ school logo. The MEA has little or no equivalency to other unions attacks against DeVos, a fact which seems to indicate the pervasiveness of DeVos control in West Michigan and particularly here in Grand Rapids. 

Mrs. DeVos’s efforts to expand educational opportunity in her home state and across Michigan have focused little on existing traditional schools and almost entirely on establishing newer more entrepreneurial models (like University Prep) to compete with traditional schools for support and money. Her donations and advocacy go almost entirely toward groups seeking to move students and money away from what Mr. Trump calls “failing government schools.”

The cavalcade of privatization at GRPS continued with the transformation of Walkes Juvenile Detention Center where GRPS had instructed students since the program’s inception. This school was only another part of the total elimination of most of GRPS’s alternative education programs. The program director at the center when asked why they discontinued their relationship with GRPS after decades of instruction, his response was because we never saw the GRPS principal in our building. Today, the Kent County juvenile center is totally privatized with a private teaching company obliterating more public school positions and adjoining retirement contributions.

GRPS closed Creston High School in 2013 after a 110 year Polar Bear tradition and neighborhood home for students. Deposed students were forced to find other  schools or go to the GRPS Center of Innovation School at Central High School. Current students were to be accepted without qualifications but the preceding classes would not be accepted without qualification at Central. This was coupled with the fact that the students would now have to travel from their neighborhood to Central daily. That inconvenience, and break with a 100 year neighborhood history, was supposedly because of a lagging enrollment of 600 students which was replaced with a whopping 700 students. From MLive: when GRPS superintendent Teresa Neal pitched her proposal to close 10 schools as part of a restructuring plan, the biggest pushback came from closing the old Creston High School.*

The traditional high school at Creston was replaced by the recipient program at Central High School which had also been in existence since 1911. It was converted to one of the famed centers of innovation in 2007. Like the other center of innovation it has limited seats where enrollment had been opened for decades. Also like its’ counterpart U prep, it remains an unrated school, according to U.S. News, not subject to state measurements.  These educational traits are not indigenous to  public schools. Two main objectives of non public schools are to control enrollment and escape academic measurement and evaluation.

Park School located at 1150 Adams Street had been a highly successful GRPS alternative ed school serving pregnant and new mothers and was totally unique to West Michigan. The property was sold to Rockford Construction partnering with Doug and Maria DeVos. The school with its’ large playground was sold for a real bargain in the contested gentrification location known as Boston Square.  According to Monica Scott in an MLive article of Aug 16, “There were initial concerns about community input and gentrification following the leaked information of the sale. But Teresa Neal again gave her assurances that there will be very intentional inclusion (except pregnant mothers) at all neighborhood stakeholders and an extensive community engagement process. * ”The purchase of Park School is just one part of a larger plan, one that will have direct benefit to GRPS particularly Dickinson Academy”, according to Neal. Dickinson needs all the help it can get as according to Greatschools.org it rates Dickinson below average in school quality compared to other schools in the state with this warning, “test scores at this school fall far below the state average. Students at this school are making less academic progress given where they were last year, compared to similar students in the state.” *Only 11% are proficient in math and only 14% are proficient in English. It’s hard to imagine how terminating the alternative ed service to pregnant girls benefited the students at Dickinson.

Perhaps the most extreme example of public private turnover has taken place at the Vandenberg building on the corner of Wealthy and Lafayette street. The long time neighborhood school was sold directly to a private charter school called Grand Rapids Child Discovery Center in 2010. “John Helmholdt, GRPS spokesman said the sale price was below the property’s appraised value of $550,000. The Child Discovery Center is listed as a GRPS public school. It is however its’ own private district and the GRPS moniker is deceptive for a reason. At the same BOE meeting that voted unanimously to sell the Vandenberg property, it also pushed for advantageous charter school reforms. GRPS BOE pushed for a new classification of “charter like” schools that would operate within existing low performing public school districts like their own. The prize for GRPS was according to MLive article of 1/3/11, that the new platform “would broaden school choice for districts like GRPS without shifting state pupil/funding to charter schools, district leaders said.* Helmholdt again said  we should have the ability to open innovative schools that maybe have charter like features, but they’re done within the system.” In layman’s terms the charter like features mean the GRPS schools could enjoy the controlled enrollment of charter schools plus the avoidance of evaluation from public school measures and still collect public monies. One has to marvel at the term charter like schools but now realize years later that moniker has resulted in a district that is saturated with charter like aspects to the detriment of students, teachers and taxpayers. The Discovery Center Charter School boasts that it has its’ own superintendent, principal and teachers. Lisa Heyne is the superintendent not Teresa Neal. The Discovery Center is a totally private school listed as a GRPS school and has siphoned off nearly 500 students from potentially GRPS. Most amazingly the only connection the Discovery Center has with GRPS is that it was chartered to be a private charter school by GRPS. The clearest indication of a district in league with the proliferation of private schooling is when they actually charter one of them. It is simply incredible to realize that sitting in the heart of GRPS district is a privatized charter school, pretending to be a GRPS public school. The necessity to obfuscate Discovery Center’s real identity is symptomatic of the entire district’s proclivity to disguise and justify its’ privatization from bus drivers to school buildings.

