Leelanau Needs to Address ‘Poverty in Paradise’

On a cold Sunday in January, a few years ago, Trinity Church in Northport hosted a Sunday afternoon panel discussion on ‘Poverty in Paradise’—hoping to start an ongoing conversation on how Christians could serve their neighbors who weren’t thriving. We set up chairs for 25, but more than 100 people came, standing against the wall, listening to the social workers, educators, local politicians and Tribal leaders talk about the hidden poverty in a county that presents as a natural paradise. 

It was one of the more heartening public meetings I’ve attended—great questions, viable proposals for helping Leelanau residents of all ages, connecting citizens who see it as their duty to help. One man, who owns a successful local business, said he could double his workforce—they had the orders and facilities, he paid well and offered a solid benefit package–if only these new workers didn’t have to drive from Buckley or Kalkaska, where they could afford to live.

Over and over, we heard the refrain: We don’t want Leelanau County to be a necklace of upscale resort towns, spaced along M-22 (the scenic drive that hugs the Lake Michigan and West Bay shoreline). We don’t want the most beautiful natural sites and farmland to be scooped up by international and out-of-state buyers, who see our natural resources as their cash cow.

We want people living here year-round, investing in the county, its residents and businesses. Putting down roots. Sharing in the benefits, building new opportunities. Paying taxes. We want folks with a moderate income: Teachers. Nurses and medical techs. First responders. Construction workers.

At this meeting, there was no dissent around the idea that addressing poverty would be good for everyone—from the million-dollar homeowner to the single mom supporting three kids while working at a nursing home. Businesses need workers (and need to pay them fairly). Schools need students and families. A vibrant service industry is essential, as is a new generation of farmers. When everyone is comfortable and secure, we all benefit.

There are genuinely poor residents here—families and individuals who live below the poverty line. Only about six percent of County residents meet that standard. But 37 percent of county residents are ALICE: asset-limited, income-constrained, employed:

Developed by United Way, ALICE is “a new way of defining and understanding the struggles of households that earn above the federal poverty level, but not enough to afford a bare-bones household budget.” ALICE metrics take into account where families live on a state, county, and township level — and more crucially, what the cost of living is in those areas.

Looking at ALICE numbers tells a different story about Leelanau County…a staggering 43 percent of Leelanau County households cannot afford any unexpected expenses (such as car repairs, health deductibles) or increases in basic expenses (such as food, transportation, childcare, a basic phone plan).

The county government can create or influence policy to provide or incentivize the things that foster equity: Affordable housing. Early childhood programs, healthy public schools and dependable childcare. Reliable public transportation, like convenient BATA buses. Expansion of affordable broadband to every household.

Private and non-profit projects that address housing and food insecurity must be welcomed and nurtured. The Poor Farm Garden, in Kasson Township, raises and distributes hundreds of pounds of fresh vegetables, partnering with Food Rescue of Northwest Michigan and 5Loaves2Fish to donate healthy vegetables to food insecure households in northwestern Michigan, on the same soil as the original County Farm, purchased in 1901 by Leelanau County, to provide for the poor.

Here’s a quote from the Leelanau County Historic Preservation Society: Empathy and compassion is baked into this soil and has survived through this partnership. It also reminds us that after all this time we still have people in need…”

At a recent Township Board meeting, after a discussion about a small-scale affordable housing issue, a man in the audience stood up and said “I’m sick of giving people handouts. If they want to live here, they should come up with the money.”

The problem is—our property values (including that gentleman’s property) are rising precipitously. People have been priced out of their own homes, and are unable to fill jobs, raise families and build lives here. And we need those year-round, employed families.

Investment in programming and services is the rising tide that lifts all boats.

Leelanau Needs to Protect and Cherish Our Beautiful, Fragile Home

If there were ever a local issue that should be 100% non-partisan, it would be protecting our stunningly beautiful peninsula, its rural and small-town character, and our abundance of natural resources.

Surrounded by Grand Traverse Bay and Lake Michigan, Leelanau County has 100 miles of Great Lakes shoreline, 33 inland lakes and incorporates five islands.  We have the second-highest proportion of water area of any county in the United States, behind only Keweenaw County, Michigan.  Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, located on the west side of the county, was voted “The Most Beautiful Place in America” by Good Morning America, in 2011.

Water, water everywhere.  Which means keeping our lakes, shorelines and watershed clean and healthy should be Priority One.

Leelanau County is thoroughly rural and agricultural, with a half-dozen charming and unique resort towns running along the outer coastline. Inland lakes and streams are lined with villages, homes, businesses and cottages, many of which were built decades ago and have independent septic systems. It is estimated that 20-40% of those systems are either failing or need attention.

After rejecting a septic inspection ordinance for 30 years, the County Commission recently passed a point-of-sale/transfer septic ordinance—when you’re selling or transferring a property, a septic inspection (and correction, if needed) is now mandated.

