Those who run our schools

By Sam Inglot

Many sectors of public education are standing on the brink of a funding abyss. For Lansing Community College, health care costs have increased, property tax revenue and state funding have declined and there have been struggles to keep tuition low. The funding situation for K-12 and public universities is no different. It’s either been stagnant or ripped away in recent years. Superheroes can’t change the financial situation for these institutions of learning — only the people who control the finances and are forced to play the hands they’re dealt can. That’s where the voter comes in.

Funding challenges hit especially close to home for community colleges like LCC: In essentially every mission statement for the 28 community colleges in Michigan you’ll find the words “access” and “affordability,” says Mike Hansen, president of the Michigan Community College Association. It’s hard to hold true to the two A’s when two of the three funding sources for the college have been slowly slipping away. LCC funding is a three-legged stool: Property taxes, state funding and tuition revenue are how the college keeps its lights on and its programs running. LCC property tax revenues are lower than the state average for other community colleges and state aid has been declining.

From fiscal year 2005 to fiscal year 2013, in-district tuition has increased from $55 to $81 per contact hour, a more than 47 percent increase. The LCC Board of Trustees, which votes on setting tuition rates as well as providing broad policies to the administration, was able to keep tuition from increasing from 2008 to 2010.

Despite the increases, the board is happy with the financial situation of the college given the lackluster funding. In fact, it approved a $67 million capital improvements project earlier this year that will expand classroom space, improve the aesthetics of the campus and replace the pool with a commons area and food court for students.

Community colleges are not alone. For the state’s public universities, it’s been a “dark decade of disinvestment,” said Mike Boulus, executive director of the Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan. He said there’s been a 23 percent decline in funding from the state over the past decade, but this past year they received a “modest” 3 percent funding boost. He said he hopes that the funding can continue on the positive side. But he’s not crossing his fingers.

The same goes for public K-12 schools. They get funding per pupil (the Lansing School District receives $7,314 per student) and school enrollment populations have declined in some districts due to schools of choice options and from families leaving the state to find work. Add declining property tax revenues to that and you’ve got a financial mess.

The elections for LCC Board of Trustees, three university boards and the State Board of Education — for candidates who are responsible for helping steer these institutions out of the financial mess — are important, yet commonly passed over by voters.

The Candidates

The LCC Board of Trustees is made up of seven members who serve six-year terms. This year, two spots are up for grabs. Thomas Rasmusson, who served for 12 years, is leaving one seat vacant while Robin Smith, who has been on the board for seven years, defends her incumbency.

Smith, 48, is teaming up with candidate Joe Manzella, 26, who ran an unsuccessful campaign for the 1st Ward City Council seat last year (he was knocked out of the primary by Councilwoman Jody Washington and Lynne Martinez). Smith has worked in several positions for the Lansing School District and is the secretary of the LCC board. She maintains that the current board has done a great job in keeping tuition among the lowest in the state for community colleges.

Manzella, the youngest candidate in the field, is attending graduate school at MSU to earn his master’s degree in public policy. He formerly worked at the Lansing Economic Area Partnership as its manager of regional programs, specializing in workforce development.

Manzella said he can relate to a lot of the students at LCC as the first-in-the-family to attend college. He is paying his way through grad school.

Smith and Manzella are both confident in the direction that the board and LCC are headed. They support decisions made by LCC President Brent Knight and his capital improvement projects across the campus.

Smith was recently elected to the secretary position for the Association of Community College Trustees, a national group made up of community college board members. In two years, she’ll take over the reins as president of the organization.

Three other candidates are running solo campaigns.

Lawrence Hidalgo Jr., 56, has been the director of the Lansing Electrical Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee for over 21 years. He ran unsuccessfully for the board two years ago. Hidalgo says he’s worked in higher education his entire adult life. He is a practicing attorney and is also seeking his Ph.D. in education. In terms of capital improvements like landscaping and building renovations, he only supports them if they are truly needed — not if they’re just for looks.

