Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Education Action Group

A group on the west side of Michigan is hoping to help board members advocate for kids by helping to defend boards against union attacks.

The Grand Rapids Press: MEA watchdog keeps eye on school funding (09/10/07)

You can find out more about the Education Advocacy Group at

In case the link doesn't work, here is the full story:

MEA watchdog keeps eye on school funding

Monday, September 10, 2007
By Beth Loechler
The Grand Rapids Press

Sitting on a school board can be lonely. Just ask David Allen.

When he cast the tie-breaking vote to privatize busing in Grand Rapids Public Schools, union members shouted and picketed to protect their jobs. Earlier this year, Allen was threatened with a recall.

"I know it's been tough on families, but the facts are the facts," Allen said. Grand Rapids and other districts struggling to balance their budgets have no choice but to continue cutting costs, he said.

Other school boards, including Reeths-Puffer, have cast similar job-cutting votes and suffered similar consequences.

Through it all, Kyle Olson has been watching.

As budget shortfalls continue to plague school districts throughout the state, Olson wants to make sure every dollar possible is going toward educating kids. So he created the nonprofit Education Action Group in June and signed on as its solo employee.

Olson sees his job as an MEA watchdog and the guy who will rally communities to support school boards when they are casting those tough votes on union contracts and privatization. He challenged those who unsuccessfully tried to recall Allen and questioned their motives.

The "silent majority" supports a school board that hires a private company for services outside the classroom, Olson said, because the board is saving money.

"They want the board to make good decisions so as many dollars as possible go toward educating children," he said.

But no one wants to back school boards for taking a stand, he said, because that means going against the powerful Michigan Education Association.

"This has been a very one-sided debate," said the 29-year-old Muskegon resident, ex-lobbyist and self-proclaimed public school advocate.

The MEA had no comment regarding Olson's Education Action Group.

"We just don't know anything about them," spokeswoman Karen Schulz said.

In addition to privatizing some services, Olson believes school districts should be free to drop the pricey health insurance offered by the MEA affiliate called MESSA, or Michigan Education Special Services Association.

This idea is gaining traction elsewhere, too. The state Senate last week narrowly approved a bill that for the first time would force MESSA to disclose insurance claims data, which would allow districts to compare policies and seek competitive bids

"Competition will help drive down costs," Olson said.

Democrats, who control the House, aren't likely to favor the legislation, however.

Olson is no stranger to politics. He handled government affairs for the Michigan Association of Realtors, managed Republican Gerald VanWoerkem's campaign for state Senate in 2002 and ran, unsuccessfully, for the Muskegon County Board of Commissioners last year.

Education Action Group is a 501(c)4 organization, which means it's a politically focused nonprofit, like MoveOn.org and the National Rifle Association.

Contributions are not tax-deductible. He will not say who has donated, but annual reports he will be required to file with the IRS will disclose the number and amounts of donations.

He has put together a board of directors, which he also is shielding -- with the exception of Chairwoman Jane Missimer, 69, of Muskegon.

She has a "fervent interest in advocacy" and two children who attended public schools, she said. One of them was in special education.

"The insurance issue caught my attention," said Missimer, who worked as an ombudsman. "Why are we protecting a union-based program? Why aren't we putting that money into special education or other programs?"

Olson wants to help boards such as Reeths-Puffer's, which felt persecuted after voting to hire a private company to clean its schools. A pamphlet distributed in Muskegon County encouraged residents to boycott Meijer, Walgreens, Verizon and other businesses that employed school board members.

He's the guy who will point out which school board members have received MEA campaign contributions (www.educationactiongroup.org) and that MEA Executive Director Lu Battaglieri's salary last year was $334,174.

"This is not about attacking teachers," he said. "But school districts have X amount of dollars. They have to make sure that money goes as far as it can."

Send e-mail to the author: bloechler@grpress.com

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