University Prep at 512 Division is another representative of the much ballyhooed Center of Innovation within GRPS, which was built entirely with private business money primarily from the DeVos family. University Prep is a prime example of one of Helmholdt’s charter like schools as it operates by a board of accumulated business leaders. This hybrid business/public partnership allows the desired effect of getting public money for private invested influence. This exchange of purchased control by business and the corporate world may look innocuous at the ribbon cutting ceremonies, but let’s check the results at U.Prep. Remember, thanks to John Engler, any charter school in Michigan can be called a public school but like University Prep they are subject to different rules and non- regulations, escaping public scrutiny and accountability.  According to Great schools.org this is U Prep’s ratings: The school is rated below average in school quality compared to other schools in the state. Students at U. Prep perform below average on test scores compared to state average test scores. U Prep amazingly has below average college readiness measures and yet it sells itself as a school preparing students for college? U Prep also has below average results in how well it’s serving its’ disadvantaged students. Test scores at UPrep compared to state averages:

Math: 6%    State average:35%

English 16%    State Average 45%

Science 6%    State average 28%

Scores indicate percentage of proficiency. Again according to Great schools.org “this school is below key measures of college and career readiness.” Remember high graduation rates don’t mean much if students are graduating without the course work and test scores they need to succeed.*  To add to this dismal disclosure U.S. News evaluates U Prep as 91% of students not proficient in math with GRPS at 82% overall not proficient in math. In reading U.Prep was at 64% non proficient with the district at the same low 64% non proficient.”* Evidently U. Prep scores are not the exception at GRPS. These scores are to be found at many of the buildings. It’s inconsequential how many business funded theme schools you open if you are producing students who can’t read! It would appear that GRPS has adopted a policy of test-in requirements for enrollment at a number of schools to try and raise these scores in lieu of actually tackling reading instruction. At Blandford Elementary for example students need to pass a Reading/Math test to qualify for entrance. The district then uses a computer lottery system for final admission. A true public school makes no delineation based on academic levels for admission. To enter your neighborhood school didn’t rest on a computer lottery luck system. The slow and assiduous conversion of GRPS public required great care and skill to disguise the pockets and components of privatization.

Cambridge Education had a hand in that conversion. Cambridge is part of a large private consulting company from Mott Macdonald in Great Britain. Cambridge was sent to GRPS as a gift from the DeVos’ in April of 2012. As a result of a private paid business led audit of GRPS, Cambridge Education revealed that the district needed to restructure. In August 2012, the audit done by Cambridge Education revealed the district needed to restructure to deliver a better education to students reflecting current student population and to save money. That December the school board approved superintendent Neal’s district restructure known as the transformation plan. It should be noted that the origin of this so called restructure plan was a private for-profit company and not the result of some personal educational philosophy and awareness of superintendent Neal.  Somehow this plan became her plan when the name was changed to the transformation plan. Almost immediately the newly named plan garnered the support of local conservative politicians. “State Rep. Lisa Posthumus Lyons R Alto and Sen Dave Hildenbrand R-Lowell Twp. have written letters supporting the Grand Rapids superintendent and school board’s planned major overhaul of the district to improve achievement and finances.”* Someone should send both these politicians the recent Greatschooling.org evaluations of the newly formed schools as a result of this transformation.

Lyons, chair of the house education committee, said, ”if the district’s transformation is approved, embraced and fully implemented in a timely fashion, it could very well set the standard for the entire state.”* How prescient Lyons could have added for the entire nation if she knew her friend DeVos would be heading the Department of Education.

After the December vote the district was subject to Cambridge oversight and within a few months the dismantling of the alternative Ed program would commence. Also Teach For America ( TFA) was introduced and invited to the district before being soundly attacked by teachers at Union High School. The district had to back off of the TFA initiative which had been a directive from Cambridge. Unfortunately, that was the only initiative that was reversed. It is more than relevant to remember the transformation plan was conceived in the bowels of a corporate backed consulting firm that costs millions of dollars for a district that was already top heavy with the number of administrators per student and pay. Did they need million dollar consultants from the U.K? Evidently like Teresa Neal who needed a coach hired by Betsy DeVos as she began her tenure, the entire cadre of administrators, parents, teachers along with Teresa Neal and her cabinet, GREA and school board needed leadership training to understand the transformational concept. No problem as corporations again filled the gap with Steelcase foundation granting 1.2 million to train in unison this wide spectrum of educators who needed instruction to implement a program emanating from and for local corporations.*

Brave voices have spoken out about these overt and covert practices that are slowly eroding the public school milieu at GRPS. According to Board member Jose Flores, Grand Rapids Public Schools has the highest rate of pay for its’ administrators in Kent County. It is higher than the 20 other Kent County schools for 5 straight years and as Flores points out it is extensive and damaging to the indigenous students of this district. Special needs children could be better served by reducing administration costs in any district. We all should be concerned about 49 administrators making over $90,000 a year and 26 more making over $100,000. Meanwhile, he adds, we can’t even match state or national academic performance levels. It is not acceptable that nearly 75% of our 3rd graders can’t read, Jose lamented.