He thinks the administration should reach out to more resources at LCC when dealing with tuition.

“I think a number of the trustees have tried to make sure tuition stays as low as possible, but I think the administration would do well to work closer with faculty and staff to find additional ways to save money.”

That lack of connection and communication continues on down to the students as well, he said.

“The biggest complaint I hear out there is that this board is disconnected from the community and the students,” Hidalgo said. “Board members should take time to go to different community events and get input from the community. I’d like to start having forums around the campus so students have time to meet with the board — something beyond the traditional board meetings.”

John Roy Castillo, 64, says he brings a background of working with diverse entities not just in Michigan, but outside the country as well.

“I’ve worked for the state, for municipalities and I’ve worked for the poor,” he said. “I was a farm worker for 18 years. I’ve gone from nothing to a nice career. I’ve worked for three different governors, a mayor and I have helped start a community college in Mexico.”

His experience at the state level helped him understand the legislature “backwards and forwards.” He was the director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights from 1985 to 1993 as well as an assistant attorney general under Frank Kelly.

He disagrees with the board, Smith and Manzella — he believes tuition “is still too high.”

Castillo believes LCC should reinvigorate its international student program as both a marketing strategy and as a way to cover funding shortages. International students pay about three-and-a-half times more for tuition than in-district students. He said colleges like MSU have greatly expanded international programs and LCC should follow suit.

Knight’s harshest critic of the bunch is LCC graduate Todd Heywood, 42, who served a partial term on the board from 2001 to 2003 after being elected unopposed. Heywood unsuccessfully sought reelection after his partial term. For the past five years, Heywood has been the senior reporter at the American Independent, a nonprofit online news outlet that covers nationwide issues, where he fluctuates roles between reporter and activist on national HIV/AIDS issues and LGBT issues at LCC.

Like Manzella, Heywood said he brings a level of student understanding to the board that is lacking right now. Heywood said he also brings “policy wonkiness” that is necessary for a college board, whose main job, he said, is oversight of the administration.

“Everything I’ve ever done has started with hours and hours of research until I understand the issue inside and out,” he said.

He said President Knight’s push to purchase three homes for a “park-like” entrance for the college for $400,000 and the $300,000 renovations to Herrmann House have nothing to do with benefitting student success. “I think he’s an abject failure. I would have fired him back in 2009.”

Every candidate said they would make decisions with one question in mind first and foremost: How will this help students succeed? They all said raising tuition would be a “last resort” during the budget process.

Trustees, Regents and Governors

Speaking of tuition, the rates a few miles away at MSU have jumped much more significantly than its community college neighbor. In 2001, credit hour rates for undergraduate, in-state students were $165.75. That number grew by over 150 percent in 10 years. By Fall 2012, those same types of students were paying $420.75 per credit hour. Wayne State similarly has had to raise tuition and did so by 3.88 percent last year. The same is true at U of M, where tuition has increased over 70 percent between 2000 and 2009.

The three boards “have general supervision of its institution and the control and direction of all expenditures from the institution’s funds,” according to the state Constitution. Candidates are selected by their respective parties and run on a partisan ticket, unlike at LCC, where the races are nonpartisan. Voters will choose two candidates for each of the three schools. Elections for the public universities are statewide, while only voters in LCC’s district — which includes 15 public school districts in the tri-county area — have a say in that race.

Boulus, the executive director of the Presidents Council, said partisan politics may come out during the election cycle, but it’s only to rile up each party’s voter base. He said partisan politics usually fall by the wayside once people are elected. He added that the presidential race often determines who will be elected to the boards.

“Typically, the top of the ticket tends to carry the bottom,” he said. “If there is a strong win for Obama or Romney, they tend to carry the bottom of the ticket.”

