Former Detroit Teacher’s Open Letter to Snyder

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Billionaire Dick DeVos and one of his Detroit victims. (MLive/USUncut)

Last night, the Michigan Senate passed bills to relieve the Detroit Public Schools of state-created debt. After Republicans in the Michigan House refused to compromise, the Senate bills were passed without their original centerpiece, a Detroit Education Commission that would have the authority over public school and charter school openings. The DEC had been supported by a broad coalition that included teachers, the Skillman Foundation and the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce.

The outcome was a victory for for-profit charter school operators, who generate millions in profits using public education dollars, and for the billionaire DeVos dynasty of Grand Rapids, which has pushed a privatized education system for decades. The bills now go to Governor Snyder’s desk.

The following is an open letter to Snyder by former Detroit Public Schools teacher Regina Weiss, urging him not to sign the bills.

Governor Rick Snyder,

I am an educator and a former Detroit Public Schools teacher. In fact, I moved to the city of Detroit in 2011 with the sole purpose of teaching in the Detroit Public Schools. I taught in DPS for three years, and left the district in 2014 when it was pretty clear that I would no longer be able to afford to pay my mortgage and other bills on my meager salary.

It broke my heart to leave the district and my kids. It still breaks my heart today to think about it.

As someone who worked in the trenches of the Detroit Public Schools, I know better than most across the State just how desperately the district needs restructuring and reform.

As an educator, historian, and activist, I have a good understanding of how the District got to where it is today. I know, as do other teachers and parents in Detroit, what needs to be done to restore some sense of balance and equity to the district.

But, I’m not writing to give you a history lesson. Though, if you’d like one, please let me know and I’d be happy to oblige. I’m not even writing to tell you my views on how to start fixing the district (again, happy to oblige if you’d like; just let me know).

The reason why I’m writing to you is because of the travesty that happened in the Senate tonight. The legislation that has passed first through the House and now the Senate is the exact opposite of what Detroit kids and families need.

I am writing to ask you to do one simple thing: Refuse to sign the bill. Ball it up and throw it in the trash, where it belongs.

Governor Snyder, you do not need to be complacent in the destruction of public education within the city of Detroit. You know as well as anyone that this plan is garbage. The reforms that the original Senate plan proposed, while imperfect and a far cry from real sustainable change, would have at least been a slight move in the right direction.

This bastardization of “reform,” however, is designed to do nothing other than dismantle public education in the city and replace it with a for-profit, unregulated charter system (funded largely by the DeVos family) that will benefit only the special interests (and the politicians whose campaigns they fund) who make money on the backs of underprivileged children.

Do not put your signature on this bill. You have a choice, and you know what the consequences of your actions are. This bill is the Flint Water Crisis of education reform. Please, stand up and say no. You are the only hope right now for preserving public education in Detroit and protecting kids and families. Please, do the right thing.

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The Mackinac Conference Is An Engorged Albino Lamprey Sucking the Substance From Meaningful Policy Debate

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No man is an island – but you sure can fit a lot of lobbyists on one.

Let’s begin with a hypothetical: What if, through some freakish geological event, Mackinac Island were to sink into the waters of Lake Huron during the annual “policy conference” held on the island by the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce?

The human cost would, of course, be deeply unfortunate, and Michigan would lose a very pleasant piece of real estate.

But it’s hard to argue that Michigan would be much worse off in terms of policy ideas.

On that front, we might even consider the Edmund Fitzgeralding of the island to be a decided improvement.

Can It Get Any Dumber?

In my last post, I noted the nearly $3000 price tag to attend the island conference. For that kind of money, you might at least anticipate a good deal of substantive discussion of pressing issues facing Michigan, like the fact that metro Detroit tops the nation in concentrated poverty, or that the decline of the middle class in the Great Lakes State has been the most precipitous in the country. Unfortunately, you’d be mistaken. Continue reading “The Mackinac Conference Is An Engorged Albino Lamprey Sucking the Substance From Meaningful Policy Debate”

Why Billionaires Won’t Save Detroit

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Billionaire Dan Gilbert shows a fellow billionaire his model of downtown Detroit.