Rich Fink former MEA officer and president of Jenison’s teacher union for 20 years had these words to share: “one merely needs to look at Grand Rapids Public Schools to see the DeVos influence. Slowly and systematically the public schools are being dismantled and turned into public charters within the system. The process is slowly and quietly segregating students based on academic abilities requiring applications to be filed to be considered, and finally leaving those whose academic abilities are below the standard no real choice. This is Betsy’s hidden agenda. Provide money and opportunity to the best and brightest and leave the remainder of the students in those underfunded “public schools” because that is all they really deserve!

An anonymous non-instructive union member worker at GRPS for over 20 years stated that he has witnessed privatization creeping into his department and other areas of supportive roles. Along with privatized service workers like bus drivers, custodians, and clerical staff he warns we are now seeing skilled workers like the plumbers and carpenters being replaced with private companies. It just keeps spreading he stated, “we even now are privatizing our truck usage. There was a time our warehouse had thousands of school items that we supplied the whole district with. Today it’s only a few hundred items he added because the rest has been privatized. It all adds up to loss of jobs and we know it, he lamented.

Grand Rapids Schools has become a beehive of privatization with only a public school banner over it. To not meet state academic performance levels is an  indicator of failure as the state averages themselves have dropped precipitously since the advent and epidemic of charter schools, with Michigan 4th graders at the bottom of national reading levels. To constantly bang the graduation celebration drum while remaining oblivious to Dr. Flores’ admonition or Jeff Smith’s inquiries along with a chorus of others is irresponsible on the part of the GRPS board. It is time to realize where the leadership of this district gets its’’ bread buttered and what its’ true objectives are. Whose education philosophy are they trying to inculcate? Does it not merit a reply to the question, has DeVos money bought influence with the superintendent of this district and by extension its’ board? The question may remain unanswered and maybe laughed at by the board members but the blatant evidence of that implemented philosophy resonates across this district!

Betsy DeVos and the Covert Privatization of Grand Rapids Public Schools: Part II

June 13, 2018

(The following three part series, was written by Jack Prince. Jack is a retired educator with 30 years experience on the High School and college level. He spent 10 years as a teacher with the Grand Rapids Public Schools.)

On May 7th a group of protestors, special education parents from the Disability A Team, challenged GRPS board members to explain their position on how their public superintendent could support Betsy DeVos, the most anti public school secretary of education in history.  This challenge came after reading Neal’s quote, “Neal thinks DeVos can hold up GRPS as a model of what can be done at other struggling districts.”  “She knows education.”  “She knows what it’s going to take in order for our kids to be helped.”  Neal sees the politically conservative family’s focus on education as their commitment to the, “greater social good”.  Neal was the sole superintendent from Michigan willing to go to Washington D.C. to support DeVos in her confirmation hearing for the secretary of education position.  Of course this trip was to be paid for by DeVos.

One board member indignantly responded to the question.  She mentioned that she personally didn’t like DeVos but added it’s laughable to think DeVos has anything to do with this district!  She failed to answer of what she thought Neal’s support to Devos meant and  what ramifications that could have on school policy at GRPS!

The same question was posed by local journalist Jeff Smith over a year ago in succinct fashion: As a GRPS board member, I would like to know what your reactions are to 1. The announcement that Betsy DeVos has been named as secretary of Education and 2. What impact that might have on GRPS?  No response was ever given to that most pertinent and relevant question. Considering the $67,000 dollar personal gift to Neal from Betsy Devos (a woman who affirmed we expect a return on our investment when asked about her donations).  The question seems more then pertinent to the parents and taxpayers of this district.  Has not the GRPS Board of Education noticed the national outcry from public school leaders who see DeVos’s efforts as categorically designed to undermine the public school system throughout the country.  The board members lack of response and accusation that the entire DeVos connection to GRPS was a laughable issue seems more than irresponsible and professionally inept.

If privatization is Betsy’s obsession, GRPS should make her very happy beginning with the privatization of the school bus fleet in 2005.  The GRPS Board of Education voted in the spring of 2005 to privatize its school bus service in a move to supposedly save the district 18 million over 5 years.  In reality the private company cost more monetarily and especially in service.  More alarming was the drivers employed by GRPS had agreed to lose their family’s health insurance that would have completely covered the supposed district deficit at that time.  Regardless of the concession, the Board of Education pushed through the privatization.  Later it was discovered that the owner of Dean Transportation was the son in law of our influential senator who was tight with the DeVos Family and prominent in West Michigan politics.