My opponent says this is the ‘big arm of government’ coming down on property owners. My take is that such an inspection will not only protect our most precious resource, and economic engine—water—but will protect new buyers from having an unpleasant surprise when their inadequate holding tank or drainage field fails. It’s common sense and a simple first step to protect the watershed.

Recycling is another important factor in keeping Leelanau clean and green. When we moved here in 2010, we were delighted to learn that free recycling bins were available in Cedar, and other locations around the county, funded by a vote made by our fellow citizens. Recycling keeps waste out of the ground and out of the water.

I do understand that recycling centers have sometimes been misused— but recycling (and monitoring recycling centers, or making them more attractive) is something citizens can do, and government can support. It’s a mix of individual responsibility, and good policymaking. It’s one component in protecting the ecosystem we all share.

Another example of individual initiative and policy support is boat-washing, to keep destructive and invasive species out of our lakes. The Lake Leelanau Association and the Grand Traverse Band partnered on this project, to protect lake health and fishing. Plaudits to them—we need more boat washes. County Commissioners should be behind all such plans. That’s what good government is for.

Protecting the natural environment is not a township-by-township or private association issue. Every major change to the landscape impacts interconnected systems: Traffic. The health of our lakes. Farming. Access to recreation, open and wooded spaces. Controlling growth and retaining rural character, while also providing essential housing and services for our citizens and visitors.

When it comes to protecting our land, air and water—we’re all in this together.

Leelanau Needs to Attract and Support Young Families

Shortly after we moved to Leelanau County, results from the 2010 Census were released. On the front page of the local weekly, The Leelanau Enterprise, we learned just how OLD the residents of Leelanau were. Some townships—studded with expensive lakeside homes—had an average age over 60.  We were a county of retirees. And the situation hadn’t improved with 2020 Census data:

In some U.S. counties, the median age is far higher than the national median. According to data from the Census Bureau, in Leelanau County, Michigan, the median age is 54.6 – about 16 years higher than the national median. A reported 30.9% of local residents are 65 and older, while only 16.9% are 18 and under. For context, 15.9% of the U.S. population are 65 or older and 24.1% are 18 and under.

Residents of Leelanau County also appear to be less likely than a typical American to be starting or raising a family. The share of area households that are home to children under the age of 18 is just 19.7%, well below the 30.7% comparable nationwide share.

There are more than 3100 counties in the United States. Six of the top 50 ‘old’ counties in the nation are here in northern Michigan.

This is not healthy, and must be addressed, for a number of reasons:

  • There are four public school districts in Leelanau County, and a great deal of loyalty for the custom-tailored (and free) education they provide. But if there aren’t enough students to guarantee right-sized classes over time, operations are not efficient. Student numbers need to increase or remain stable for families to enjoy the benefits of neighborhood schools—qualified staffing, desirable programming and the building of school communities.
  • The local workforce needs workers who live reasonably near their place of employment. Without a thriving local economy and enough on-site workers, restaurants, small businesses and medical facilities are forced to cut hours and services. Agricultural businesses—utilizing Leelanau County’s unique landscape features—depend on both seasonal and year-round employees as well. The workforce cannot be priced out of decent homes in Leelanau County.

We need young families! And we need to support them (and in doing so, support the older citizens who are drawn to Leelanau County). How do we do this?

The good news is that we have lots of civic-minded problem-solvers in Leelanau County. With the support of the County Commission and local government, and adequate resources, we can make Leelanau County a welcoming place for young families. 

Five Thoughts about Good Government from a Retired Teacher

In my next five (short) blogs, I’m going to lay out a kind of platform for what I think is good local and regional government, here in my neck of the woods. These will go on my campaign’s Facebook page (Elect Nancy Flanagan) and be printed into packets and—I hope—discussed by many people who read this blog or engage with me on social media and through door-knocking and calls.

At the 2020 Republican National Convention (much of it broadcast from THE PEOPLE’s White House), it was frequently noted that the Republican party didn’t assemble or construct a platform for the 2020 Presidential election, but just used the 2016 platform and trusted The Former Guy to speak his mind during the Convention and campaign, letting us all know what his intentions were, should he be re-elected.

I do realize that people don’t vote for words or documents.

Like most Americans, I have never studied a party platform in depth, beginning to end. But I’ve always been interested in partisan takes on critical issues. Why? Because they might impact my life—and the lives of my friends, family and community.

That may sound a little simplistic—What’s in it for me? —but that’s the way most thinking people vote, with the welfare of who/what matters most to them in mind. Others reflexively select one party and doggedly stick with it. Some choose the candidate they’d most like to have a beer with.

