MEA continues lawsuit over public charter schools

Schools continue serving students, parents

A lawsuit filed by the state’s largest teachers union against the state over more than 30 public charter schools serving 10,000 students across Michigan seems to be having no effect on the day to day operations of the schools.

The Michigan Education Association filed an appeal with the Michigan Court of Appeals on March 8, claiming that public school academies chartered by Bay Mills Community College are not public schools and therefore not entitled to state funding. BMCC is located on the Bay Mills Indian Reservation near Brimley, Mich., in the Upper Peninsula.

"We’re marching on," said Patrick Shannon, director of charter schools for BMCC. "Our teachers and students are engaged in teaching and learning."

Shannon said the college is reviewing new charter school applications and hopes to open a few more in the coming years.

"Our board has directed us to look at specific populations that are currently being underserved by traditional public schools," Shannon said. "We’re trying to think of ways we can help dropouts and increase retention. We want to promote public education for all kids, even the ones who may not seem to fit in."

Shannon said the legal disputes, which have been going on for more than a year, have not scared away families.

"We grew from about 8,000 students last year to more than 10,000 this year," Shannon said. "We didn’t anticipate so much growth, but we’re happy to be there for parents and students."

With schools across the state, including Kalamazoo, Dearborn, Muskegon, Flint and Pontiac, Shannon said Bay Mills is continuing its original mission of serving students in urban areas who are from middle and low income backgrounds.

Bay Mills Charter Schools
Academy of Warren - Warren
Academy of Waterford - Waterford
America Montessori Academy - Livonia
Arts & Technology of Pontiac - Pontiac
Bay County PSA - Bay City
Bay Mills - Ojibwe
Charter School - Brimley
Ben Ross PSA - Warren
Bingham Academy - Alpena
Bradford Academy - Southfield
BEST - Highland Park
Crescent Academy - Southfield
Discovery Arts & Technology Academy - Inkster
Eastern Washtenaw Multicultural Academy - Ypsilanti
Fortis Academy - Ypsilanti
Frontier International Academy - Hamtramck
Great Oaks Academy - Madison Heights
Hamtramck Academy - Hamtramck
Jackson PSA - Jackson
Keystone Academy - Belleville
Laurus Academy - Southfield
Life Skills Center of Pontiac - Pontiac
Madison Academy - Burton
Mildred C. Wells Academy - Benton Harbor
Mt. Clemens Montessori Academy - Mt. Clemens
Paramount Charter Academy - Kalamazoo
Prevail Academy - Mt. Clemens
Richfield Academy - Flint
Three Oaks Academy - Muskegon
Triumph Academy - Monroe
Universal Learning Academy - Dearborn Heights
Vista Charter Academy - Wyoming
Woodmont Academy - Southfield

"Our environment allows us to adapt quickly to meet the needs of parents and students," Shannon said. "We can move more quickly because we’re not tied down by bargaining problems and other issues. There’s a real ease to making adjustments."

While community colleges are allowed to authorize public school academies within their geographic boundaries, Bay Mills Community College’s charter recognizes the entire state of Michigan as its geographic area because it is run by a federally-recognized Indian tribe.

The original suit late last year was dismissed on one count by Ingham County Circuit Court Judge Joyce Draganchuk, who also said the union lacked standing to bring suit on three of four other counts. The MEA filed its appeal based on the one count on which Draganchuk ruled the union had standing. In its brief, the union argues that the Bay Mills board of governors is not publicly elected. That in turn, the union says, means the schools chartered by the college are not public, and are therefore ineligible to receive public funds.

Assistant Attorney General Robert Dietzel argued before Draganchuk that the state’s charter school law has provisions that recognize tribal community colleges, such as Bay Mills. Non-tribal community colleges, which also can authorize charter schools, have publicly elected boards.

Dietzel also said the public schools that Bay Mills has chartered are subject to the State Board of Education, which is a public body, and therefore qualify for public funds. Charter schools receive a per-pupil foundation grant from the state, but cannot raise additional tax dollars via property tax millages because they do not have geographic boundaries.

The MEA, in contrast, has argued that the schools are not subject to state authorities. Thus, the union argues, sending the schools state funds would violate the state constitution. Proponents have long said not only must charter schools meet state education guidelines, they also have to meet the expectations of parents, who are free to remove a child from a charter school at any time, thereby taking the per-pupil funding with them.

"The very fact that parents make a choice would indicate to me that they would be parents who are involved in their child’s education," the MEA’s Lu Battaglieri said in an August 2005 deposition for the original case. Battaglieri also suggested that the union, in his view, might benefit by the closure of charter schools, saying the union is "not adverse to gaining membership," and indicating a "vast majority" of the union’s revenue comes from dues, about "$57 million out of $70-plus million."

"(T)he more available to bargain, the more is available for them for salaries and wages," Battaglieri said. At the end of the deposition, Battaglieri says he could not recall a single complaint from MEA teachers that they have suffered any harm as a result of Bay Mills authorizing charter schools.

During the deposition, Battaglieri agreed that there is no legal prohibition to charter school teachers unionizing, but also indicated no formal attempt has been made to organize teachers in charter schools. Battaglieri said the union responds to phone calls it receives from potential members.

Battaglieri also said in the deposition he would like to see the cap on charter schools be "as low as we can go," and also indicated the MEA’s lawsuit sought to shut down all of the public school academies authorized by Bay Mills, even though he also, during the same deposition, said parents had made the choice to remove their children from a conventional public school and put them in a charter school.

"We’re not against charter schools," Battaglieri also said.

At another point in the deposition, Battaglieri says, he doesn’t believe he has been to a Bay Mills school, and has no knowledge of the education received by the students.