Normally, Tom Welti and State Rep. Vicki Barnett (D-37th District) don't find much to agree on during her monthly coffee hours.
Welti leans right; Barnett leans left. But on one issue Saturday morning, at in Farmington Hills, they found common ground.
Barnett supports the proposed New International Trade Crossing (NITC), a bridge across the Detroit River that would connect Windsor and Detroit through a public-private partnership. She explained there are currently three crossings on the river: the Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron, which is maintained by the Michigan Dept. of Transportation and a bridge authority; the Detroit/Windsor Tunnel, owned by the cities of Detroit and Windsor; and the Ambassador Bridge, which is owned by Detroit International Bridge Company (DIBC).
DIBC owner Matty Maroun has proposed – and is lobbying heavily for – a second bridge. Barnett said those who favor his privately-owned bridge are concerned that taxpayers will end up on the hook for the costs to maintain the bridge.
"So why don't we just let Matty Maroun build another bridge?" she asked.
"It's a monopoly," Welti responded.
Barnett explained Canada won't give Maroun the permits he needs, and Welti interjected, "Tell him to fix the train station," referring to the Michigan Central Station, an iconic Detroit building that has stood in ruins for years.
Turning to Welti, Barnett asked whether he was in favor of the private bridge, and he said he was not – which delighted the second-term state representative.
"This is the first time in history the two of us have agreed," she said.
"But on health care, you're totally wrong," Welti replied.
Barnett explained the Canadian government has offered to put up $550 million to build the bridge where they want it, which is outside of Windsor. Gov. Rick Snyder has lobbied the federal government to consider that money as Michigan's required 20 percent match for federal road funds, Barnett said, which could bring $2.2 billion worth of infrastructure and jobs into Michigan.
She said the public/private partnership agreement could be crafted to assure people their tax dollars are not on the line.
Other topics covered during the 90-minute session:
"The good news is, for the first time in over 30 years, the State of Michigan passed a balance budget before the end of June. The bad news is the budget sucks," Barnett said.
From the beginning, she has opposed Snyder's and Republican legislators' plan to cut taxes on business by $1.8 billion, while taxing employee pensions and eliminating programs like a small cash stipend to help children in foster care purchase school clothing
Barnett said after the budget passed, a new assessment of the School Aid Fund showed additional dollars available. Snyder earmarked that money for districts that meet certain standards, like competitive bidding for non-instructional services and establishing an annual financial report card. "I think Farmington Public Schools is pretty good on this score," she said.
A lively discussion erupted on the issue of teacher tenure. Barnett issued a press release earlier this week blasting Snyder and Republican lawmakers for a package of bills that, among other things, replaces a section of the law that says teachers be fired for "reasonable and just cause," with language that states the firing may not be "arbitrary or capricious". The bills also reduce the number of items eligible for bargaining with unions.
Barnett said she liked portions of the bill that would fast-track young teachers who are getting good reviews, as well as increased requirements for teacher reviews.
Among other things, she said the tenure package, which passed the House last week, does not define "effective" and "ineffective." She said that task was assigned to the State Board of Education 18 months ago, as the legislature passed bills tied to the "Race to the Top" school funding offered in 2009 by the federal government. No standards have been set, Barnett added.
"There's got to be a way to deal with (ineffective teachers)," she said, "and these bills aren't it."
Many in the room were educators or retired educators, and felt teachers have been unfairly saddled with blame when students don't perform. Some commented that their districts have a policy of moving students on to the next grade level, whether or not they have passed their coursework. Students moving in and out of the district is also a problem, Kathy Koernke of Farmington Hills said.
"How can you evaluate teachers on test scores, when half the kids in the class weren't even in the district the year before?" she asked.
Koernke noted that teachers are getting out the field within five years. "You need to grow teachers," she said.
Some in the room were critical of the Snyder administration and Republicans in the legislature, but Welti said it was unfair to blame people who have only been in office five months.
"Why are we blaming everything on the current governor, when there are things that should have been done years ago?" he asked.
Asking for a show of hands, Barnett noted that everyone agreed there were ineffective teachers and ineffective administrators, and that something should be done about it. But Hills resident Sandra Oliver-McNeil pointed out a child's home situation affects whether he or she gets a good education.
"Children come to school with a lot of social issues," she said. "Every kid walks into the classroom with different needs. We have no idea, and some of us couldn't imagine, what happens to some of our adolescents in their homes. It's easy to point fingers, but the problem is more complex."
"Every kid should have the opportunity to learn and reach their highest potential," Barnett said. "That's the promised we should make."
Barnett said House Speaker Jase Bolger has put together a bipartisan coalition to look at educational models around the world.
Her next coffee hour will be held Aug. 13 at restaurant in Farmington Hills.