This is a revised version of a Facebook post I wrote in March. I publish it here as we prepare for the upcoming Mackinac Policy Conference, Michigan’s annual island orgy of corporate greed and political self-interest. It’s also pertinent as we consider the impending nomination of nativist demagogue Donald Trump as the Republican candidate for President of the United States.

By the way, in case you were thinking of going to the Conference, registration at the Conference for non-members of the Detroit Regional Chamber is a cool $2,925, about one and a half times as much as the average Detroit household earns in a month.

This gives you a good idea of how the event hosts think about the unwashed peninsular masses.

(They don’t.)

Our “Q”

Back in March, we received the revelation that Dan Gilbert, having purchased naming rights to the three-mile M-1 streetcar for a cool $10 million, had decided to name it after…his own mortgage company, Quicken Loans.

Freep editor Stephen Henderson, a native Detroiter, professed to be shocked and disgusted by this development. Henderson, who’s done a good deal to draw attention to the need for better transit, wrote in his regular column: “The QLINE name suggests, subtly, that this isn’t about that wider need for transit, or the people who so desperately need it.”

Indeed, the choice of name suggests many things. Continue reading “Why Billionaires Won’t Save Detroit”

Forgotten School’s Story Holds Key to DPS Woes

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The old school is just visible above Spain Elementary (foreground) and Ben Carson (right).

Half-hidden behind two newer school buildings, a stone’s throw from busy Mack Avenue in the heart of the Detroit Medical Center campus, a hundred-year-old brick structure in Midtown Detroit hides an extraordinary story.

In 2016, as the Michigan Legislature debates the future of the Detroit Public Schools, the tale of Detroit’s forgotten Lincoln School holds the key to understanding what has become of Michigan’s largest public school district.

It’s a story that Michigan has forgotten for a reason. Continue reading “Forgotten School’s Story Holds Key to DPS Woes”

A New Arena, A Shuttered School, and an Immoral Legislature

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A month or two ago, I was arriving in Detroit from Ann Arbor on the Greyhound bus when something outside the window caught my eye: the juxtaposition of a shuttered public school, just off the I-75 service drive, with the flashing lights of the Motor City Casino behind it, and the new Red Wings arena – built with public funding – rising not far away.

After getting off the bus, I biked over and took a few photos, with the idea for a “meme,” like the one above, already in my head. Over the past few weeks, the Michigan Legislature’s refusal to allocate funding to the Detroit Public Schools made the grotesque immorality of the situation increasingly evident. I posted the image on my Facebook page around 4 pm yesterday, the second day of the DPS sickout, with the statement “Emergency management is never having to say you’re sorry.”

A day later, it’s been shared 674 times. I suppose you could say it struck a chord. (Update: up to 714 since I began writing this post.)

A little background: “Socialism for the rich, capitalism for the poor” is a phrase that has taken on a life of its own, but it was popularized (as “socialism for the rich, free enterprise for the poor”) by the late Michael Harrington, author of The Other America and longtime president of the Democratic Socialists of America. Harrington borrowed the phrase from the illustrious but now sadly forgotten housing expert and social reformer Charles Abrams, also of New York City, in describing the regressive effects of federal housing policy.

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Michael Harrington (left) and Charles Abrams (right – but also left, politically).

The hockey arena, now to be known as the Little Caesars Arena after its owners, the Ilitch family, is financed by 58% public funding, or $261 million in Michigan taxpayer dollars. According to Crain’s Detroit Business, the funding comes in the form of a state bond issue which is to be paid back by the Detroit Downtown Development Authority (DDA), using its property tax collection powers, by the year 2045. A 2014 ruling by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette cleared the way for the DDA to collect tax dollars that would otherwise go towards the state School Aid Fund, to the tune of $15 million per year.

That’s a somewhat different timetable than the one-time injection of money that DPS needs to stay afloat after years of state emergency management. But nonetheless, the state Legislature’s eagerness to satisfy the appetites of a billionaire pizza dynasty – and its contrasting indifference to the plight of tens of thousands of impoverished, often malnourished schoolchildren – is nothing short of scurrilous.

Perhaps ironically, the school featured in the photograph, at the interchange of I-75 and the Lodge, is the Benjamin Franklin School, opened in 1865 and shuttered in 2010 after stints as the Burton International Academy and an adult education center. The existing structure dates to 1922.