P.E.S.G. is a privatized substitute teacher company, which claims to be the leader in educational staffing.  Before its creation in 2007 the state of Michigan substitutes were part of the State teacher retirement system and were controlled by individual school districts.  That district relationship with the subs engendered personal knowledge of the teachers so valuable for effective knowledge of the teachers so valuable for effective placement.  The local school secretaries knew who would fit in specific classrooms with particular needs.  That personal relationship stopped when in 2007, Henry Bledsoe was approached by a human resource director from a West Michigan school district as well as an attorney according to MLive.  It is assumed that the HR director was from Grand Rapids Public Schools since they were the original and only school that contracted with PESG for some time.  The initiation of privatized subs at Grand Rapids Public School began the entire states privatization of substitute teachers.  The HR director that visited PESG to start this privatization worked for the company upon leaving GRPS.  Additionally, worrisome is the fact that Mr. Bledsoe, as owner of Benefit Management Administration, was ordered to cease and desist from continuing to sell fraudulent health insurance policies by the State of Michigan.  The employee benefits company at 6307 84th Street is the same address as PESG and sold policies that had no underlying insurance, according to the state office of Financial and Insurance Regulations.  Substitute teachers were privatized by a businessman with no background in education caught in an insurance scam!  How fortunate for the owner of the Benefit Advisory Group to initiate an entire regions substitute teachers transfer of state retirement benefits to his own benefit 401 plans.  The substitute teachers lost their future chance for vested retirement while the districts lost the personal relationships with the subs and sacrificed their responsibility of oversight.  As with the bus drivers on immediate decline in sub performance was seen after the privatization.  One West Michigan School accurately assessed the damage to the teacher’s retirement fund by eliminating the thousands of contributions according to the Muskegon Chronicle.  The Grand Haven School Board is wary that a surge in third party contracting might undermine the state retirement system by reducing contributions.  The teacher’s retirement fund has been a target for anti-public school legislatures for years.  In fact, a major proponent of eliminating teacher pensions, is the West Michigan Policy Forum, which was created, in part, by members of the DeVos Family. 

In the future when the state insists the retirement pension being paid to teachers be reduces 30 to 40% as they did in Illinois because of a shrinking fund remember the withdrawn substitutes.  The most damaging aspect is the complete substitute teacher shortage as mentioned in the MLive article of April 3, 2017: Substitute teacher shortage expected to continue to be an ongoing problem.  This problem has been caused by companies that strive for profits for their investors by keeping subs pay low.  The dismal condition of privatized subs today can be tied to the advent of PESG and its first involvement with GRPS.  Grand Rapids has recently dropped PESG and gone with another private company.

Oakdale Elementary is one of the many examples of public GRPS buildings that have been privatized.  There are a number of techniques used to camouflage the transition from public to private components of the GRPS district.  Some of the most blatant are to be found at Oakdale Elementary and the former Vandenberg School on Lafayette Street where the direct sale to charter schools is easy to trace.  A more insidious technique is to form charter schools under the partnership with big business and call them centers or innovation schools.  University Prep is a prime example of this technique.   Both the Grand Rapids Child Discovery Center, a full-fledged charter school and University Prep, insists on being called public schools.  This tendency to have charter schools or elements of charter schools at GRPS is certainly indicative of Betsy DeVos’ ideology as she has mentioned recently that traditional public schools and charter schools should be thought of as part of the same public system.  This comment is particularly irksome to public school educators because the two types of schools are managed differently and subject to different rules and regulations.  This clandestine blending or partnership technique produces such subtle differences that no one notices that the Discovery Center is a full-fledged charter school with its own private principal and superintendent and is still called a GRPS public school.  When recently asked, the president of the GREA wasn’t even aware that the teachers at the Discovery Center are privately hired and paid by the charter school.  One of the manifest differences indigenous to GRPS is that while being called public many of their buildings require a “test in” qualification to enter.  This is not an aspect of public schools traditional policy.  Public schools allow open enrollment and do not entangle entrance with any test in qualifications; such as that found at the Blandford Elementary, and other buildings within GRPS.  Students are not put on a waiting list subject for entrance based on a computer lottery pick in a traditional neighborhood school.

Oakdale was a fine neighborhood public school with open enrollment for decades.  It is now the home of 500 privatized students in the Timberline Charter Academy (NHA) K-5.  Suspicious circumstances surrounded in the NHA obtaining the GRPS properties.  Developer, Bruce Michael, owner of Ojibway Development flat out deceived the city according to then Major Heartwell as he had promised to transform the GRPS building into apartments but instead, immediately after purchasing Oakdale, Lexington and Eastern Schools, sold them to the charter school NHA for the same exact price.  Obviously he was not the only one deceiving Grand Rapids citizens.  Consider why a developer would sell the properties hours after the purchase from GRPS for the same price for No Profit!  It seems someone had worries over the awareness by the public of a public school selling buildings directly to a charter school company.  Another question was pointed out in a MLive article: “For many the question is how many students will the (new charter) siphon from Grand Rapids Public Schools?  When the NHA deal was revealed Grand Rapids school leadership said it wasn’t competition.  Five hundred privatized students would seem to almost anyone as competition but it doesn’t appear that Grand Rapids Public really cares as the district has lost 8,000 students in a little over a decade.  There is an epidemic of transformation (code for privatization) occurring in the city of Grand Rapids and its symptoms are clear: they close public and they open private!