Three Republicans and five Democrats serve on the MSU board. Republican Melanie Foster and Democrat Joel Ferguson are both seeking reelection. Foster is the vice chairwoman and Ferguson is the sitting chairman. The board term is eight years. For each of the three university races, each party puts up two candidates for election.

The other Democrat is Brian Mosallam, a former captain of the MSU football team and a retirement group adviser at AXA Advisors. The other Republican is Jeff Sakwa who was at one time named to Crain’s “40 Under 40” list. He has experience in development, consulting and homebuilding.

At U of M, the board is made up of six Democrats and two Republicans. Two of the Democrats are not seeking reelection. All four candidates are U of M graduates. One of the Republicans running is Dan Horning, the managing director at Northwestern Mutual Life, a life insurance and financial advisory company, who was a regent from 1994 to 2002. Horning said on his website that he wants to stand up against the “liberal establishment” at U of M. (Boulus said the “liberal establishment” perception isn’t true.) The other Republican is Dr. Robert Steele, a former clinical professor at U of M for over 20 years who ran an unsuccessful campaign against U.S. Rep. John Dingell in 2010. The Democrats are Dr. Shauna Ryder Diggs, a dermatologist in private practice, and Mark Bernstein, an attorney at the Sam Bernstein Law Firm (of 1-800-CALL-SAM fame).

Wayne State faces a similar situation as U of M, with six Dems and two conservatives on the board — two of the Democrats are not seeking reelection. Looking to fill the spots are Republicans Michael Busuito, a plastic surgeon from Troy and Satish Jasti, the vice president and senior loan officer of the Bank of Ann Arbor. The Democrats facing them are the chairwoman of the Michigan Democratic Party Hispanic-Latino Caucus, Sandra Hughes O’Brien, who also owns a private law practice in Northville, Mich. and Kim Trent, a WSU graduate and former journalist who has been the student recruitment manager for Michigan Future, Inc., an Ann Arbor-based think tank since 2011.

State Board

In his 15 years with the Michigan Association of School Boards, Deputy Director Don Wotruba said it’s been his experience that if a typical voter were to go to any State Board of Education meeting, they would never know, listening to the debates, whether board members were Democrat or Republican.

He said the state board of ed elections are much like the university races. Party politics may be used to get the bases out to vote, but they have little impact on how the board operates. He said the candidates tend to leave the small amount of campaigning to the parties.

The state board oversees all general planning and is the coordinating body for all public education, including higher education, and advises the Legislature on funding decisions. Wotruba said funding for K-12 schools continues to be low and he said there are districts that will find it difficult to survive in the coming years without a step-up in state aid.

The state board is made up of five Democrats and three Republicans. Democratic Treasurer Marianne Yared McGuire is not seeking reelection and Republican Nancy Danhof was not chosen by her party to run again.

One of the Republicans is Todd Courser, a bankruptcy attorney who says on his website he is “100 percent Pro-Life, Pro-Family, Pro-Marriage & 100 percent Pro-2nd Amendment.” Running as the other Republican is Melanie Kurdys. She said in a campaign video that: “Schools have become large, impersonal institutions directed by authorities further and further from families and teachers.” Both she and Courser are backed by GOP and Tea Party endorsements.

On the other side of the aisle you’ll find the Democratic candidates who are backed by union groups like the MEA. Michelle Fecteau is the executive director for AAUP-AFT, Local 6075, which represents faculty and academic staff at Wayne State. The other candidate, Lupe Ramos-Montigny, is the second vice chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party and had a teaching career of over 37 years.

In the past, state board members were barred from talking to the media on an individual basis, Wotruba said. They made consensus statements through the board president. That rule changed last year, which may mean some partisanship may shine through in certain situations. At least that’s Wotruba’s fear.

“Whether it ends up a 4-4 split or goes in a different direction, I hope that it remains nonpartisan. Hopefully they set aside politics when they get elected,” Wotruba said. “I think that this may foster a more political nature to that board than what we’ve had in the past. The outright election of them has not done that in the past.”