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Detroiter Isaiah Burnett takes a shot on the Franklin School’s basketball court, March 2016.

As the publisher of Poor Richard’s Almanack, among other pursuits, Benjamin Franklin popularized a variety of sayings. Among them: “The only thing more expensive than education is ignorance.”

That is a truth that the Republicans in the Michigan House seem determined to prove.

Proposed Midtown Rezoning Would Restrict Shelters for Humans, Favor Shelters for Dogs

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Note: Link to petition to City Council is here. This piece was updated 4/11/16 with a few minor corrections. City planning staff previously stated this would be the largest rezoning in Detroit’s history, but they have since checked their records, and in fact, a prior rezoning of the west riverfront area (in advance of proposed casinos) was larger.

Detroit City Council is considering a major rezoning in the heart of Midtown -specifically, in the old Cass Corridor, extending from Charlotte Street north to the Wayne State University campus, between Woodward and the Lodge Expressway. It would be the largest second-largest rezoning proposal in Detroit’s history, according to Detroit city planning staff.

For those unfamiliar with city planning, zoning refers to the complex set of restrictions that determine what you can and can’t do with a piece of real estate – that is, land. It’s what shapes a city in a whole host of ways – from what buildings look like, to who gets to use them. Given Midtown’s status as a focus for massive investment, what happens to zoning in Midtown has profound import for the rest of the city as well.

Mixed Uses: Back to the Future

Most of Detroit’s current zoning classifications are many decades old, and follow the traditional pattern of separating out different uses, like residential, commercial, and industrial functions. (Those who have played SimCity 2000 may recall that these were green, blue, and yellow in that edition of that game.)

The rezoning proposal would replace old “residential” and “business” zoning in this district with two brand-new, mixed-use zoning classifications with the mellifluous names of “Special Development District: Small Scale/ Mixed-Use” and “Special Development District: Commercial/Residential,” or, more concisely, SD1 and SD2.

It’s widely recognized that the old planning standard of strict divisions between uses was not such a good idea. In fact, it effectively made traditional downtowns illegal. No longer could new development easily incorporate both shops on the ground floor, and apartments above, as was common when Detroit’s Cass Corridor was initially constructed.

The proposed rezoning would fix that. It would also loosen the parking requirements for new development in this major public transit corridor, and prevent new developments from opening drive-throughs, or constructing parking lots between the sidewalk and the building, in the fashion of a suburban strip mall.

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Area proposed for rezoning as SD1 (yellow) and SD2 (green).

That’s the good part. Unfortunately, the rezoning proposal also contains provisions that would sideline the social service institutions that have long been part of the soul of the Cass Corridor, and still provide critically needed care for our region’s neediest people.

Who’s Not In the Mix

In a lot of ways, zoning makes sense. You probably don’t want a massive refinery right next to a residential area, for example, for reasons of public health – although Detroit’s current zoning policies have not prevented that from happening.

Unfortunately, zoning has also been abused to buttress social inequality. One of the earliest uses of zoning in the United States, in fact, was the City of San Francisco’s 1885 attempt to bar commercial laundries from most of its area – and, in so doing, shut out their Chinese immigrant workers and owners. Southern cities zoned areas by race, and to this day, the residential zoning in many suburban jurisdictions only allows single-family homes on large lots, effectively keeping out poor and working-class families.

And, sadly, the proposed new zoning districts also appear targeted to exclude institutions that serve poor people – and that have often been located in the old Cass Corridor.

The new zoning categories, as written, would place severe restrictions on a variety of charitable social service institutions, including nursing homes, emergency shelters, and other group living facilities – at the same time as they ease restrictions on various commercial uses, such as brewpubs and pet shops.

For example, under the rezoning, commercial kennels would become a “conditional use” throughout the area – that is, allowed to open, subject to Planning Commission Buildings, Safety Engineering, and Environmental Department staff approval. They are currently prohibited in the portions of the neighborhood zoned residential (generally, the lots fronting the east-west streets in the neighborhood).

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Midtown dog park. Photo: Curbed Detroit.

However, nursing homes, which are currently a “by-right” use throughout the neighborhood – that is, automatically allowed – would become a “conditional use” in both new zoning categories. Emergency shelters, pre-release adjustment centers and residential substance abuse treatment centers, which are currently conditional uses throughout the area, would both be prohibited entirely under the new zoning categories.