Another example of charter establishment was the sale of Campau Elementary (a beloved neighborhood school) to Covenant House Michigan, another for-profit private charter school from Detroit Michigan.  Again from MLIve; The Charter School draws students desperate for a last chance from throughout the region but significant numbers of students at S.E. Career Pathways which was a Grand Rapids Public School were also labeled as last chance students and were provided with a curriculum and staff to implement their last chance at graduation.  The writer knows this because he taught there. GRPS students at S.E. were sent letters from GRPS informing them it was mandatory to attend the newly opened charter school based on their G.P.A.  Today Covenant House has 320 students.  Many of them would have been GRPS students.

*The Griid 2016, griid.org

*Mackinaw Center Grand Rapids found Privatizes Busing Michigan Education Report

*MLIve September 25, 2009 State Orders Benefit Management Administrators INC.  To stop selling….

*MLIve December 26, 2017: Privatizing Substitute Teachers is a Growing Trend

Students confront Rep. Huizenga on his lack of action on school shootings

June 12, 2018

Earlier today, a group of students organized under the name of Youth Activism Coalition, took action at the Grandville office of Representative Bill Huizenga.

About 20 students participated in the action, all carrying signs and a piece of tap across their mouths.

The students entered Rep. Huizenga’s office in silence, standing with their signs, while one member of the group made an opening statement about school shootings and what they wanted from the Congressman.

As you will see and hear in the video below, the student who spoke, read a list of the names of those killed in school shootings (223) since Columbine. The students also ended with a clear message for Rep. Huizenga.

 

 

Betsy DeVos and the Covert Privatization of Grand Rapids Public Schools: Part I

June 12, 2018

(The following three part series, was written by Jack Prince. Jack is a retired educator with 30 years experience on the High School and college level. He spent 10 years as a teacher with the Grand Rapids Public Schools.)

Michigan is number one in the country with for profit charter schools.  The following is an excerpt of the Montgomery Securities Group explaining to corporate America the lure of privatizing education.  Author Jonathan Kozol quotes “The education industry, according to these analysts, represents in our opinion the final frontier of a number of sectors once under public control” that have either voluntarily opened or, they note in pointed terms, have “been forced” to open up to private enterprise.  Indeed they write, “The education industry represents the largest market opportunity” since health-care services were privatized during the 70’s.

From the point of view of private profit, one of these analysts enthusiastically observes, “The K-12 market is the big enchilada.  With the yearly public spending in the hundreds of millions alone in Michigan, neoliberals like Betsy DeVos have long appreciated the profit motive associated with the golden equation “Public money for private profit.”  Betsy DeVos, along with President Donald Trump have made promoting charter schools and taxpayer funded vouchers a centerpiece in their educational philosophy and platform.  That charter school proclivity is reflected in their proposed education budget, which clearly hurts public schools and college students. A summary of the rejected proposed 2018 education budget indicated DeVos’ priorities:

  • cut public education funding by 13.6%
  • cut 1.2 billion from after school programs
  • cut 27 million from art education
  • cut IDEA (special education by 13.3 million
  • cut 2.1 billion from funding to reduce to reduce class size and support professional development
  • cut 700 million in college loans for low income students *

The savings that would have been realized by these cuts were intended by the DeVos educational department to be channeled back to private and/or religious schools that are unaccountable to public review. 

In 2013 K-12 Inc. the largest private charter school in the country with an enrollment of over 100,000 students took in 730 billion from taxpayers for online virtual computer instruction. These virtual charter schools exist here in Grand Rapids, such as the for profit Nex Tech charter school at 801 Broadway, where students are forced to go when the public schools are closed. DeVos’ proposed  2018 budget would have given more than 1 billion more to such virtual online schools along with private school vouchers.

Betsy DeVos’ penchant to undermine public education through the entrenchment of privatization can be seen empirically beyond her education budget machinations .Not knowing what IDEA is or believing that schools should have guns in case of grizzly bears, are mere indications of DeVos’ pervasive ignorance and lack of basic preparedness and yet they are insignificant to the main tenet of her ideology.  An ideology that was present in her family decades ago lying in wait like a time bomb here in West Michigan. 

