Column: When Silence Speaks Volumes

Even a bedpost can look sinister in the dark.

Inclusion of a P20 education hub project in a recently passed budget bill seems to have been an attempt to bypass accountability and use connections to get the state to cough up $5.5 million for the project.

Before the legislation was sent to Gov. Rick Snyder, the $5.5 million for the project was replaced with a $100 placeholder. This apparently means that before those behind the P20 hub get money from the state they will have to provide some details about it to the Legislature and the public.

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If that takes place, a lot of explaining will be required. As things now stand the project, and particularly the effort to speed its path toward getting public dollars, don’t seem to pass the smell text.

P20 programs are integrated education systems that extend from pre-school through college. So little is known about the P20 hub project that once the specifics come to light, it could turn out to be anything from terrific to terrible.

Why has so little information about the project been revealed? Why, considering this dearth of information was $5.5 million for it put into the supplementary budget bill? Why was the Senate willing to pass a version of the bill (Senate Bill 608) with the $5.5 million for the project intact?

Steelcase, the furniture manufacturing company, is apparently ready to donate the Steelcase Pyramid Building in Grand Rapids to the project. The stated aim of the project is to increase the number of Michigan students who are taught STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects.

That description was pretty much all most people knew about the project as SB 608 moved through the Legislature. Specifics on how the hub would be structured and operated; how the $5.5 million would be used; whether the hub would duplicate already available instruction; and what appears to be a number of entities linked to the project remain undisclosed.

These are the sort of facts that would be expected to come out in legislative hearings. But the project and the $5.5 million its backers want were initially placed in the budget bill without hearings taking place. Members of SB 608 conference committee are to be credited for yanking the funding out of the measure in the late stages of the process.

Jerry Zandstra, a politically-connected West Michigan reverend, seems to be the only person connected to the project who has talked much publicly. He is promoting the project and told the Grand Rapids area media that it “is going to be great.”

Zandstra, who ran for U.S. Senate in 2006 and has been active in Republican politics for years, is co-founder of Inno-Versity, a company that provides instructional materials. In addition he is connected with Icademy Global, which bills itself as “Michigan's only K-12 non-profit blended-learning public charter school.” Icademy is deeply immersed in the P20 hub project as well.

It should be noted that the $5.5 million for the project would not have been education dollars. Instead the Strategic Fund would have been the source of the money. The Strategic Fund is the deliberative body of the Michigan Economic Development Corp., which is the state’s corporate welfare arm.

Arguably the huge, 664,000-square-foot Pyramid Building could be termed a real estate white elephant. Steelcase spent $111 million to build it in 1989. In 2012, it was put up for sale for $19.5 million.

Meanwhile, virtually no one around the Capitol wants to talk on the record about the project. Even most of the off-the-record comments from lawmakers and groups involved with education issues, add up to: “We don’t really know what the heck this project is.”

Apparently one reason for the silence is the close connection between the project and Sen. Mark Jansen, R-Gaines Twp. The Pyramid Building is in Sen. Jansen’s district and he was the primary force in the Legislature pushing for the project to get the $5.5 million. According to a news account, Sen. Jansen is listed as an “organizer” on an application asking Lake Superior State University to authorize a K-8 charter school in the Pyramid Building, which would apparently be a component of the proposed education hub.

Those who understand the charter school process say that to be an ”organizer” does not necessarily mean that Sen. Jansen would stand to gain financially from the project.

Sen. Jansen and backers of the project have claimed his name appearing on the charter school application was a mistake.

(Editor’s Note: Jack Spencer is Capitol Affairs Specialist for Michigan Capitol Confidential. He is a veteran Lansing-based journalist. His columns do not represent viewpoints of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy or Michigan Capitol Confidential.)