In other words, the rezoning would restrict the opening of shelter facilities for humans, while making it easier to open shelter facilities for dogs.

Download the full comparison table between the existing and proposed zoning categories at this link. “R” means “by right,” “C” means “conditional,” and blank spaces mean “prohibited.”

Being Nice in the New Detroit

To be honest, it’s hard to say how much the proposed zoning changes would, in themselves, affect the trajectory of the old Cass Corridor. Existing social services in the area would be “grandfathered in” in the rezoning, so they would not be forced to move, though their ability to expand would be limited. It’s not exactly as if a host of new shelters and nursing homes are clamoring to open in the area, where real estate prices have skyrocketed so much as to make that nearly impossible.

Already, many of the social services that used to define the lower Corridor have been pushed to the margins – not through zoning, but through other means. An example is the Salvation Army’s Harbor Light residential substance abuse treatment center, which used to be in the old Park Avenue Hotel recently demolished for the new Red Wings arena. The Salvation Army vacated that near-downtown location in 2003 for a new site at MLK and I-96, a full mile to the west.

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The former Harbor Light shelter is imploded, making way for new hockey arena, 2015.

However, this naked attempt to exclude the neediest people from the greater downtown area by action of the City itself goes against the principles of democracy and equality that Detroit has, at its best, embodied. How sad that a city that’s been down and out for so long would treat its most vulnerable residents just as badly.

The rezoning  also sets a troubling principle for the rest of the city. It’s almost certain that the new zoning categories will also be applied to other areas of the city viewed as ripe for redevelopment, from Southwest Detroit to the Villages to the Avenue of Fashion.

This isn’t the first time that Detroit has tried to push social services to the margins of the downtown. Detroit’s old Skid Row used to occupy the west side of downtown, along Michigan Avenue near First and Second Avenues. (This low-rent area was also the first point of entry for Chinese Americans and Mexican Americans in Detroit.)

In the 1950s, the city demolished that area for “urban renewal.” (A half-century later, the place is still fairly dead to pedestrian activity, dominated by the giant superblocks of the McNamara Federal Building and the MGM Grand Casino.) The social services simply moved a half-mile north, creating the Cass Corridor that would later become so notorious.

It’s not too late, however, to learn from the lessons of the past, instead of repeating its injustices time and time again. Detroit’s redevelopment need not create two cities, separate and unequal. Yet we need to muster the courage to tell our elected officials that we cannot countenance our own government – the institution that’s charged with protecting its citizens – using its powers to push our most vulnerable people to the wayside in favor of trendy restaurants and bars.

The future of Midtown Detroit must be a future that is truly mixed use, a future where everyone is welcome,not a future as a luxury entertainment enclave for the metropolitan elite.

If you’ve read this far, please sign this petition to City Council asking them to amend the proposed rezoning.

Memo to Hillary: Detroit Incinerator Is Not “Clean Energy”

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Hillary Clinton speaking in Detroit Saturday, and Detroit’s municipal trash incinerator. Photos: Emily Lawler (MLive.com) and Steve Neavling (Motor City Muckraker).

In a campaign visit to a Detroit auto parts plant Saturday, Hillary Clinton praised what she described as the continuing strength of Michigan’s hard-hit manufacturing sector. But her reference to sustainable practices at General Motors’ Poletown plant, which draws much of its energy from Detroit’s municipal trash incinerator, might smell a little funny to the incinerator’s neighbors.

“You used to make B-24 bombers at Willow Run,” Clinton said. “Now you’re developing driverless cars there…Chevy is making electric cars in Hamtramck and using clean energy to do it.”

It’s unlikely that Clinton is familiar with the details of energy sourcing at GM’s Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly, which now produces the Chevy Volt and has a checkered history of its own with respect to corporate power. In the 1980s, Detroit’s Poletown neighborhood (population 3,500) was demolished by the city to accommodate the new plant, in what has been called the largest and fastest-ever relocation of people in the United States under the power of eminent domain. That struggle pitted Detroit Mayor Coleman Young against neighborhood residents and dissidents who included self-described “independent socialist” City Councilman Ken Cockrel, Sr. Mayor Young argued the plant was desperately needed to bring jobs back to Detroit, but Cockrel accused Mayor Young of putting the welfare of a wealthy corporation above the well-being of residents, charges which echo today in Senator Bernie Sanders’ criticisms of Clinton.

