The Michigan Department of Education has opened an investigation into the certification status of staff at Detroit Community Schools, a charter school in Detroit run by former Detroit city councilwoman Sharon McPhail, Bridge has learned.
The Office of Professional Preparation Services launched the investigation as a result of a story Bridge published this week that details problems at the school. The story revealed that, beside struggling academically, the school also has administrators with checkered pasts. Some administrators have received six-figure salaries, two have been central figures in scandals involving misappropriation of public funds and key officials are not certified by the state.
Non-certified administrators include McPhail, principal Echelle Jordan and the school’s chief financial officer, William F. Coleman III, the former Detroit Public Schools CEO and superintendent, state data shows.
McPhail, who was hired as superintendent in 2012, is a lawyer. Jordan and Coleman have worked at the school since at least 2013, according to payroll documents obtained by Bridge. Michigan law requires all public school administrators who oversee business operations or instruction – such as principals and superintendents – to be certified by the state within three years of taking the position. If administrators do not take the necessary classes and obtain certification, the district or school cannot continue to employ them, under state law.
When asked last month why she had not obtained certification, McPhail insisted that she is not the superintendent, but the chief administrative officer, and therefore does not need to be certified. However, the school website, school board minutes as well as audits and emails that McPhail sent to Bridge identify her as the superintendent. But McPhail directed Bridge to a document posted on the school’s website on March 23 – after Bridge’s inquiries – that identifies her as the chief administrative officer.
But simply changing McPhail’s title does not mean she avoids the state’s certification requirement, said William DiSessa, a spokesman for MDE. Anyone responsible for the management of a district or charter school needs the certification, he said.
“Under state law, there are consequences,” to failing to obtain certification, DiSessa said. And those consequences can be stiff; the state can reduce school aid payments to recoup the amount paid to administrators during the time they worked without certification. Also, any school official who knowingly employs a non-certified administrator is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of $1,500 for each instance.
The Detroit Community Schools is a charter school serving kindergarten through 12th grades. It is the only high school for the 7,000 school-age children in the 7-square-mile Brightmoor neighborhood in Detroit.
Opened in 1997, the school has struggled academically. Its elementary grades are ranked among the bottom 6 percent in the state, while the high school has been designated a “reward” school because it improved graduation rates and moved up from the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state to the bottom 25th percentile. Of more than 1,000 students who have taken the ACT college entrance exam at the school over the past decade, only two have passed all four parts of the test and been deemed college-ready.
Residents have said the area needs more and better schools.
The school sits at the crux of a policy debate over whether the state should approve legislation that would provide $715 million in debt relief for the Detroit public school district, and create a mayor-appointed board that would determine when or if new schools can open in areas of the city that need more and better school options.
DiSessa said it is unclear how long the investigation will take.