But I think it’s worth laying out a coherent set of principles around what can be accomplished by a local officeholder. I am certain I will be asked, as a candidate for the County Commission, about my views on current issues—student loan forgiveness, say, or abortion rights.  The County Commission does not deal with national issues, so those questions are irrelevant to policy made by the Board of Commissioners.

But they do impact the lives of the people who live in my county, eventually. All politics, as Tip O’Neill observed, is local. And should be. Politicians are elected to serve their constituents, not their own needs and preferences. So politicians should welcome questions.

I’ve spent some time thinking about—for lack of a better word—my platform, and how change impacts everyone in the rural northwestern Michigan county where I live, the ‘little finger’ of the Michigan mitten. We’re looking at lots of change in Leelanau County—things like abundance of water, and clean air, as climate change looms make this a very desirable place to live.

Monday night, I attended a Planning Board meeting in Centerville Township, to discuss a proposal to vastly expand a local lakeside campground. I don’t live in Centerville Township—I live just south of the line—but this proposal will impact me, and people in the six townships surrounding the lake and peripherally, folks in the rest of the county.

It was an overflow crowd (with people listening through the windows) but commenters and listeners were polite. They were also of one mind: this expansion will impact septic issues, lake cleanliness, light pollution and traffic immediately, with secondary concerns around local eateries and businesses, and public safety. Comments were well-informed and passionate. Farmers don’t want to live next to a water park.

No decision was made, but the response was heartening. Voters are paying attention.

And local issues are frequently connected. Education has long been my passion—and I think the county has some fine public schools. But the only way to keep those locally tailored schools alive is to bring young families to Leelanau County, and support the ones who are already here. All kinds of issues impact education, from broadband infrastructure to affordable housing. It’s all connected.

I’ll be writing five blogs on what I think are the things that my county needs, right now. All of these are complicated goals, which deserve some unpacking. Over the next three weeks, I’ll do that.

Leelanau Needs:

  • To welcome and support young families
  • To protect and cherish our beautiful, fragile home
  • To address ‘poverty in paradise’
  • To get out ahead of changes that are coming
  • To cultivate cooperation and transparency in government

Some of the best local politicians here are former educators.

Educators are used to organizing people, and respecting facts.  And so it goes.

How to Make More Teachers

We need more teachers.

Good teachers. Well-trained and seasoned teachers. Teachers who are in it for the long haul.

Many of the articles floating around about the teacher shortage focus on data—What percentage of teachers really quit, when the data is impenetrably murky at best? And how does that compare with other professions?

In other words, how bad is it? Really?

These articles often miss the truth: Some districts will get through the teacher shortage OK. And most districts will suffer on a sliding scale of disruption and frustration, from calling on teachers to give up their prep time to putting unqualified bodies in classrooms for a whole year, sometimes even expecting the real teachers to keep an eye on the newbies.

The shortage will look different everyplace, but one point is universal: it’s not getting better.

Teachers are not just retiring and leaving for good. They’re part of the great occupational heave happening because of the COVID pandemic—people looking for better jobs, demanding more pay, in a tight labor market.

Public schools are now competing to hire smart and dedicated young people who want to be professionally paid and supported, especially in their early careers. When you’ve got student loans, higher starting pay is a big deal. And loan forgiveness if you teach for a specified number of years might make a huge difference.

Before anybody starts telling us how to make more teachers, as fast and cheaply as possible, to prevent “learning loss,” we should think about Peter Green’s cynical but spot-on assessment of the underlying goals of folks pushing for a New Concept of who can teach:

Once you’ve filled classrooms with untrained non-professionals, you can cut pay like a hot knife through cheap margarine. It’s really a two-fer–you both erode the power of teachers unions and your Teacher Lite staff cost you less, boosting your profit margin for the education-flavored business that you started to grab some of those sweet, sweet tax dollars. And as an added bonus, filling up public schools with a Teacher Lite staff means you can keep taxes low (why hand over your hard-earned money just to educate Those Peoples’ children). 

Several states (and Florida springs to mind here) almost seem to be competing for the best ways to reduce public school teacher quality, thus reducing public school quality in the process. In addition to offering full-time, teacher-of-record jobs to folks without college degrees, they’re trying to brainwash the ones they already have by offering them $700 to be, well, voluntarily indoctrinated about another New Concept around what the Founders really meant in the Constitution.

Attention MUST turn to an overhaul of how we recruit, train and sustain a teaching force.

All three are important—and have been so for decades. We’ve been talking about improving the teacher force, from selection of candidates to effective professional learning, for decades. As Ann Lutz Fernandez notes, in an outstanding piece at the Hechinger Report, there is a surfeit of bad ideas for re-building the teacher workforce, and not enough coherent, over-time plans to put well-prepared teachers into classrooms, and keep them there.

I have worked on a number of projects to assist beginning teachers using alternative routes into teaching. And while there are problems, there’s something to be said for teaching as a second (or fourth) career,with the right candidates and pre-conceptions, and the right professional learning.

