Fortress Grosse Pointe: In world of school choice, community says ‘stay out’

GROSSE POINTE -- When Dan Roeske was running for the Grosse Pointe Public Schools board in 2011, he found himself addressing a PTO group at Poupard Elementary, one of the district’s 13 schools. A woman asked bluntly about one of the district’s perennial issues.

“Where do you stand on open enrollment?” she asked.

Roeske took a breath, and told her he was against making Grosse Pointe a schools-of-choice district.

“Good,” the woman said, flatly. “Because I moved from Detroit to get away from those thugs, and I don’t want them in my schools.”

If that sounds like something you’d expect to hear in in a suburban Detroit district widely assumed to be wealthy and white, Roeske quickly points out his questioner was African American, and Poupard, the school where they were, was in a part of the district that extends into an adjacent and decidedly middle-class suburb -- Harper Woods.

More than 80 percent of Michigan schools have opted to become school-of-choice districts since 1996, when they were first allowed under state law. Districts may open themselves to non-resident students, who arrive with backpacks full of cash – the per-pupil allotment from the state. Schools of choice have expanded the options for parents dissatisfied with their local schools, and have provided a financial boost to districts; it’s also one of the eight “best practices” districts can pursue for a $52-per-pupil funding boost in the most recent iteration of Gov. Rick Snyder’s education policy.

But some districts have resisted opening their doors to non-resident students. The law requires an annual vote by the board on the question, and in Grosse Pointe no one can remember a single vote – not one, not ever – in favor of it. School board candidates pledge their loyalty to the status quo, and the issue is only discussed in terms of how fiercely it will be resisted by administrators, parents and trustees.

In Grosse Pointe, school choice is like Communism in the 1950s: You can’t stand too strongly against it.

Fortifying the schoolhouse

And yet, accusations regularly fly about widespread residency cheating, and an administration unwilling to crack down. Last summer, a group calling itself Residents for Residency attended a number of board meetings, pressing the administration to get tougher, to check documents more often, to make sure, every year, that every single student is a legal resident of the district.

They succeeded in forcing a policy change that would make the family of any student caught attending illegally liable for a tuition payment of $13,030, although, to date, none have been assessed the penalty.

The Grosse Pointe Public School System posts regularly updated data on the number of residency investigations they do, and an FAQ document as well. At last summer’s meetings, Assistant Superintendent Chris Fenton, who oversees residency checks, pointed out that his staff checks out between 100 to 200 students every year, and usually ejects between 40 to 60 of the district’s enrollment of 8,471.

The Residents for Residency were not mollified. “If you were doing your jobs,” more than one said at the microphone during public comment, “the number would be zero.” Or, put another way: None would get in in the first place.

Fenton takes such remarks personally. He doesn’t deny some nonresident parents will go to great lengths to send their children to school in Grosse Pointe. But he has sat in his car outside a suspected residency cheater’s address in the predawn darkness, like a cop on a stakeout, watching to see if a boy or girl emerges with a backpack to walk to school. He has seen children driven up to a relative’s house in the trunk of a car and let out like illegal immigrants to scurry through the back door and out through the front, as though they lived there. He has peered through windows looking for evidence of habitation. He has knocked on doors and asked to see children’s bedrooms.

The district’s FAQ lays out some facts: In 2005, the district re-registered every student, at a cost of more than $80,000. The district pays private investigators about $8,000 a year to check out tips from teachers, staff and the public. State documents put Grosse Pointe’s per-pupil funding at $11,541 from local, state and federal sources for the 2011-12 school year, the most recent data.

Few issues galvanize Grosse Pointers more than threats to their schools. And open enrollment – a key plank in reformers’ plans in Lansing – is seen as very threatening to a high-achieving suburban district that sits literally across the street from the low-achieving urban one in Detroit. Pointers (and residents of Harper Woods who live within its borders) pay higher taxes for their schools, overwhelmingly approve bond issues and support a foundation that spends money on them. Volunteer organizations abound for parental involvement. There are parochial and private options, but no charter schools peeling students away from public schools.

But they are, residents insist, for district residents only.

Across town, a similar fight

Birmingham Public Schools is a district similar to Grosse Pointe in many ways – about the same size, affluent, well-supported by residents. It, too, is closed to nearly all non-residents. And it, too, went through regular squabbles over cheaters, until a few years ago, when Andrew Wilson, who had held various positions with the district, was appointed enrollment coordinator and set up what he now calls “the most aggressive, yet fair policy in the state.”

In the summer of 2007, he notified all families with children in the district that they would have to re-enroll. He required extensive documentation, including deeds, leases, utility bills, bank statements and auto insurance certificates. It was a methodical process that took months, he said, but it yielded a database of information on each family, and “now it’s a maintenance program,” Wilson explained. When leases expire, parents are required to come in an re-verify residency. If family situations change, they do the same.

Birmingham’s program differs from Grosse Pointe’s, however, in that it allows non-residents to enroll under a tuition program. This year, 171 students attend under the program, paying up to $13,350 a year, a lucrative revenue stream for the district and a way for families to get the benefits of the district without cheating, Wilson said.

“They can come here at a lower rate at any private school,” he said. “You look at what we have vs. private schools, you get a bigger bang in Birmingham, even with our tuition rate.”

A changing district

Both Birmingham and Grosse Pointe are facing demographic and economic change that has complicated the problem. A decade ago, both cities had about 8 percent of their students living in rented housing. Now it’s 24 percent in Birmingham; 20 percent in Grosse Pointe. Renters are harder to track, and are the most frequent target of suspicion, Fenton said. The district asks landlords to sign affidavits attesting to who their tenants are, as well as the number and ages of any children.

Grosse Pointe is changing in other ways, too. Joan Richardson was president of the school board in 2005 when a residency discussion arose, and Richardson gave an interview to the Detroit Free Press. She made a comment that to this day she insists was innocuous: “Frankly, this is a community that is very uncomfortable with diversity, and as we become more diverse, that's a real stretch in Grosse Pointe.”

“I thought that was simply stating the obvious,” Richardson said recently. “I think everyone is uncomfortable with diversity. I think it’s a hard issue, no matter what community you’re in.”

Grosse Pointe, however, roared its objection. Letters to the editor poured into the local weekly. A stream of residents appeared at the next board meeting to hector Richardson, who received more than 100 emails, most condemning her.

“The way it was interpreted is, I was saying people were racist, and that’s not what I was saying.”

There was an attempt to recall her, she said, and a potential coup by fellow board members was blocked by an ally. It all became “an overblown situation, where instead of having a good discussion about what it means to be a more diverse community, and how we’re going to get there, it turned into a really ugly moment.”

Richardson left the board a month later, something she had intended to do all along, she said.

The district saw a 263 percent increase in African-American students between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, led by Harper Woods, which had its black population rise from 10 percent to 45 percent. Richardson said when she was on the board, some residents would call her and complain about “more black faces” at schools that were fed from the Harper Woods area, “although they’d never say it publicly.”

That’s one reason the Birmingham system, as it’s now in place, is so important, said Paul DeAngelis, assistant superintendent there.

“Every kid of color in this district prior to us putting our policy in place had to look over their shoulder at who was pointing their finger at them,” he said. “That doesn’t happen anymore.”

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