Betsy DeVos’ economic prowess was derived from her father, a fundamentalist conservative businessman, who made it rich developing the ubiquitous lighted sun visor in Holland Michigan.  In the 1980’s the Prince family merged with one of the most venerable conservative families in the U.S. when Betsy  married Dick DeVos , whose father Rich, is the co-founder of the multilevel marketing firm Amway, distributor of home products, regularly plagued with accusations that the company is run like a cult and is nothing more than a sophisticated pyramid  scheme.*

Betsy DeVos would go on to chair Michigan Republican Party from 1996-2000. Her husband Dick DeVos was the GOP candidate for governor in 2006.  Previously the DeVos family spent upwards of 3 million in 2000 pushing to implement school vouchers in Michigan. Betsy’s brother Erik Prince, in parallel with Betsy’s penchant to privatized education, had his own privatization endeavor with the U.S. army. Erik was the creator of the largest private military industrial company, Blackwater Worldwide, with the $500,000,000 inheritance from his father Edgar.  Recently Erik proposed to Donald Trump that the United States have a private mercenary army to fix Afghanistan, a country we’ve been at war with since 2001.* Imagine the conversation around the Thanksgiving table at the DeVos’ 22,000 square foot home in Holland Michigan with Betsy asking Erik how his privatizing of the American army is going with Erik countering with the question of how her privatizing of the public education  system is coming, followed by “pass the stuffing please.” Prince and DeVos, like Trump, use their wealth to exert political influence and advance ideological visions that are harmful to U.S. democracy and public institutions.  The Prince-DeVos family is yet another example of Trump bringing in wealthy friends to corrupt the foundations of American public life.*

Investment intertwined with political cause is a trademark of Betsy and Erik Prince.  Consider the comment from Elizabeth Warren at DeVos’ confirmation hearing “It is difficult to imagine a worse choice to head the department of education-Betsy DeVos doesn’t believe in public schools, her only knowledge of student loans seems to come from her own financial investments connected to debt collectors who hound people struggling with student loans and despite being a billionaire she wants the chance to keep making money off shady investments while she runs the department of education.”            

Clearly privatization is an  icon for the Prince family. Patriarchal father Edgar and mother Elsa donated millions to support the conservative fundamentalist political goals, including the Family Research Council, which has become one of the leading religious right groups active in organizing against gay rights and promoting state sponsored prayer along with vouchers for religious schools.* 

The legacy of vouchers in Betsy’s family history translates into an array of initiatives to induce privatization. It is worthy to consider that privatization of all public institutions is a mainstay in conservative ideology which has cached the Prince family legacy for decades here in West Michigan. The next logical inspection is to see how DeVos’ influence has promulgated in West Michigan and specifically in the Grand Rapids Public Schools, and consider the extrapolation of her ideology nationally now that she presides as the Secretary of Education. 

Grand Rapids Power Structure Part V: Local Government

June 11, 2018

In the past few weeks, we have been looking at the Grand Rapids Power Structure. In Part I, we provided a framework for the local power structure in Part I, the most powerful family in Grand Rapids, the DeVos Family in Part II and in Part III we looked at other members of the most powerful members of the private sector. In Part IV, we looked at the private sector organizations that have power and which individuals sit on the boards of those organizations. 

As we mentioned in Part I, there is a hierarchy of power, which starts with Economic Power, followed by Political Power and then State Power. In this article, we look at local government in the role it plays within the Grand Rapids Power Structure. 

There are numerous functions that local government plays in supporting the Grand Rapids Power Structure. One primary function of local government (city and county), in supporting the area power structure, is to make sure that there is no significant threat to the existing power structure by members of civil society. Local governments practice defending the existing power structure by 1) making decisions, passing ordinances and creating budgets that will not threaten the existing systems of power; 2) limiting the level of direct democracy by civil society, and; 3) using force and fear to make sure that civil society does not challenge the existing power structure.

Promoting Business as Usual

While the Grand Rapids City Commission likes to present themselves as being progressive, they primarily function as conduit to maintain and defend the existing power structure. The Kent County Commission doesn’t present themselves as progressive, in the same way as Grand Rapids does, but they function pretty much the same, in that they also are a conduit to maintain and defend the existing power structure.

Both the City and the County governments support the economic policy of “growth,” which ultimately means they defend the system of capitalism, which primarily rewards those who already have tremendous wealth and punishes those who do not. Growth, for the local governments, means providing massive taxpayer subsidies to the business community, especially to development projects, which primarily support those with tremendous wealth.

Look at all the development projects in and around Grand Rapids and you can easily see who benefits. These economic decisions will also disproportionately benefit those who are white, thus perpetuating institutionalized racism. Those who get the massive taxpayer subsidies are white and those who are displaced by development projects are disproportionately people of color

Economic Growth has also meant a focus on using public funds to develop downtown Grand Rapids, through organizations like the now disbanded group Grand Action, projects like ArtPrize and the expansion of what members of the GR Power Structure identifies as tourism.” One additional example of how local government defends the power structure, is the recently released financial documents on the failed proposal to bring Amazon to the area. The total “incentives” being offered to Amazon from Grand Rapids and Kent County we over $1.5 billion dollars.

Limiting Direct Democracy

If people have ever attended City or County Commission meetings, they know that most of the decisions made at these meetings have already happened. Most agenda items are simply a formality, but the public is granted an opportunity to voice their concerns, which are heard by commissioners without any real feedback. Occasionally, there are public hearings, but ultimately the power to determine issues that merit a public hearing are still decided by commissioners at the city and county level. In other words, the public does not get to vote directly on major issues that impact the city/county.