That professional learning has to include a college degree, and field experience. Many high-profile charters advertise the percentage of students who are accepted into colleges. There’s been a longtime push to mandate challenging, college-prep courses at public high schools, and send larger numbers of students to post-secondary education.

Teachers need to be credentialed to demand respect from the education community, plain and simple, no matter what Ron DeSantis says. It’s past 50 years since bachelors degrees were the required norm for teachers in all states. Backing away from that is egregiously foolish—and almost certainly politically motivated.

If we were serious about making more *good* teachers, we’d need two core resources: money and time. Money to effect a significant nationwide boost in salaries, loan forgiveness programs, student teaching stipends, scholarships, plus the development of more alternate-entry and Masters in Teaching programs that include both coursework and an authentic, mentored student teaching experience.

This would also take time—but it absolutely could be done. Would-be teachers should have to invest some skin in the game—not because traditionally trained teachers had to jump through hoops, but because teaching involves commitment to an important mission. Done well, it’s professional work. We can argue about teacher preparation programs, but nobody should be going into a classroom, alone, without training and support. It’s bad for everyone—teachers, communities and especially kids.

What are we going to do in the meantime?

Alternative routes have sprung up all over the country, some unworthy, others better. All are stopgaps, but some of those teachers will continue to grow and excel in the classroom. And I agree with Michael Rice, MI State Superintendent of Schools:    

“If the question is whether we have a teacher that is certified through (an alternative route) or have Mikey from the curb teaching a child — a person who has no experience whatsoever and is simply an adult substituting in a classroom for a long period of time because there isn’t a math teacher, there isn’t a social studies teacher, there isn’t a science teacher — the teacher that is developed through an alternative route program or expedited program is going to be preferable.”

It’s worth mentioning that this shortage has been visible, coming down the road, for years. The pandemic and that great occupational upheaval have merely brought it into focus.

It’s past time to get the teacher pipeline under control. This will take good policy.

Amusing Ourselves into Educational Oblivion

A great new piece in the NY Times from Ezra Klein starts with Marshall McLuhan and his iconic quote: The medium is the message. Content—facts, analysis, opinion—is often secondary to the way it is presented.  McLuhan was prescient, of course—can you imagine what he would have made of Donald Trump?—but only in retrospect do we see just how deeply and comprehensively his remark has come to fruition.

Klein moves on to discuss my favorite education thinker—Neil Postman—and his terrific 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. The publisher’s note is a succinct descriptor: a prophetic look at what happens when politics, journalism, education, and even religion become subject to the demands of entertainment.

As it happens, education, religion, journalism and politics are the things I am most interested in, my personal passions. And I’ve seen all of them changing in alarming ways, to fit the attention spans and expectations of immediate gratification that technological change has shaped.

Americans, of course, think they are immune to this. Klein says:

Americans are capitalists, and we believe nothing if not that if a choice is freely made, that grants it a presumption against critique. That is one reason it’s so hard to talk about how we are changed by the mediums we use.

 I heard Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist who’s been collecting data on how social media harms teenagers, say, bluntly, “People talk about how to tweak it — oh, let’s hide the like counters. Well, Instagram tried — but let me say this very clearly: There is no way, no tweak, no architectural change that will make it OK for teenage girls to post photos of themselves, while they’re going through puberty, for strangers or others to rate publicly.”

What struck me about Haidt’s comment is how rarely I hear anything structured that way. He’s arguing three things. First, that the way Instagram works is changing how teenagers think. It is supercharging their need for approval of how they look and what they say and what they’re doing, making it both always available and never enough. Second, that it is the fault of the platform — that it is intrinsic to how Instagram is designed, not just to how it is used. And third, that it’s bad. That even if many people use it and enjoy it and make it through the gantlet just fine, it’s still bad. It is a mold we should not want our children to pass through.

Bingo.

Why don’t we have the foresight to just say no to attractive technologies that are harmful to children’s—or even adults’—development and emotional well-being? They’re addictive. And remember what Frances Haugen told us about Facebook: They knew it was harmful to young women especially. But they buried that knowledge in pursuit of profit.

In an election season, candidates are seldom lauded for their creative policy ideas and expertise, let alone their character and integrity. Instead, we have Boots vs. Flip-Flops elections, like the Presidential contest in 2004 where a bona fide war hero was taken down by deceptive media, leaving the term ‘swiftboating’ behind, in the political lexicon.

Kind of makes you long for the days of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, where folks took picnic baskets for refreshment, and each candidate spoke, uninterrupted, for a total of 90 minutes. Tens of thousands of people attended. And there were no sound bites, memes, re-runs or cable news analysis. The medium—each man, speaking his ideas—was the message.

