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It’s getting harder to govern, and it’s not just politicians’ fault

Lee Hamilton

Lee Hamilton

By Lee H. Hamilton

We may not know who our next President is going to be, but here’s one thing that’s almost certain: he or she will take office with roughly half of the electorate unhappy and mistrustful. The notion that the President speaks for a broad coalition of Americans who are willing to set aside their differences on behalf of a compelling new vision for the country? It’s vanished.

I’ve spent a lot of time pondering where it went, and though I still haven’t found an answer, I do know this: it’s not only Washington’s—or even the political class’s—fault.

Let’s start with a lament I hear frequently about this year’s crop of presidential candidates: “Is this the best we can do?” I used to believe that the popular argument that the best among us do not seek political office was wrong—that there were plenty of standout Americans who went into politics. And there are. But there are also a lot of talented people—the kind who could lead us beyond our tired political discourse—who take a look at politics and turn the other way these days.

I’ve known a lot of very good people in politics, who were motivated by a true interest in improving the country and saw politics as a competition of ideas, not a mean-spirited clash of ideologies. I see less of this today. Many politicians seem genuinely not to like one another. They see a victory by the other party as a threat to the well-being of the nation.

This is a departure from the past, and it’s not a healthy one. There was a time when the parties and other organizations that brought disparate voters together—charitable institutions, unions—helped build a unity of effort in the government. But groups like that are weaker now.

Which is a shame in a year like this, when voters are angry and distrustful and worried by economic insecurity. They don’t have much appetite for the substance and complexity of policy, seem to relish the clashes that this year’s campaigning has produced, and are uninterested in talk of finding common ground.

It’s a campaign year, of course, so a certain amount of this is to be expected. But if the voters’ surly mood and mistrust carry over after November, it’s going to be very hard for the next President—and politicians in general—to govern effectively.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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New study: No correlation between school spending and student outcomes

Study finds spending more on Michigan schools doesn’t increase achievement

MIDLAND—There is no statistically significant correlation between how much money Michigan’s public schools spend and how well students perform academically, according to a new empirical study by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and an assistant professor of economics at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs.

The study’s findings align with the bulk of academic research on the subject, but does so with a unique and detailed data set of Michigan’s public school spending and academic achievement. The data comes from more than 4,000 individual public schools in Michigan and covers seven years’ worth of detailed expenditures and test scores for elementary, middle and high school students. The test scores were from the years 2007 through 2013. Using school-level data, as opposed to district-level data, enabled a more precise examination of the relationship between spending and performance.

“Of the 28 measurements of academic achievement studied, we find only one category showed a statistically significant correlation between spending and achievement, and the gains were nominal at best,” said Mackinac Center Education Policy Director Ben DeGrow, who authored the study along with Edward C. Hoang, a professor of economics at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. “Spending may matter in some cases, but given the way public schools currently spend their resources, it is highly unlikely that merely increasing funding will generate any meaningful boost to student achievement.”

The study comes as the state awaits the completion of a now-overdue school funding “adequacy” study it paid a Denver-based firm $399,000 to complete by March 31, 2016; that study is now due by May 13, 2016. School funding adequacy studies are common across the country and nearly all of them (38 of the 39 performed between 2003 and 2014) recommend funding increases.

“The state’s school spending adequacy study is sure to conclude additional tax dollars are necessary to improve student performance to adequate levels, but lawmakers, parents and the Michigan Department of Education owe it to students to examine how education dollars are spent, rather than simply throwing more money to areas that do not directly impact the classroom,” DeGrow said. “As our findings suggest, it could be that public schools generally fail to spend additional resources effectively.”

The only area that showed a statistically significant correlation between additional spending and student achievement was seventh-grade math, and the impact was small: a school would need to spend on average 10 percent more to improve the average state test score by just .0574 points.

“This study suggests that simply spending more of Michigan taxpayers’ dollars on the public school system alone is not enough to improve student achievement,” said Hoang.

Read the full study on “School Spending and Student Achievement in Michigan: What’s the Relationship?” at www.mackinac.org.

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Days of fear and intimidation are over

Dear CSPS Board of Education and Community,

Be Nice.

We embrace this anti-bullying initiative in our district. It’s on t-shirts, posters, and banners throughout our schools. The Mental Health Foundation website states that this campaign was designed to spread awareness surrounding the issue of bullying. The ‘Be Nice’ campaign strives to educate students and community members about how simply being nice is an effective way to promote a safe and civil environment within the school and community.

I’ve worn my Be Nice shirt to board meetings and the superintendent interviews. While we’ve expected our students to adopt this philosophy, some of our staff and administrators have not. Since we’ve had a change of superintendent, I have not felt the need to wear this shirt to board meetings.

