Michigan’s great legislative overreach?

Local superintendent finds notion of guns in schools “disturbing”

By Jacob Wheeler
Sun editor

Michigan Senate Bill 59 may go down as the most ill-timed piece of legislation to come out of Lansing in decades. On Thursday, Dec. 13, the state’s Republican-dominated Senate and House passed a bill that would allow people to carry concealed weapons in schools —regardless of a school’s prerogative. State Rep. Ray Franz, who represents Leelanau, Benzie and Manistee Counties, voted in favor of the bill. Earlier this year, Franz sponsored legislation to eliminate permits to purchase handguns, altogether.

Emboldened by their passage of union-busting “right to work” legislation earlier in the week, lawmakers were on a bull run to push more GOP policy on Governor Rick Snyder’s desk before the lame duck session ended. They worked through the night and concluded their surge of neo-conservative legislation at 4:30 on Friday morning with bills that targeted women’s reproductive rights, made it harder to recall state lawmakers, replaced the emergency manager law (less than two months after voters rejected the law in an election referendum), privatized prisons and rebuked citizens for having eased medical marijuana laws.

Then, five hours later, in Newtown, Conn., a young man forcibly entered an elementary school and murdered 20 children and six teachers with a gun. The tragedy sent the nation into mourning, perhaps to a degree that Americans hadn’t experienced since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Hamstrung by the post-Newtown political reality and calls nationwide to curb gun violence, Gov. Snyder vetoed the guns-in-schools bill earlier this week.

For Glen Lake Schools Superintendent Joan Groening, and public school administrators across Michigan, Snyder’s veto was equivalent to dodging a bullet (figuratively, and perhaps literally).

“The idea of gun legislation that would have allowed someone to have a gun in our school was very disturbing to me,” said Groening. “But I don’t know that (the governor’s veto) would have happened had the horrible event not happened in Connecticut. My heart goes out to that community.”

“We are a drug and gun free zone, which is how it should be. I don’t see how (Glen Lake Schools) could operate any other way,” continued Groening, who stomached the barrage of counter-opinions on national news that, if an elementary school teacher had been armed in Newtown, perhaps the massacre could have been averted. “If you look at the personality profile of an elementary school teacher, that’s someone very different than the kind of person who wants to be armed in an elementary school classroom.”

Reaffirming that her opposition to weapons in schools doesn’t make her “anti-gun”, Groening added that, like many northern Michiganders, she has friends who hunt animals for sport. “I don’t know where (automatic and semi-automatic weapons) fit into that picture,” she offered. “We have students who are 18 years old and who hunt. Does that mean that (had Senate Bill 59 passed) they could have their weapon in school?”

“Right to work” for less wages

Groening also expressed concern with the frenzied pace at which state lawmakers passed “right to work” legislation, though she conceded that, during hard economic times, she was open to some educational reforms and concessions by teachers. As reported by the Traverse City Record-Eagle, Groening took part in a press conference last week with six other local school officials who were dismayed by the hurried pace of union-busting legislation and the expansion of the Education Achievement Authority, which could pave the way for state-appointed emergency managers to take over school districts.

“As a former teacher I would have taken this into the classroom as an example of dysfunctional democracy,” said Mike Hill, superintendent of the Traverse Bay Intermediate School District.

Teachers — as well as builders, autoworkers and other tradesmen — were well represented at a massive rally at the Michigan State Capitol on Dec. 11 to oppose the Republicans’ “right to work” legislation, which Snyder has since signed into law. 12,500 protestors showed up, making this the largest political demonstration in Michigan history. A majority of the demonstrators interpreted the bill as part of an effort to kill unions, which could also decimate the Democratic Party’s funding base.

“What they’re really trying to do is de-fund unions completely,” said unionized sheet metal worker and Frankfort resident John Coleman, who caught a bus to Lansing together with United Autoworker members and sheet metal workers from Cedar, Lake Ann, Traverse City and Rapid City. “That’s hundreds of millions of dollars taken from Democratic support. It’s a back-handed way to do dirty politics.”

Coleman has worked all over the country, including in “right to work” states in the south (Michigan is the nation’s 24th state to pass such legislation). By drying up unions’ funding base, “right to work” cripples their ability to negotiate on behalf of workers, thereby driving down wages. “Guys I know in the South have taken hits,” said Coleman. “They make smaller wages, but they still work. I make $5 an hour less when I work in ‘right to work’ states in the south.”

Rapid City-native Betsy Coffia, who made an unsuccessful run for state representative in 2012, was in Lansing, too, after catching a 5 a.m. bus together with activist friends Sally Neal (Northport), Gwenne Allgaier (Maple City), Beverly Jane Christensen and Barbara Schneider. All five are involved with the Leelanau League of Women Voters, which will host Michigan Campaign Finance Network director Rich Robinson in February to discuss the pitfalls of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision and how it opened the floodgates for corporate billions to fund national and state elections and impact lawmaker policy.

“We do not consent to this,” said Coffia. “This legislation goes so far beyond organized labor and union rights. This goes to show that our legislature is working for ALEC (the Washington-based American Legislative Exchange Council, which has drafted and pushed right-wing legislation on Republican-led state legislatures).”

“We cared enough to get up early and go to Lansing and spend our day on the capitol lawn and register our democratic voices. We’re in shock at the head-swimming way in which this legislation was passed in the place where organized labor was born. The people were shut out, ignored. I got tears in my eyes watching these little men vote for this and just feeling the raw injustice.”