Fast-forward to 2022, where the MI GOP nominee for Governor, one Tudor Dixon, was described by the co-chair of her party as a ‘younger, smarter and hotter’ version of the current Governor, Gretchen Whitmer. (Plus that Trump Seal of Approval, of course.)

Ms. Dixon seems to be the candidate Republicans thought had the best chance of winning: someone who looks a lot like the current governor, but is a relatively blank slate, having never held elected office. Clearly, this isn’t about making good public policy, or the kind of leadership we need. But it illustrates the degree to which the medium—and Dixon has a history in media–is more important than the message.  

Often, the most entertaining and outlandish candidate wins. Viewers routinely say that the loudest and most aggressive candidate on the debate stage ‘won,’ quality of arguments be damned. But– who wins in the 2022 midterm elections really matters.

If people in your household or family circle are heading back to school this month, what media-savvy Tudor Dixon says about public education matters, too: Among Dixon’s education priorities are requiring teachers to put all curriculum and teaching materials online for parents to review, banning transgender girls from playing on girls’ sports teams, and criminalizing taking minors to drag shows

Much of this is education-media theatre, fed by stoking fear and anger, aimed toward winning elections. The terms and assertions dominating what should be policy discussions about how to shape a community asset—public education—have been, to put it politely, invented.

Fights at school board meetings and public arguments about cherished young adult novels are probably more entertaining than the pedestrian work of stretching public dollars and finding a special ed teacher in August. Boring meetings seldom draw camera crews, and don’t offer the possibility of a mic being stuck in your face.

But there is a role for order and rules and civil discourse. Every teacher in the country understands this.

The Politics of the Polka Fest Parade

I live in a wonderful small town in the ‘Little Finger’ of the Michigan mitten. Cedar sits squarely in the center of the Leelanau peninsula, settled a century and a half ago by Polish farmers, whose names are sprinkled across the landscape on businesses, farms and roads. Holy Rosary Catholic Church, established in 1883, is the conservative spiritual home to many of the residents.

In many ways, Leelanau County—a spectacularly beautiful place, surrounded by Lake Michigan and Grand Traverse Bay, and marked by blooming orchards, massive sand dunes and rolling, wooded terrain—is a microcosm of American politics. A half-dozen charming resort towns, multi-million dollar lakeside homes, and more modest interior villages where family roots go deep. All of it built on land that was mostly ceded to the Tribes, in 1855, then promptly platted up and sold to white immigrants anyway.

The Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians are still based here, and we’re home to a National Park, Sleeping Bear Dunes, dubbed The Most Beautiful Place in America.It’s a fantastic place to live—good schools, clean air and water, friendly people. Lots of snow.

But things are changing.

The population is growing older and richer and whiter, around the edges of the county, as wealthy folks from around the globe, looking to escape the ravages of climate change, snap up properties. We need another 600 affordable homes, both rented and owned, to support a plethora of service workers and young families who would like to share the beauty and opportunity. Internet services have been decades behind the rest of the world (although the current County Commission has recently made great strides). And keeping our lakes and shorelines clean should be Job #1—they are the lifeblood of the local economy.

If this is starting to sound like a political ad, that may be because I just got through a primary election, running for County Commissioner in my (mostly rural, heart-of-the-peninsula) district. I love it here, and think we could do a much better job of protecting our assets, bringing in young families, and building community.

I have loved living in Cedar since the first summer we moved here, and learned that the Big Deal Event in Cedar was the annual Polka Festival. We went our first Polkafest parade in 2011—and found it heartwarming. Vintage farm trucks, a dancing pierogi, accordion players on flatbeds and a group of friendly folks in the 60-ish demographic, carrying Vote Blue! signs.

Aha, I thought. Those are my people.

And it turned out that they were. I have been in the parade multiple times since, in election years, marching with Democratic candidates and stalwarts. Singin’ songs and carryin’ signs. The other side was there, too—we’d wave, and they’d wave back. It’s a friendly local parade, and we’re all neighbors.

There was no Polka Festival in 2020—postponed into oblivion, like so many things– and we missed it. There’s round-the-clock dancing in a big white tent, authentic Polish food in Styrofoam containers and a mass in Polish, at Holy Rosary. Not so much fun with a dangerous virus circulating.

Last year, with the Polkafest on again, the local Dems applied to send a marching unit, and were told that the Polkafest Parade was now apolitical—no campaigning, no partisanship. Just a community event.

The previous presidential election and the Big Lie made it a year like no other, of course, and the new rules made sense to me. With so many community traditions, 2021 was supposed to be a return to normal. A chance to have fun together. Let’s leave politics out of it. I was OK with that.

Except that the current County Commissioner (who’s held the seat almost 26 years, and will be my opponent, come November 8) was in the 2021 parade, riding an old red farm tractor with signs wired to its sides, suggesting we re-elect her. She was throwing out candy, too.