Dr. Van Duyn IS nice. She is an example of what we should see in a person living out this philosophy. I feel safe, respected and valued. I do not fear unfair and unwarranted attacks any more. Any questions I have are quickly and completely answered. The days of fear, intimidation, disrespect, lies and corruption are over. That’s how it USED to be, especially at Cedar Trails.

I’ve been reading letters in the Post about a lack of leadership by the current administration, and I am confused. You could have said those things two years ago, but not any more.

The changes we’ve been experiencing are all for good. I feel listened to and supported. We have counseling back. Our professional development is relevant and helping us to better understand and meet the needs of the children that we serve in this community.

Now I am confident that this district is headed in the right direction. Our current leadership is skilled, competent and highly qualified.

Great things are happening here. Please keep up the good work!

Sincerely,

Karen Gebhardt

First Grade Teacher

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Beyond transparency, we need accountability

Lee Hamilton

Lee Hamilton

By Lee H. Hamilton

Over more than three decades in Congress, I had the chance to question a lot of federal officials. Most of the time I wasn’t after anything dramatic; I just wanted to understand who was responsible for certain decisions. How often did I get a straight answer? Almost never.

It was easily one of the most frustrating aspects of trying to ensure robust oversight of the government. Our representatives’ job, after all, is to help make government work better. And you can’t do that if you don’t know whom to hold accountable for important decisions.

Accountability is essential to good governance. I’m not just talking about transparency—that is, citizens’ ability to know what’s being done in our name. That’s important, but equally important is holding accountable those who made the decision to do it: ensuring that they are accountable to policy-makers, adhere to their obligations, follow the law, and that their actions are appropriate and responsive to the needs of the country.

This is elusive. Accountability requires that officials step up and take responsibility for their decisions, and not try to shift that responsibility to others or to some ill-defined group. It requires unambiguous performance standards, clear codes of ethics, timely reporting, and acceptance of responsibility, especially with regard to budget or spending decisions.

So how do we get there?

Without clarity on who’s in charge of what and who’s responsible for which decisions, it becomes too easy for officials to remain unanswerable for their actions. Yet clear lines of authority mean nothing unless the deciding officials are identified and measured against what actually takes place. Officials need to give a full account of what they do and the decisions they make.

As a nation, we face a growing issue on this front when it comes to federal contractors—that is, the private workforce doing jobs for federal agencies. There are very few mechanisms for holding contractors responsible for their errors, abuses and missteps.

Accountability also requires a robust media to tell us what’s going on in the entire system: within the bureaucracy, in the behavior of contractors, and among legislators who ought to be overseeing both but often don’t.

Accountability is key to good government. All I wanted to know in those congressional hearings was who made the decision about the public’s business. Is that too much to ask?

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years. For information about our educational resources and programs, visit our website at www.centeroncongress.org. “Like” us on Facebook at “Indiana University Center on Representative Government,” and share our postings with your friends.

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What is FICA?

By Stephanie Holland, Social Security Public Affairs Specialist

Receiving your first paycheck is an empowering milestone. Do you remember being a little shocked by the taxes that Uncle Sam takes out of each paycheck? Understanding how important your contribution is takes some of the sting away because your taxes are helping millions of Americans—and financially securing your today and tomorrow.

By law, employers must withhold Social Security taxes from workers’ paychecks. While usually referred to as “Social Security taxes” on an employee’s pay statement, sometimes the deduction is labeled as “FICA.” This stands for Federal Insurance Contributions Act, a reference to the original Social Security Act. In some cases, you will see “OASDI,” which stands for Old Age Survivors Disability Insurance, the official name for the Social Security Insurance program.

The taxes you pay now mean a lifetime of protection—for retirement in old age or in the event of disability. And when you die, your family (or future family) may be able to receive survivors benefits based on your work as well.

Right now you probably have family members—grandparents, for example—who already are enjoying Social Security benefits that your Social Security taxes help provide. Social Security is solvent now and will be through 2033. At that point, we’ll be able to fund retirement benefits at 75 percent unless changes are made to the law. In the past, Social Security has evolved to meet the needs of a changing population—and you can count on Social security in the future.

Don’t carry your Social Security card around with you. It’s an important document you should safeguard and protect. If it’s lost or stolen, it could fall into the hands of an identity thief.

Check out our webinar, “Social Security 101: What’s in it for me?” The webinar explains what you need to know about Social Security. You can find it at http://go.usa.gov/cdNeY.

You can also learn more at www.socialsecurity.gov.

