Sunday, May 15, 2011

Local teachers, union members rally for schools

By Michele Bourdieu

Members of Laborers Union Local 1329 (in orange shirts and jackets) and other concerned residents chat with former U.S. Congressman Bart Stupak, fourth from left, and his wife, Laurie (in maroon jacket), before the speakers' presentations at the May 14, 2011, "Save Your School, Show Your Spirit" rally in Houghton. Click on photos for larger versions. (Photo by Keweenaw Now)

HOUGHTON -- A crowd of teachers, union members and concerned citizens -- including parents with their children -- gathered in Veterans' Park at noon Saturday, May 14, for a "Save Your School, Show Your Spirit" rally.

Elise Matz of the Western Upper Peninsula Community Action Team (WUPCAT), one of the organizers of the "Save Your School, Show Your Spirit" rally, welcomes participants to the rally before introducing each speaker. Matz is wearing her own high school colors in memory of her positive educational experience. (Photo courtesy Allan Baker)

Pep talks by retired U.S. Congressman Bart Stupak, accompanied by his wife, Laurie, and by Gary McDowell, former Democratic congressional candidate who ran for Stupak's empty seat last November, energized the crowd. Ann Campbell, vocal music director for Houghton schools, and Terry LaJeunesse of the Michigan Education Association (MEA) also spoke at the rally, which was organized by members of the Western Upper Peninsula Community Action Team.

Teachers, union members and parents with their children carry signs to show their support for schools as they listen to the speakers at the May 14 rally. (Photo by Keweenaw Now)

All the speakers expressed concern at the recently approved state budget bill that cuts funding for K-12 schools and higher education by nearly $800 million to pay for a $1.8 billion tax break for corporate special interests. In addition, the Emergency Financial Manager (EFM) legislation passed earlier this year is a serious concern for Upper Peninsula educators since Hancock and Ewen Trout Creek schools have been targeted for an EFM because of financial deficits.

Campbell spoke of the role of arts education and defended programs that are often the first to be cut because they have been labeled "hobby" classes. She mentioned a long list of famous people who once studied music in school -- from Brad Pitt to Alan Greenspan -- noting that her own students were aware that the best and most successful students and leaders have arts education in their background and are encouraged to continue to study it at the university level even as they pursue careers in technical fields. She mentioned the successful Fine Arts Department at Michigan Tech as an example.

"Colleges recognize that these students (who take fine arts classes) have already learned how to learn," Campbell said.

Ann Campbell, vocal music director for Houghton schools speaks about the importance of arts education at the "Save Your School, Show Your Spirit" rally on May 14 at Veterans' Park in Houghton. (Video clips courtesy Allan Baker)

The next speaker, Gary McDowell, former state representative for the 107th District, said he is now involved with the Community Action Teams around the state and a group called "We Are the People," who, according to their Web site, are people who believe "Gov. Rick Snyder’s agenda unfairly exploits Michigan’s economic crisis to attack seniors with new taxes on pensions, students by cutting almost $800 million from K-12 and higher education, and workers through efforts to end the right to collective bargaining."*

Gary McDowell, former state representative for the 107th District and former U.S. congressional candidate for Michigan's First District, addresses the crowd at the May 14 rally for schools in Houghton.

After the rally, McDowell told Keweenaw Now he believed moving nearly $800 million out of the state's school fund jeopardizes the quality of Michigan education and the Emergency Manager legislation threatens local control of schools.

"This is so important. This is the future of our state -- that our children receive the highest quality education possible," McDowell said. "Also, local control of education is what this country is built on. People in the Copper Country are going to lose that with an Emergency Financial Manager. He has unlimited power, and the people in these communities have no say at all."

Participants at the May 14, 2011, rally in Veterans' Park listen to speakers warning that Gov. Snyder's Emergency Financial Managers will mean loss of local control of schools, broken contracts and dismissal of school boards. (Photo by Keweenaw Now)

Bart Stupak, former U.S. Congressman for the First District, also expressed his concern about the potential loss of local control of schools. He said he came to the rally to support the teachers and public education. Stupak noted he had just come from Gogebic County, where some of the school districts were very concerned about the EFM issue and about a 15 percent funding cut projected for Gogebic Community College.