Some will say that this is what representative democracy is and that it is the best we can hope for. Regardless of where one stands on the form of government that currently exists, the fact remains that the rest of us are limited in what we can do, if we play by the rules.

Take for example the issue of policing. A full one third of the City of Grand Rapids budget is devoted to policing. At the county level, a significant amount of the budget is set aside for the Sheriff’s Department, which includes the operation of the Kent County Jail. We know that the function of local law enforcement is primarily designed to police communities of color, to protect private property and to defend the interests of those with economic and political power. The amount of money, taxpayers money, that goes into local law enforcement is not something the public gets to vote on. The City and County Commissioners make those decisions and we are told to accept such outcomes.

Another “opportunity” the public has in local government is to sit on committees that have some say in what gets decided economically and politically in Grand Rapids and Kent County. However, the majority of those who sit on these boards are either individuals from the local power structure, representatives of the groups that make up part of the power structure, or people from the non-profit sector, which too often rely on funding from those with power.    

For example, look at the list of people who make up the current Downtown Development Authority. Some are elected officials, but most of those listed are people either work for organizations directly tied to the Grand Rapids Power Structure, those who run businesses or those in the non-profit sector that often act as a buffer between those in power and the rest of us. 

One last example of how electoral democracy at the city and county level is how candidates are funded. In many ways, it is no different than candidates running for state and federal office, where people with deep pockets often determine electoral outcomes.

Take Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss. People who are part of the local power structure, people like Peter Secchia, JC Huizenga, Kate Wolters, Scott Brew, Bill Bowling, Robert Woodhouse, Sam Cummings, Doug DeVos, Steve Van Andel, Scott Bowen, Dan Bowen, Sharon Bowen, Mark Breon, Friends of West Michigan Business, Ray Kisor, Mark Murray, Scott Wierda, Thomas Cronkright, Josh May, Lawrence Duthler, Arnold Mikon, Mark Sellers, Realtors Political Action Committee, GR Firefighters Union, GR Police Officers Labor Council all contributed between $500 and $5000 to Bliss’s campaign in 2016, according to Campaign Finance records through Kent County. Even since then, some of the very same names have contributed to the Mayor’s re-election, which is documented in the July 2017 campaign finance document.

While it is true that people who are not part of the local power structure also contributed to the Mayor’s campaign in 2016, they gave a significantly less amount. The deep pockets in this community use their campaign contributions to buy access and influence in the decisions that local politicians make. Campaign Financing by the rich is just a basic dynamic in how power functions.

Policing decent, Protecting Power

The third way that local government uses its power to defend the interests of those who have the real power in Grand Rapids and Kent County is by attacking those who dissent. There are a few ways in which this happens. First, those who dissent are often socially marginalized as radicals, haters or those who just like to complain all the time. Sometimes those marginalized are individuals and sometimes they are organizations of social movements that seek to make structural or system changes in the area. Marginalizing these people/groups is an effective tactic, specifically because it sends a message to the general public about what is “appropriate behavior” in the eyes of those with power in this community.

A second tactic used to police dissent is to intimidate, harass and punish those who would dare challenge power. Sometimes this happens as clearly as when student activists were intimidated by the GRPD, who came to their homes to threaten them because of their public support for The Rapid Bus Driver union, which was seeking to negotiate a more just contract. 

This kind of harassment and intimidation is mostly targeted at communities of color, particularly the black and Latinx communities. Local law enforcement spends a disproportionate amount of time policing communities of color, which is clearly reflected in the disproportionate amount of people of color who are in the Kent County Jail. Those who are most negatively impacted by the Grand Rapids Power Structure are victims of the prison industrial complex, by being in prison, in jail, on parole or on probation. This, of course, is by design.

An example of the policing of communities of color is the local police relationship to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). All local police departments and the Kent County Sheriff’s department stop and arrest people from the immigrant community who are undocumented, which often results in their being arrested and detained in the Kent County Jail. The Kent County Jail, which is overseen by the Kent County Commission, has a contract with ICE to put a hold on immigrants who are undocumented. This practice of targeting immigrants is increasing, it breaks up families and causes tremendous harm for thousands of people in the area.

On last way that those who dissent against the local power structure are attacked is the reality of living within a system of neo-liberal capitalism. Those who dissent, organize and protest the local power structure are themselves are barely able to support themselves. Whether it is the reality of student debt, poverty, the cost of housing and health care, the majority of the population in Kent County is one paycheck away from being evicted or foreclosing on their mortgage. Neo-Liberal capitalism is so debilitating, that those who are dissenting are often in crisis because the economic system – the same system that benefits the Grand Rapids Power Structure – punishes them for dissenting. Indeed, even those who don’t dissent, can clearly see that if they chose to dissent, a similar fate will await them if they get out of line and chose to challenge power.

Grand Rapids was founded on Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy and Capitalism. The Kent County and Grand Rapids governments do not and will not seriously challenge these dynamics. These local government structures will provide some minimal rights, just enough to convince people that the way things function currently are not that awful. In fact, we are convinced that things are pretty good.