Stephanie Holland is the Public Affairs Specialist for West Michigan. You can write her c/o Social Security Administration, 455 Bond St Benton Harbor MI 49022 or via email at stephanie.holland@ssa.gov

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There’s too much secrecy in government

By Lee Hamilton

Lee Hamilton

By Lee H. Hamilton

We have a secrecy problem. This may seem odd to say during an era in which the most intimate details of individuals’ lives are on display. Yet government is moving behind closed doors, and this is definitely the wrong direction.

In fact, I’m dismayed by how often public officials fight not to do the public’s business in public. And I’m not just talking about the federal government.

City and town councils regularly go into executive session to discuss “personnel issues” that might or might not truly need to be carried on outside public view. And let’s not even talk about what can go on behind closed doors when it comes to contracting.

At the state level, lawmakers exempt themselves from public records laws, underfund public watchdogs, and exempt lobbying expenditures from sunshine laws. “While every state in the nation has open records and meetings laws, they’re typically shot through with holes and exemptions,” the Center for Public Integrity reported last year. “In most states, at least one entire branch of government or agency claims exemptions from the laws.”

In case you’re wondering whether this has an impact on real people’s lives, it’s worth remembering that thousands of emails released in the wake of Flint, Michigan’s water crisis revealed “what appears to be an active effort by state employees to avoid disclosure of public records under [freedom of information laws],” according to Governing magazine.

Meanwhile, there’s no shortage of efforts to keep the public from learning all sorts of details about how the federal government conducts business.

Campaign contributors increasingly manage to avoid disclosure of their political activities. Government contractors are not subject to most of the transparency rules that affect federal agencies—even as more and more business is being done through contractors.

The 72 federal inspectors general who are appointed to ensure the efficiency and accountability of the agencies they oversee face constant efforts to limit their access to records. Routine information is classified and kept secret; members of Congress joke that what they’ve just read in a top-secret document was taken from the front page of the New York Times. Yet they themselves increasingly rely on omnibus spending bills — which are put together behind closed doors by a handful of leaders and congressional staff with no public scrutiny.

Most notably, of course, secrecy extends to national security issues. There are some government secrets that are necessary to protect, and a balance has to be struck between protecting national security and openness. But the presumption should be in favor of openness. Those who favor secrecy should make their case in public and not rely on the old adage, “Trust me.”

Take the question of the U.S. drone program. The overall program may be necessary, and technical means, operational details, intelligence methods are all rightfully classified. But that should not be an excuse for hiding information from the American people about what we’re doing with drones. Do we want our resources spent on targeted killing programs? Who determines who gets killed? What’s the evidence on which we base who gets killed? How many innocent people have been killed? The American people have a right to know what’s going on. But we’re being kept in the dark.

Openness is not a panacea, but it makes good government more likely. Representative democracy depends on our ability to know what’s being done in our name. We cannot exercise the discriminating judgment required of citizens about politics, policies and politicians if we do not know what they’re doing. Nor is it possible to maintain the checks and balances required under our Constitution without openness and transparency. We have to shine a bright light on the actions of public officials so that it’s more likely they’ll act with integrity. Justice Louis Brandeis gave perhaps the most famous formulation of this requirement in his 1913 statement, “[S]unlight is said to be the best disinfectant.”

But Judge Damon Keith of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals put an exclamation point on the idea in a 2002 ruling that the government could not carry out secret deportation hearings without proving the need for secrecy. “Democracies,” he wrote, “die behind closed doors.”

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years. For information www.centeroncongress.org. “Like” us on Facebook at “Indiana University Center on Representative Government,” and share our postings with your friends.

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Board of education works for the community

I am a past member of the Cedar Springs Board of Education (BOE) serving for 12 years as a trustee, VP and President.

When elected to the BOE, we had just experienced some very difficult times in the district, including a split BOE with a fractured agenda, a failed BOE recall election, major budget issues and a teacher strike. We began to heal with a devoted BOE and Superintendent whose first concern was the students and the quality of their education. Over time mutual trust was restored and we moved the district forward, including the construction of new buildings to accommodate our growing enrollment. None of this would have been possible without the support and cooperation of the entire community and staff. Our school district was respected in the community as a place where people wanted to raise their kids. It is heartbreaking to me and many of those who did the hard work, to watch the effects of a divisive climate in our community, and to know ultimately the ones who will suffer will be the students.

Comments by the board president like, “we only have one employee,” are shocking! Who is the employer of all the other employees? The Superintendent is only one of the many employees the BOE is responsible for. Comments like this do nothing to build trust and community.

When high paid consultants present at a BOE meeting, no one asks a question? No discussion? Shouldn’t our district employees be able to prepare reports/presentations like the “Budget Projections” presented at the March 14th BOE meeting?

