The struggle over control of the Detroit school system didn’t end in June, when the state legislature’s $617 million restructuring plan created a new, elected Detroit school board with actual authority.
On Nov. 8, more than five dozen school board candidates will appear on the ballot in Detroit in a historic contest that is shaping up to be a war between two camps: candidates who aim to work within the new law that allows Detroit to have an elected board, but one that must work under state oversight; and those candidates who vow to continue to protest against state intervention in the school system.
The 63 candidates are vying for seven at-large seats. Since 2009, the school system has been under the control of state-appointed emergency managers who has held no regular public meetings. So the new board will mark the first time in seven years Detroit has a school board with policy-making power over the schools.
See the bios, promises and, in some cases, financial setbacks of the 63 candidates for the Detroit school board:
The election, unprecedented in size and scope, is expected to be watched by leaders statewide who voted in favor of the financial rescue plan. At stake is not only control over decisions that affect 45,000 students in the nation’s lowest-performing urban school system, but the makeup of the newly elected board, which will likely influence whether the state tightens or loosens its grip on Detroit schools moving forward.
David Arsen, professor of Education Policy and K-12 Educational Administration at Michigan State University, said it makes sense that the board race pits the protesting former school board members against newcomers who take a less contentious stance.
“Who could be surprised by this?” said Arsen, an economist and education researcher. “Local citizens care about their schools, especially in a place like Detroit where there’s been so much controversy about state intervention. There has to be a period of reconciliation locally.”
The newly elected school board will be able to set academic policy but, under the terms of the state restructuring plan, the board won’t be able to hire and fire key officials or make many significant decisions without approval from the Detroit Financial Review Commission, comprised mostly of state appointees.
The state must dissolve the FRC if the district remains deficit-free for three years and meets other budgetary requirements
If the new board operates in a way that pleases state officials, the Detroit Financial Review Commission could allow it greater involvement in making financial decisions for the district. If not, the board's financial and academic decisions could be more closely scrutinized or vetoed by the commission, effectively stripping the board of its already limited authority. In a memo earlier this year, the commission warned that it can wield authority over academic and administrative decisions when deemed necessary.
Candidates, slates and mandates
The field includes Detroit residents from all walks of life, from parents and educators to business executives. Some have run for elective office several times while others faced serious personal financial problems, according to a review of court and other records (see database, above) by Bridge and three Detroit-area media groups, which joined forces to vet the sea of candidates. More than half the candidates had filed for bankruptcy, had a foreclosure or eviction, or lost a lawsuit over unpaid bills, according to the media collaboration, which also included Fox 2 Detroit, the Detroit Free Press and WDET.
In an attempt to stand out, several candidate slates have cropped up with candidates aligning themselves with others, touting endorsements from unions, media outlets and political parties.
Among the slates with candidates vowing to work cooperatively with the oversight commission are:
- The “A+ Team”: Penny Bailer former head of a nonprofit youth group called City Year Detroit; Sonya Mays, CEO of Develop Detroit (a nonprofit real estate and housing development organization), an attorney and former financial advisor to former Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr; Mary Kovari a retired Detroit Public Schools principal, and Kevin Turmin, pastor of Second Baptist Church of Detroit.
- “Detroit’s Dream Team”: Deborah Hunter-Harvill, a former DPS principal who served brief stints as superintendent in two small districts; Angelique Peterson-Mayberry, community relations director at UAW Ford; Misha Stallworth, advocacy coordinator for Detroit Area Agency on Aging; Iris Taylor, retired president of Detroit Receiving Hospital; and Keith Whitney, pastor at Sanctuary Fellowship Church.
- The “Freedom Team”: Leslie Graham Andrews, director of community relations and corporate giving at Rock Ventures/ Quicken Loans Family of Companies; Ryan Mack, Michigan market president for Operation Hope, a financial literacy nonprofit; Theresa Mattison, a retired DPS principal and Karen White, associate superintendent for the Archdiocese of Detroit and a former DPS principal.
Bailer, who served on the school board from 1990 to 1994, prior to the 1999 state takeover, said the board – like the city of Detroit - has to deal with an oversight commission until the financial outlook is stabilized.
“Whether or not the law gets changed is up to the legislature, but for now it is what it is,” Bailer told Bridge. “I want to make the financial review commission applaud when we turn in our budget. My thing is: Deal with it. I think if we get a good board we can turn this district around. We need to demonstrate to people we can get it right.”
Ten of the 11 former school board members who were essentially sidelined while the schools were under emergency management are running for election and they vow to continue to fight state intervention. Some of the former board members, who go by the slate name SPEED, argue they had no role in the district’s financial calamity because they had no authority. Since 1999, there was a brief period between 2006 and 2009 when Detroit’s school board controlled the district. The most recent board spent most of its time suing state-appointed emergency managers and advocating for Detroit to regain a school board with the same autonomous powers as other boards across the state. Relations were so strained with the state that former DPS emergency manager Robert Bobb cut off the board’s budget in 2009 so board members couldn’t hire an attorney nor buy bottled water for their meetings.
SPEED is comprised of six former school board members -- Herman Davis, Elena Herrada, Lamar Lemmons, Wanda Redmond, Ida Short and Tawanna Simpson - along with former interim superintendent for DPS John Telford.
Telford said if voters elect a board that is split - with some members who want the state intervention to end and others who are comfortable with an oversight committee to look over the finances - the board can work. That is, he said, as long as everyone on the board works towards a goal of proving oversight is not needed.
“We need to get the state out of here sooner rather than later,” Telford said. “I’m willing to work with this financial oversight commission at the same time I am going to work as hard as I can to get them out of there because they never should’ve been there in the first place. This whole takeover is a sham going back to 1999 when (Gov. John) Engler wanted control” over a $1.5 billion bond. “They took us over because they could.”
Why here, why now?
It took two years of debates and protests for the legislature to come up with a $617 million plan in June to prevent the financially crippled district from running out of money. The former district, the Detroit Public Schools, will continue to exist to collect local tax revenue to pay off debt that accrued over the past decade.
Many in Lansing voted reluctantly for the expensive plan that created the new Detroit Public Schools Community District. Critics of state oversight say they viewed the deal as a concession by Lansing that it was largely responsible for the budget hole since the state controlled Detroit schools for 14 of the past 17 years.
Still, the $617 million awarded by the state was far short of what the district’s state-appointed emergency manager, Steven Rhodes, said the schools needed. Rhodes, a retired federal bankruptcy judge who also oversaw the city’s exit from municipal bankruptcy, said that the district needed $750 million to pay off debt and fix dilapidated schools.
Jennifer Smith, director of government relations for the Michigan Association of School Boards, said the lack of a primary election to narrow the candidate list and the long period of state-intervention led to such a large field of candidates.
The candidate pool “shows the strong desire that the Detroit Community has to return their schools to local control,” Smith said.
No matter who is elected, progress will be determined by board members who concentrate on turning around the district, she said.
“Board members should be willing to work with each other, the superintendent and the community to address the needs of the students,” she said in an email to Bridge. “Especially for this district, board members should be capable of growing with the district and being flexible to address current and not yet identified need.”
Selina Wilkins-Poe, a DPSCD parent, said the board needs a combination of old and new faces.
“There’s some value in keeping people who have been fighters going against the grain for the best interest of the kids,” she said. “And we also need some new ideas.”