No media sources seem to have taken special note of Clinton’s statement, but those familiar with the Hamtramck plant may know that the bulk of its so-called “renewable energy” comes from a surprising source: Detroit’s municipal trash incinerator, best known by many residents for the noxious odors that it wafts through surrounding neighborhoods.

Pipeline connects incinerator and plant. Source: General Motors.

The trash incinerator is just over I-94 from the GM plant, and GM announced construction of a steam pipeline connecting the two facilities in 2013. According to the GM press release, the pipe was expected to provide 15.8 megawatts of energy to the plant, or fully 12 percent of GM’s company-wide renewable energy goal. The Hamtramck plant also has a major solar panel installation, which was as of 2014 the largest of its kind in Michigan, but that produces only 516 kilowatts, or less than one-third the energy supplied by burning trash from Detroit and its suburbs.

Like the Poletown plant itself, the Detroit incinerator was built under Mayor Young, but not by private interests. It was constructed by the city itself. Mayor Young sold it as a jobs project for a city struggling with rampant unemployment. It opened in 1986, at a cost of $1.2 billion, and remains the largest waste incinerator in the United States. Unfortunately, even without considering its environmental effects, the incinerator proved a disastrous investment for the city. It failed to turn a profit and, within a few years of its opening, the city attempted to cut its losses by selling the facility to private investors. However, the incinerator’s current owner, Detroit Renewable Power, has received millions of dollars in tax credits from the city.

To say that the incinerator is unpopular with Detroit neighbors would be an understatement. In 2013 alone, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality logged 113 complaints over the incinerator’s noxious pollution, which can be detected from both prosperous corners of Midtown and the hard-hit neighborhoods across I-75. The precise health effects of the incinerator are unknown, but the hospitalization rate for asthma in its vicinity, which also includes major freeways, is more than double that of the rest of the state. Most recently, the incinerator has been the subject of class-action lawsuits by residents, as reported by Motor City Muckraker.

Environmental Injustice and Due Diligence

“Clean energy” from a giant trash-burning facility in the middle of an impoverished, majority-black city is probably not the kind of thing Hillary Clinton wants to be promoting, particularly given her outspoken criticism of Michigan’s handling of the Flint water crisis. The poisoning of Flint may be the most shocking case of environmental injustice in Michigan, but it’s one that the Detroit incinerator parallels in many respects: a largely poor, largely black community exposed to toxic substances in a misguided attempt to improve a city’s bottom line.

Again, Hillary Clinton probably knows none of this. Most likely, her staffers obtained the Chevy reference from a General Motors fact sheet. Yet her statement remains an unfortunate example of the way unpleasant truths can be papered over in politics, particularly when one is striving to put a brave face on a city that has borne the worst effects of almost every federal policy over the last century, from subsidized suburban segregation to unfair international trade policies.

On the heels of her Chevy reference, Clinton said: “Shinola has created more than 500 jobs and they’ve cornered the market on watches for presidents. Both my husband and President Obama love their Shinolas.” It hardly needs to be said, however, that the market on watches for presidents is a small one, and while Shinola can justly be praised for employing Detroiters, it is difficult to imagine a firm that better exemplifies the rising chasm of inequality than a boutique manufacturer which sells thousand-dollar watches in a city where more than half of all children live in poverty.

The sad histories of the Poletown plant and the Detroit incinerator also testify to the perils in tethering political leadership to the private quest for profit. Coleman Young did not set out to be the “mayor from General Motors,” as some of his critics dubbed him, any more than he set out to send a foul-smelling cloud of garbage fumes over his beloved city. Yet, nonetheless, he made the choice to support both projects, and Detroit continues to deal with the consequences.

The Motor City may yet be America’s comeback city, but one may ask what kind of comeback can be built on burning trash. As Michiganders consider their choice for the Democratic presidential nomination in tomorrow’s primary, they might wish to ask themselves whether their candidate would tend to accept corporate claims at face value, or subject them to the scrutiny of a smell test.