What does Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s State of the State mean for Muskegon’s schools, roads and water? Local officials weigh in

Following Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s State of the State address last week that called for improving education, access to clean drinking water, and fixing the state’s deteriorating roads and bridges, local lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle and other area officials praised the speech and said they expect the new administration’s policies to make college more affordable for Muskegon students, among other improvements.

“It looks like Republicans, the Democrats and the governor all agree the three main issues are roads, water quality and education,” said state Sen. Jon Bumstead (R-Newaygo), whose district includes Muskegon.Newaygo and Oceana counties. “We’re happy with the direction she wants to go.”

In the hour-long address that urged bipartisan cooperation among the Republican-majority legislature and Democratic governor, Whitmer called for significant increases in funding for infrastructure improvements and education; said the state must address the toxic chemicals that have been found in the Michigan’s lakes, rivers and water systems—including in Norton Shores; and announced scholarship programs that are expected to pave the way for students to attend community college debt-free. The scholarship program too would provide tuition assistance for students whose families make less than $80,000 a year and are attending four-year colleges and universities.

“We have to work together,” Whitmer said during her speech. “Because, as I have said before: Michigan’s problems are not partisan problems. Potholes are not political. There is no such thing as Republican or Democratic kids or drinking water. Our challenges affect us all. And they will require us all, working together, to solve.”

State. Rep. Terry Sabo (D-Muskegon), who attended the speech with Muskegon Township Supervisor Jennifer Hernandez, welcomed the governor’s priorities as outlined in her State of the State.

“A thriving Michigan starts with support of our local businesses, first responders, public schools and skilled trades training to drive growth and move our economy forward,” Sabo said in a prepared statement. “When Michiganders are earning a fair wage and spending in their communities—that is when our local economies are at their best. I am also encouraged by Gov. Whitmer’s vision for how to fix our roads and infrastructure, and am looking forward to working with her on policies that put Michigan’s hard-working families first.”

Providing debt-free community college

Local education officials said they were particularly pleased with the governor’s emphasis on increased support for students and public schools.

Whitmer announced the creation of the “MI Opportunity Scholarship,” which the legislature would have to approve before the scholarship’s anticipated launch in 2020 and which would allow students who have lived in Michigan for at least one year and are in good academic standing to attend community college tuition-free for two years. As part of the scholarship, the state too would pick up the costs for the students’ mandatory fees. In order to access the scholarship, a student would have to start community college in the fall after their high school graduation.

The MI Opportunity Scholarship too would provide tuition assistance to students whose families earn $80,000 a year or less and are planning to attend a four-year college or university. Whitmer’s proposal would provide $2,500 for the first two years of the students’ schooling at the four-year institutions. To access the scholarship for the four-year schools, students would have to have at least a B average.

Whitmer did not detail how much the state would need to pay to offer the scholarship program; that number will be included in the governor’s proposed budget that’s slated to be released March 5.

“A study last year found the average cost of tuition, fees, and room and board at a public four-year school in Michigan is almost $22,000 a year,” Whitmer said. “That’s the 10th highest in the country. And it’s a complete barrier for a lot of people in our state.”

Muskegon Community College President Dale Nesbary

For Muskegon Community College President Dale Nesbary, this is welcome news.

“Having debt-free community college education is a game-changer,” Nesbary said. “It’s something that we’ve been working for in this state for some time.”

Making community college tuition free to students for two years will pave the way for “some increase in the number of students to attend our college,” Nesbary said.

It would provide significant financial relief for individuals who have to pass up attending college because they aren’t able to afford both school and other living costs, such as rent, the MCC president said.

“It can be an option for paying for school or paying for housing or paying for gas; this would take some of that off of the table,” he continued.

Tackling an ‘education crisis’

Saying Michigan is facing an “education crisis” that “compromises our workforce,” Whitmer advocated for additional funding for the state’s public schools. Specific numbers for this increase in funding will be addressed in the governor’s March 5 budget.

“Today, third graders in Michigan rank in the bottom 10 in the country in reading,” Whitmer said. “The bottom 10. Since 2014, among states measured every year, Michigan has experienced the worst decline in childhood literacy. And the decline has been consistent across every racial and economic group in our state.”

“Let’s be clear: This is not happening because Michigan kids are less talented,” the governor continued. “It’s not happening because our kids are less motivated. It’s not happening because our educators are less dedicated. It is happening because generations of leadership have failed them. In the past 25 years, Michigan has seen the lowest growth in the K-12 education spending of any state in the nation. During that time, our per-pupil funding revenue has actually fallen by 15 percent. And in the last decade, as our literacy crisis has grown, our predecessors have repeatedly raided K-12 education funding to fill gaps elsewhere in the state budget.”

Muskegon Public Schools Superintendent Justin Jennings cautiously welcomed the governor’s statements.

“When it comes to politicians and the State of the State, they always promise things, but we have to wait and see what happens,” Jennings said.

Ideally, the superintendent said, he’d like to see the way Michigan funds its school restructured so districts facing significant socio-economic barriers to student success—such as poverty—would access greater funding than they currently do. Right now, state funding provides about $8,000 per pupil in Muskegon Public Schools.

