JACK SPENCER: 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 friends in high places to get the State to cough up $5.5 million for it.

Before the legislation was sent to Gov. Rick Snyder, the $5.5 million for the project was replaced with a $100 placeholder. Apparently this means that before those who are behind the “P20 hub” get money from the State they will have to provide some details about the project to the legislature and the public.

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 public dollars, don’t seem to pass the smell text.

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. But at this point the issue has gone beyond the project’s possible merits and become one of secrecy versus transparency.

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?

P-20 stands for an integrated education system that extends from pre-school through higher education. 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 so-called P20 Pyramid education hub project is to increase the number of Michigan students who are taught STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects.

That sketchy description was pretty much all most people knew about the project as Senate Bill 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 myriad of “innovative approach to education” 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 Senate Bill 608 conference committee are to be credited for yanking the funding out of the measure in the late stages of the legislative process.

Politically well-connected West Michigan reverend Jerry Zandstra seems to be the only person connected to the project who has talked publicly about it much. He is promoting the project and has given rosy “this is going to be great” quotes about it to the Grand Rapids area news media.

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 also 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 Corps (MEDC), which is the State’s corporate welfare arm.

Although “MEDC Transparency” often appears to be an oxymoron (like jumbo shrimp) it would be premature to assume MEDC played a major role in putting together the P20 Pyramid Hub project. That said; Steelcase had received MEGA (Michigan Economic Growth Authority) credits for the Pyramid Building in the past, along with local tax abatements.

Now, 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 with just a $19.5 million price tag.

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 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 media account, 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 Jansen would stand to gain financially from the project. Nevertheless, by trying to get the $5.5 million for the P20 hub into a supplemental budget bill, Jansen — a 13-plus year veteran lawmaker who will be termed out at the end of the year — appears to have been trying to circumvent legislative scrutiny of the project.

Jansen would seem to be the person best positioned to clear up the issues surrounding the project. So far, however, his public statements on the matter have failed to provide answers for why the project should have received $5.5 million from the State based solely on vague descriptions of it.