Next week, in Part VI of the Grand Rapids Power Structure, we will look at the function of media in defending and perpetuating the current systems of power.

GR Chamber endorsements for the 2018 Election: Pro-Business Candidates who get money from Grand Rapids Power Structure members

June 7, 2018

Over the past 48 hours, the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce has sent out media advisories with their endorsements for candidates running in the 2018 Election.

On June 5, the GR Chamber formally endorsed Brian Calley for Governor. Their media advisory stated:

“Michigan’s economic growth and business climate transformation over the last eight years has been tremendous,” said Rick Baker, President & CEO of the Grand Rapids Chamber. “We must maintain this trajectory, and we believe Lieutenant Governor Calley is well positioned and qualified to continue the Michigan comeback.

Of course, there is nothing surprising about this endorsement, since the GR Chamber looks out for the interests of its members, which is the business community. However, this does affirm our analysis about the Grand Rapids Power Structure, in that the GR Chamber of Commerce supports policies and candidates that benefit those who already have tremendous economic power in our community. 

One way to verify our analysis that the GR Chamber of Commerce is part of the local power structure, is to see who has been the primary financial backers with Brian Calley. Since 2010, when Calley ran as Gov. Snyder’s running mate, the number one financial contributor to Brian Calley was the DeVos Family, with a total of $478,200. The other member of the Grand Rapids Power Structure, which has contributed significantly to Brian Calley, is John Kennedy. Private financial power always endorses those who will help expand private financial power, which is exactly what Brian Calley will do.

In the race for the Senate, the GR Chamber is endorsing John James, who is third behind Senator Debbie Stabenow and the other Republican challenger Sandy Pensler, in terms of fundraising

In the 2nd Congressional District race, the GR Chamber is endorsing Rep. Bill Huizenga. Huizenga has raised five times the amount of money that his Democratic challenger has raised. Bill Huizenga gets the GR Chamber endorsement not only because he protects the business interests in West Michigan, he also serves on the Financial Services Committee, as is evidenced by who his major contributors are – Nasdaq Inc, Cantor Fitzgerald, Rock Holdings, etc.

The GR Chamber of Commerce is also endorsing Michigan House Speaker Tom Leonard for Attorney General. Leonard has supported some of the strongest state economic austerity measures in recent years. Therefore, it is no surprise that Rep. Leonard has received the financial backing of John Kennedy and Peter Secchia, both members of the Grand Rapids Power Structure.

Here is the complete list of GR Chamber of Commerce endorsements for state office, along with the major financial backing of members of the Grand Rapids Power Structure.

Michigan House of Representatives:                                               

District 61: Brandt Iden – DeVos & Meijer 

District 70: Jim Lower – DeVos 

District 73: Lynn Afendoulis –

District 74: Mark Huizenga

District 75: David LaGrand

District 76: Amanda Brand

District 77: Tommy Brann – DeVos 

District 80: Mary Whiteford

District 86: Thomas Albert – Kennedy 

District 87: Julie Calley

District 88: Luke Meerman

District 89: Jim Lilly – DeVos 

District 90: Bradley Slagh

District 91: Greg VanWoerkom

District 100: Scott VanSingel

                                                                                                                                                     

Michigan State Senate:

District 19: Mike Callton

District 20: Margaret O’Brien – DeVos 

District 26: Aric Nesbitt

District 28: Pete MacGregor – DeVos, Meijer, Kennedy, Van Andel, Jandernoa 

District 29: Chris Afendoulis – Kennedy & Meijer 

District 30: Daniela Garcia – Kennedy & DeVos 

District 33: Rick Outman

District 34: Holly Hughes

The Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce has also endorsed candidates for Kent County Commission seats. The GR Chamber has only endorsed 14 of the 19 seats as listed below.

Kent County Board of Commissioners:

District 1: Ted Vonk

District 2: Tom Antor

District 4: Diane Jones

District 5: Mandy Bolter

District 6: Stan Stek

District 7: Stan Ponstein           

District 10: Emily Post Brieve

District 11: Jim Saalfeld

District 12: Monica Sparks

District 13: Jessica Ann Tyson             

District 14: Carol Hennessy

District 15: Jim Talen

District 16: Dave Bulkowski

District 18: Dan Koorndyk

One thing that is obvious from this list is that the GR Chamber has endorsed 4 Democratic candidates. This is the case with David LaGrand getting the Chamber endorsement in the 75th House District race. It begs the question as to why they would endorse Democratic candidates. Our answer is that each of these Democratic Party candidates does not challenge the current economic policies in the state or the county, which is the primarily measuring stick for the GR Chamber. As a member of the Grand Rapids Power Structure, the GR Chamber doesn’t just follow partisan lines, they support and endorse politicians that endorse neo-liberal economic policies that disproportionately benefit the business class and expand of their wealth. This is exactly why we believe that private wealth has more power than government.