“The way we fund schools is not equal,” Jennings said. “It’s not equal at all.”

A 2018 report form the Michigan Finance Collaborative argued that public schools should receive a minimum of $9,590 per student in order for pupils to meet testing standards.

And, according to a 2016 report by a firm that spent eight months studying Michigan schools, the state’s school funding system is growing increasingly unequal and needs to spend 30 percent more per student for at-risk individuals and 40 percent more per student for English Language Learners. [The full report can be seen here.]

The superintendent also emphasized that he’d like to see lawmakers engage with educators more often in order to better inform educational policy at the state level.

“I’d like legislators to actually sit down with educators,” the superintendent said.

On Monday, Feb. 18, Whitmer will meet with educators when she tours Muskegon Community College.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at her State of the State address. Photo via Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office

‘Fix the damn roads’: Plans for infrastructure

Following her campaign promise to “fix the damn roads,” Whitmer hinted at significant increases in state funding for infrastructure during her State of the State.

“By one estimate, the vehicle damage from our roads costs the average motorist $562 a year in repairs,” Whitmer said. “We’re paying a road tax that doesn’t even fix the damn roads. That’s money that could go toward childcare, rent, college tuition, or retirement savings.”

Bumstead emphasized that the “road issues are very important to everybody” and said “there’s going to be a lot more dollars in the next few years” for infrastructure repairs, referring to the $1.2 billion road-funding package that the state legislature passed in 2015 and which will be fully phased in by the end of 2021.

“It’s going to be there; it’s just going to take a little bit of time,” Bumstead said in regards to road funding.

While Republican lawmakers, including state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Jackson), have said they want to wait until the road package is entirely phased in before pursuing other funding, Whitmer said during her campaign that a $3 billion increase in Michigan’s annual infrastructure investment is needed and could put up to 72,000 Michiganders to work.

Michigan Department of Transportation Director Paul Ajegba said Michigan needs to allocate an additional $1.5 billion on roads annually until around 2031—and that figure is just for state highways.

Access to clean drinking water

In addition to the the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Whitmer said the state must address growing concerns about PFAS—industrial chemicals linked to serious health risks, including cancer. The state has found more than 600 places throughout the state with PFAS in their water, including in Norton Shores. [Note: there’s a PFAS meeting being held in Norton Shores on Tuesday, Feb. 19. See details here.]

“This problem may not have commanded as much national attention as the crisis in Flint, but it is just as urgent,” Whitmer said in regards to PFAS. “It is time to step up our efforts to protect the health and safety of all Michiganders.”

The governor did not detail any specific proposals regarding Flint or PFAS, but she did highlight her recent announcement that she aims to restructure the state Department of Environmental Quality. In an executive order that was just killed by Republican lawmakers, Whitmer had called to transform the Department of Environmental Quality into the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. Under Whitmer’s plan, the agency would have housed a “Clean Water Public Advocate” and an “Environmental Justice Public Advocate.”

The Clean Water Public Advocate would have investigated concerns related to drinking water and create a “statewide uniform reporting system to collect and analyze complaints about drinking water for the purpose of publicizing improvements and significant problems,” according to Whitmer’s executive order.

The Environmental Justice Public Advocate would have investigated complaints related to residents facing discrimination based on race or income with regards to environmental issues.

Republican lawmakers’ vote to kill the executive order stemmed in large part from Whitmer’s proposal to eliminate legislature-approved DEQ oversight panels. Last year, Republican lawmakers formed the private-sector panels that had the ability to override DEQ decisions on rules and permits. Republicans, including Bumstead, said the oversight panels were created to reign in an often “overzealous” DEQ, while Democrats, including Sabo, have said the panels allowed corporate representatives to oversee the DEQ.

As passed by lawmakers last year, the Environmental Rules Committee included voting members representing a variety of industries and businesses, including manufacturing, public energy utilities, oil and gas, agriculture, and more.

“We all share the governor’s concerns and want to ensure residents have safe, clean drinking water and that the environment and Great Lakes are preserved for future generations,” Bumstead, who voted in support of the executive order override, said in a prepared statement. “The legislature has a constitutional duty to review executive orders. In this case, the governor did not simply reorganize a state department as she saw fit, she went beyond that and vacated laws that were approved by the legislature and signed into law.”

Bumstead said he’s not against the governor’s plans but rather disagreed with the way she tried to achieve them.

“This needs to go through the process through the House and Senate to find a compromise there,” Bumstead said of the DEQ restructuring.

A vocal critic of Republicans’ decision to strike down Whitmer’s executive order, Sabo said the oversight panels put Michigan’s natural resources in the hands of corporations.

“The Muskegon area has a history of polluted and contaminated sites going back 100 years,” Sabo said in a prepared statement. “I disagree with allowing corporations to have  control over permits and rules related to air emissions and water discharges. I stand with our governor in wanting to keep environmental decision-makers accountable to the people and not allowing the polluters to police themselves.”

Despite Republican lawmakers killing the executive order, Whitmer said she still plans to achieve the restructuring.

Story by Anna Gustafson, the publisher and editor of Muskegon Times. Connect with Anna by emailing MuskegonTimes@gmail.com or on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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