"I think what they're doing in Lansing is totally wrong," Stupak said. "The Emergency Financial Manager becomes a dictator."

At the May 14, 2011, rally for schools, Bart Stupak of Menominee -- former U.S. Congressman for Michigan's First District, who retired in 2010 after serving in that position for 18 years -- talks about cuts to educational funding at both national and local levels.

Stupak told Keweenaw Now retirement doesn't mean he's not involved in political issues.

"I still attend events," he said. "I still help out candidates. I still speak out on issues like this."

Terry LaJeunesse, a retired history teacher and MEA leader, reminded the crowd of both good and bad educational precedents in the nation's past -- from the early Puritans' requirement that communities provide a school for children (the beginning of "local control" of schools) to the 1920s when corporations ruled and children often had to choose between school and the survival of their families to the present threat of takeovers by Emergency Finance Managers.

LaJeunesse, led the crowd in a chant, "If we do not learn from history, we are destined to repeat it."

Terry LaJeunesse, MEA leader and retired history teacher, offers the rally crowd examples from U.S. history demonstrating the importance of local control of education.

LaJeunesse also described how an Emergency Finance Manager (EFM) will have the power to fire an elected school board, break contracts and deprive school districts and communities of local control that now permits them to decide what is good for their children. As a union leader at the bargaining table, he noted, he does not represent himself but the union members and their wishes.

"I represent the custodial staff at Hancock High School, I represent the teachers of Baraga, I represent all school employees represented by the Michigan Education Association. They are my bosses," LaJeunesse said. "They are the MEA."

He pointed out that such a takeover would destroy the unions that now protect teachers and school staff members. The unions, he said, are the people who belong to them.

"People make up unions. Unions don't make up people," LaJeunesse said.

LaJeunesse encouraged the crowd to write to Lansing legislators, to call State Rep. Huuki and State Sen. Casperson, to attend more of these events and to spread the word to others -- in order to demonstrate that they don't want to sacrifice children's education for the profit of corporations.

By their votes to cut education, Huuki and Casperson show that they "don't share our values and they don't care about the underclass," said Brian Hoduski, Houghton County Democratic Party co-chair.

"I see Casperson as an economic 'Uncle Tom' to the corporate and rich Republican interests," Hoduski said. "The Earned Income Credit (cut 70 percent by this recent budget legislation) gave the underclass some opportunity. Education is the other way people get out of the underclass."

Scott Dianda, former Democratic candidate for state representative, who lost to Republican Matt Huuki, expressed his concern about the EFMs taking over schools in financial distress and depriving communities of local control. They would have power to do what elected school board officials do now.

"If we have two schools in the district, do they sell off one and put all the schools in the other one?" Dianda, a life-long Calumet resident, asked. "At what point do we start sending our children on a one- or two-hour bus ride to go to school?"

Lisa Sporbert, special education teacher for the Copper Country Intermediate School District (CCISD) and president of the Copper Country Intermediate Education Association (CCIEA), attended the rally with her mother, Donna Sporbert, a para-professional employee at CCISD.

At the May 14, 2011 rally, Lisa Sporbert, CCISD special education teacher and president of the Copper Country Intermediate Education Association, right, displays her "Save Our Kids!" sign, while her mother, Donna Sporbert, also a CCISD employee, carries a sign asking State Rep. Huuki, "Who is more important -- children or corporations?" (Photo by Keweenaw Now)

"I came to save our kids," Lisa Sporbert said. "The cuts that are being made at the educational level are only to support corporations -- to put the money into corporations and to take the money away from all educational workers -- from the bus drivers to the teachers. I'm here to support all the students and collective bargaining rights for all the unions in the country. That's what our nation was built on."

Sierra Bishop, a guidance counselor at Houghton Middle School, carried a sign with the "We Are the People" slogan to show her concern about educational cuts.*

Brian Rendel, Houghton County Democratic Party co-chair, said he was happy to see people come out for the rally on a (chilly) "summer" day.

"It was great to see Bart and Laurie and Gary and Scott," Rendel said. "Mostly I'm very pleased to see so many teachers and school employees, as well as private-sector union members. It's great to see all the union representation!"

* Click here to go to the "We Are the People" Web site.

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