The Dems called the parade organizers, afterward, and asked what happened to the apolitical parade. We were told that the rules now stated that elected politicians were allowed, but by invitation only.

The day after last week’s Primary, I applied to field a polka band for the 2022 parade. I play in a number of local musical groups, including a community band, and knew I could assemble a handful of good musicians and Roll Out the Barrel.

I’d put an “Elect Nancy Flanagan” sign on the side of the truck. It wasn’t an original idea—I was in a small, truck-bed band in the nearby Leland Fourth of July parade, with political signs for a different candidate, and it was really fun.

The rejection came back immediately. No political units, except for (and the organizer made this sentence outsized and bold) “seated official representatives elected by the people, by invitation only”.

There was some back and forth—Did she want a list of seated, duly elected Democrats to invite? No—but in the end the polka band folks I’d recruited, after tossing around the idea of calling ourselves the ‘Step to the Left Polka Band,’ decided to opt out rather than go incognito or risk a public kerfuffle.

Yup. I realize it’s a pretty small slight, an early lesson in politics. Organizers can invite the side they want to be at their event, and turn the other folks away. Those with power win, those without lose. It’s how the game is played. Especially in 2022.

Yet I imagine newcomers to Leelanau County watching the parade, seeing 26-year County Commissioner riding on her tractor, thinking: Why didn’t the Democrats choose to be in this parade? Where is that woman who’s running against her?  

Or maybe they’ll be too busy looking for the dancing pierogi.

Zero Tolerance for School-based Threats

In the early 2000s, my middle school spent a couple of years plagued by bomb threats. This was around the time when the shock and awe of Columbine were still percolating in the minds of educators. Threats were taken seriously, always.

And so we would find ourselves being bused to the HS Auditorium, or scurrying out to wait in the snowy parking lot so students could go home early, right after the kindergarten runs. Teachers, of course, were free to re-enter the building, but students had to abandon lunches and calculators. The police were involved. Students were warned in assemblies about the Serious Consequences of getting caught—and that they would indeed get caught, one day. And so on.

It would be quiet for a few weeks and then—someone would scrawl a threatening note on the bathroom wall, about a bomb in a locker. And the day was over. Again.

The teachers weren’t in the inner loop of communication as administrators set about finding culprits, but eventually they nabbed someone, and punishments were meted out, and we didn’t have bomb threats for a good long while. There was never an explosive, of course—but the deadliest school bombing massacre in American history occurred 95 years ago in Bath, Michigan, so we’re careful about bombs around here.

Worth noting: The Bath School Bomber was a disgruntled school board member, upset over school taxes, who also killed the Superintendent.

The school massacre that happened last fall in Oxford, Michigan has yielded a copycat effect, with:

…more than 100 students in Michigan accused of threatening schools in the days and weeks after a terrifying shooting rampage at Oxford High School left four students dead and seven people injured. Scores of schools were forced to shut down, while police and sheriff’s departments were overwhelmed as officers raced to investigate each case.  

Ingham County Sheriff Scott Wriggelsworth said his officers investigate about two school threats a month. “A lot of times, (a threat) means throwing every resource we have at it. We had school threats on consecutive days, and we had 19 officers on it,” he said. “A lot of times it comes out that it’s a seventh-grader who didn’t want to go to school, but by the time we figure that out, we’ve spent 24 hours investigating.”

Exactly.

And that’s what makes this such an intractable problem: Kids do stupid things. How do we deal with that?

Will they do stupid things again if they’re not severely punished the first time? Should they be banished from the school district forever? Sent to Juvie for making an empty threat? Made to pay for their behavior via community service?

The rules are ever-evolving. And for every fan of Restorative Justice, there’s someone else who’s sick of being steamrollered for insisting on strict classroom discipline.

Matching the punishment to the crime is not always simple. It seems to me that hunting and murdering other human beings ought to put you behind bars. But not even that is a guarantee.  

No matter who’s doing the sentencing, there are equivocating factors, including the age and intent of the perpetrator, the level of violence employed or implied, and the political environment of the place where youthful threats are made.

After a credible threat—bombs, shooters, you name it—the focus is often on who could have or should have anticipated the danger (and how to punish them). Who was negligent before or during the terror? Who must pay to find justice for victims?

Here are the questions I’d like answered, instead:

What could have been done to mitigate this situation, before it ever happened? Why do so many students immediately attempt copycat threats? What is there about living in this nation, going to school here, that makes students attracted to aggression, even bloodshed?

With a shooting, we can look at access to lethal weapons. But how do we prevent the urge to cause chaos, to get attention, to seek revenge? To harm other human beings?

If you think I’m suggesting that this job should fall into the laps of teachers, think again.

Teachers need both clear policy and honed human judgment to effectively teach young people. But neither of those is enough to prevent the forces that are pushing students to some very bad decisions involving weapons.