Why do three District Office Administrators live outside of the Cedar Springs school district? What a message that sends to the very people who pay taxes and their salaries! While we may not be able to require that the Superintendent live in the district, it is the right thing to do. Our administrators who live in other school districts pay taxes that benefit the school where they live not the district that pays their salary.

I understand that the BOE has been told, in a statement, not to talk to community and staff. They should be reminded that the BOE actually works for the community! When there is avoidance, people will think you have something to hide. Please do not let anyone silence you! Please have open discussion at the BOE table—yes, in open meetings. Ask questions, ask the hard questions—show leadership to the people who elected you!

Jan Wallace, Solon Township

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Don’t get down on teachers

Thank you for your paper. I enjoy it. I’m sorry to hear you’re all having problems with staff at school.

You know I would have stayed in school if it was not for rumors about me. I feel students are harder to teach now days because some people do not get after their children enough. One of the reasons I left Cedar Springs is people coming up to our trailer in Cedar Springs Mobile Estates. They threatened my life and my children’s. Then they used the C.B. radio to say terrible things.

There is something definitely going on in Cedar Springs. I hope our teachers and school staff does not have problems that they have to be ashamed about. Our schools there in Cedar Springs had good teachers when I went there. I wished I would have stayed in just for them working so hard trying to help me.

Just remember some kids are mean and say things that hurt sometimes.

I wish you would not get down too hard on our teachers. They have a hard enough time with students.

I hope in some way I can help because I love Cedar Springs but just cannot live there.

Darlene Kay Rhineberger Fuller, Big Rapids

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A House divided against itself will not stand

Due to recent events in our school district, many friends now stand divided. Our family relied on many of these past administrators, teachers, and community members as we faced a horrific event that almost took my life. They rallied beside me and my family as I recovered from a massive stroke. Prayers went up on my behalf, a refrigerator full of food was delivered to our home, gift cards filled our mailbox, our driveway was plowed, our laundry was done, and volunteers took me back and forth to therapy. Even my children’s teachers stayed after school to offer an encouraging word or a shoulder to cry on. The list goes on and on. I couldn’t even begin to thank everyone for their support! The Cedar Springs School and community were there for me and my family. They did this because they cared.
Years later, there are new people that have moved into our community. Some of them have had to face unbelievable heartache and circumstances much greater than mine. They have experienced a new set of administrators and teachers that have shown their family the same remarkable love and support that we were shown.
Being a school employee, my heart is torn. Why are there so many harsh words being said towards our school board, a group of volunteers that is working for our school district and our Superintendent? Hearing of their credentials, the school board has hired some highly qualified individuals. Recently, they have completed a Strategic Plan to offer a new vision and mission. I was excited to be on that committee and am looking forward to what the final decision will be. I have not experienced the hostile environment people are talking about.
Are we going to be a community divided or united? We can’t expect the students we work with to get along with each other and show respect if we don’t show respect toward one another ourselves. How about that Habit Of Mind that says “Be thoughtful and considerate of others” that we teach our students? It’s okay to disagree. My concern is the manner in which we are modeling our disagreements to the students we work with. Let’s be a school and community that’s united in a common cause greater than ourselves; the well-being of our students!

Shelley Bauer, Parent As Teachers/New Beginnings Alternative Ed.

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What are you?

I would like to begin by saying thank you to each board member for your willingness to be on the board. It is often a thankless job that requires much of your energy and time. With that said, I ask the Board of Education, “What are you?”

During the Public Comments portion of the Board of Education meeting held on March 14, 2016, Lee Mora asked the board in his comments why Autumn Matteson had not been granted an exit interview. After he finished, board president Patricia Eary made a comment that the board did not grant the exit interview because “they had been advised by the board’s attorney to not grant the interview.” Patricia Eary then went on to say that the board did not give exit interviews to people who were not their employee. Patricia Eary ended her comment by saying, “The only employee of the Board is the superintendent.”

If that is true, then why do all the contracts begin with a line such as “The Board of Education of

Cedar Springs Public Schools and _____ enter . . .?” In other words, the Board of Education is the employer.

In the same meeting on March 14, when the school’s attorney was discussing moving some of the debt from one area to another to gain a better interest rate, a question was asked at the end of his presentation by Patricia Eary wondering what the Board needed to do to move in that direction. Dr. Van Duyn made a comment that “I already signed.” This amazed me! Not one board member questioned the fact that Dr. Van Duyn was making financial decisions for the

district. Although I agree 100 percent that the district needed to change the funding, I am appalled that the Board would so easily let others make decisions and fulfill their responsibilities for them.

So I ask the question again, “What are you?” Are you the board member that swore an oath to fulfill all the duties and responsibilities of the office? Think long and hard before answering as your actions speak so loudly, I can’t hear a thing you say.

Bruce Marvel, Nelson Township

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