Solving these problems won’t happen with Zero Tolerance policies either, no matter how tough that language sounds to communities.  

We all live in this overheated country. We all see what happens to communities when a whole classroom is mowed down, or an ordinary supermarket becomes a place of terror. We all witness violence in what should be safe community spaces.

It’s everyone’s problem.

What Do Students Need to Know? World Languages or the Arts or Personal Finance?

In 2017, I was part of a ‘listening tour’ of voters in my rural, northern Michigan county. We asked our neighbors what their most pressing issues were—what things happening right now in the nation, or locally, worried them most. Our opening query: What keeps you up at night?

Surprisingly, this was a hard question for many people. Typically, after a half-minute of thinking out loud, they’d say that life was pretty good.

So we had follow-up questions to suggest potential avenues for concern. Are you worried about the economy? Political dysfunction? Immigration? Human rights? Education?

One evening, my partner and I were invited into the neat-as-a-pin home of an elderly gentleman, who clearly wanted to chat. He told us—first time we’d heard this–that education was his number one issue.

I asked if he’d been a teacher. No— he’d worked as a farmer, but was a father, grandfather and great-grandfather (he was in his 90s, according to our voter information file). And what was going on in the schools right now was an absolute travesty.

I was prepared to hear about the lack of discipline or new-fangled computer learnin’—but what was keeping this nice old gent up at night was curriculum. Did you know they’re not teaching woodshop or metal shop at the high school anymore?

He shook his head. They’re not showing kids how to work with their hands—to do household repairs, use tools, or put up a simple garage. He said he’d always handled his own home repairs, from wiring a ceiling fan to repairing a leaky toilet. He’d just installed a new dishwasher. And what about students who wanted to go into the trades? What good did Algebra do for boys like that?

(Hey. He was ninety-something. Cut him some slack.)

I thought of him when I learned that Michigan has just signed into law a bill requiring every HS student to take a half-credit class in Personal Finance, in order to graduate. The requirement begins with this year’s eighth grade class, giving schools time to figure out how to incorporate yet another new requirement into an already overstuffed schedule.

I’m all for inculcating a better understanding of how to manage money. Stories about predatory lending alone should make us all more knowledgeable about credit, budgeting, and setting healthy spending and earning goals, especially in young adults.

But I’m not exactly sure that a half-credit course in high school is the ideal setting for that learning. You could read and regurgitate lots of personal-finance content, at age 16, then promptly forget what you memorized, when the knowledge would actually be useful—say, when you got your first big-boy job. Like so much of what we ‘learned’ in secondary school, until you apply the knowledge, it’s more or less inert.

Here’s what bothers me most about adding curricular requirements: Folks are fond of talking about what should be taught in school, but haven’t a clue about the absolute fact that there are only so many slots in a typical secondary school schedule. At the moment, the (also-required) Michigan Merit Curriculum has control over nearly all those slots. What will this new course replace? Because something’s got to go.

Every teacher and school leader has been over this territory endlessly. And every Joe Citizen has a personal opinion about what students should be required to master before leaving school, from economics to penmanship.

Education thinkers tend to talk, at this point, about big-picture skills and perceptions—the development of judgment and discretion and analysis, via subject matter content. It’s the heart of teachers’ professional work.

The curricular canon has shifted since the early 20th century, when Logic, Rhetoric and Latin were considered essential competencies for the well-educated—proof that context matters, and values change over time.

It would be great to use this (and dozens of similar suggestions—like axing social studies and arts courses in favor of STEM) as a kickoff to a deep, statewide conversation on re-thinking credits, standardization and student choice.

It would be an ideal opportunity for discussing the purpose of public schooling. Should students study the natural world and the humanities? Or is moving toward a narrow, commercially-focused curriculum—a secularized prosperity gospel– our goal for students?

For legislators, the go-to in policy-making is concrete mandates: At the discretion of local school boards, the course could fulfill a half-credit in math, world language, or the arts. Currently, the Michigan Merit Curriculum requires four credits in math, two in a language other than English, and one in visual, performing, or applied arts. The Legislature also is considering a separate bill allowing computer programming to count for world language credit. Both measures have strong backing from business groups that say they’re interested in a more skilled workforce. 

Well, there you have it. Job training.

One wonders why fluency in another language, or artistic expression, is so devalued. Aren’t those also desirable skills in the 21st century world of work? As the old man we interviewed said, we no longer respect working with our hands.

Or our hearts, or our voices. The things that make us most human.

Lirty Dies or Wandering the Campaign Trail in ‘22

The Michigan primary is in three weeks, on August 2nd. This is the first pre-election summer I’ve ever been a candidate for anything, so I’m spending more time—what? Thinking politically? Dividing the world into red and blue, R and D? Despairing of the current climate?

Actually, what I’ve been thinking most about is lies. Untruths, mendacities, outright deceit, yada yada—and the party that uses them as bait.

The Capitol Steps –may they rest–a musical comedy group originated over 40 years ago, with a collection of congressional staffers who saw the humor potential in pretty much everything that went down in D.C., had a series of sketches called Lirty Dies.

Lirty Dies were merely phrases with the first letters exchanged—in Capitol Steps parlance, when you WHip their FLurds. A great political tradition: We’re not quite sure what we’re saying; you’re not quite sure what you’re hearing.  Think Herschel Walker.

The problem? Liars win.

This has always been true—plenty of obvious examples in recent history, from the deceptive Trump appointees on the Supreme Court who knew what settled law was, to that dude in Missouri who said that women who were ‘legitimately’ raped could shut that whole thing down.

But in 2022, alternative facts are the norm in every election, from the Big Lie about 2020 to my own small-potatoes campaign for County Commissioner.

In my State Senate district (MI 37th), for example, there are three candidates running on the Democratic ticket. Only one is actually a Democrat. The other two are both Republicans, active in their county parties–and sometime felons, by the way. One of them was quoted as saying, during his podcast on March 31, that the media was trying to destroy the “nuclear family,” with every commercial showing a “biracial mom and dad.” It’s pretty clear who the target audience is.

I’m not really clear on why they think this tactic—running in the party they loathe—will work. There are two actual Republicans running in the primary, so it’s not as if there was nobody to vote for. Just a chance to SPew up real political SCReech, I guess. (That was a Lirty Die.)

Meanwhile, in the Michigan Legislature, the Democrats (the minority party), having been falsely accused by their Republican opponents of being ‘groomers,’ decided to fight back:

As many Republicans push conspiracies about schoolchildren being “groomed” in public schools, a bill introduced by Democrats in the Michigan House that would create a legal pathway to prosecute people who “groom” minors in sexual abuse cases idles, untouched by the Republican majority. 

Partly this is because former (Republican) House Speaker Chatfield is under investigation for actually grooming a 15-yr old girl when he was her teacher at a Christian Academy founded by his father. But mostly, it’s just a ruby-red response to being called out and held accountable for Lirty Dies.

Two weeks ago, the four women running for the Democratic slot in my County Commission district (including me) held an open-air listening session at a local park.  We sent out postcards to likely primary voters to invite them. The weather was perfect, and we had live music and cookies.

The event was a great success—somewhere between 50 and 60 voters showed up, and for two hours, each of us was grilled (or encouraged) by friendly neighbors. People asked good questions about local issues—why our internet infrastructure is inadequate or worse, how to build and repurpose affordable housing, and so on.

The biggest issue is clean water. We live on a peninsula surrounded by Lake Michigan, so passing a mandatory septic ordinance, while the least sexy of issues, is critical.

Midway through the afternoon, an older gentleman and his wife showed up. I greeted him with an outstretched hand, as he passed a table with a fellow Dem collecting signatures for Promote the Vote.  Are they for or against mail-in ballots? He asked. For, I told him.

Mail-in ballots are how the 2020 election was stolen, he said. Oh oh.

I decided to just listen to his issues and concerns. He talked about responsible farming and compost, which seemed to be something we had in common. Then he asked me about my background. I told him I was a retired teacher.

And he proceeded to regurgitate incredible slander about public education, the crapola now floating above every local election: The teachers were teaching kids to hate being white. They were telling lies about history. They were teaching kids about perverted sex (he was embarrassed when he said this, looking down at the ground). There were dirty books, too.

Ironically, his seven children had all attended and graduated from the public school no more than a mile down the road. This is a school where I volunteered—before the pandemic—and that I thought was a good public school, a school that offered a lot of programming for a small district and had a solid staff.

I told him I had been in the classroom for nearly 35 years, then volunteered in three local districts in this county, and I did not believe that teachers routinely did those things. Any teacher who overstepped their bounds in the classroom could and should be called out. By parents—or by an administrator. But this was not the way public education (which is controlled by a locally elected board) worked.

Well, he said. This just started.

He was OK with the school when his kids were there—the teachers were pretty good, and he went to all the football games. But now, he said, teachers have started doing bad things all over the country.

What, specifically? Well, supporting the Blacks, he said. Against the police. Going against the Bible. He struggled to remember what he’d read—some letters, maybe? (No way was I going to fill in the acronym for him. He’d already soaked up too much falsehood.)

You should start volunteering again, he said. Things have really changed in the last couple of years.

I passed him on to another candidate, but he lingered in my mind. Not a bad guy. But he’d been lied to, and he trusted the liars. It was as simple as that.

Lirty Dies.

Voter Linda, chatting with the four candidates for Leelanau County Commission: Allison Zimpfer, Julie Kradel, Mary O’Neill and blog author Nancy Flanagan.