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Bridge Michigan
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Two candidates emerge to run Detroit schools after EM’s exit

In the wake of the recent resignation of the state-appointed emergency manager for the Detroit Public Schools, two people with long-time ties to Detroit have surfaced as candidates to run the troubled district.

Charlie Beckham, who manages the City of Detroit’s neighborhoods department, and Tonya Allen, president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation, a longtime philanthropist in efforts to improve the city's school system, are on the short list to be the transition leader for the district, sources have confirmed to Bridge.

Dave Murray, a spokesman for Gov. Rick Snyder, would not confirm that the governor is courting Beckham and Allen. Murray said a decision is expected within coming weeks.

“The governor is working with a number of people passionate about helping Detroit students get the education they need,” Murray said. “An announcement on a transitional leader is expected by the end of the month.”

Bridge was the first to report Beckham and Allen were on the state's short list in an appearance early Wednesday on WDET-FM (101.9), Detroit's public radio station.

On Tuesday, Gov. Snyder announced that current DPS DPS Emergency Manager Darnell Earley had resigned, effective Feb. 29. The resignation comes as both Snyder and Earley face mounting criticism for their roles in the unfolding water contamination crisis in Flint as well as the deepening financial crisis afflicting Detroit's struggling school system.

Earley was the state-appointed emergency manager responsible for implementing Flint’s 2014 switch from the Detroit water system to using water from the Flint River. The water proved to be corrosive, and failure to properly treat it caused lead to leach from the city's aging service pipes and exposed Flint residents to high levels of lead contamination and, later, a state-declared state of emergency. To date, the water is still not safe to drink in Flint.

Snyder appointed Earley emergency manager for DPS last January. In recent weeks, DPS teachers have staged “sick outs,” with so many calling in sick that dozens of schools had to be shut for several days. The teachers have demanded that Earley be fired and state emergency management end, due to the district’s growing deficit. The Detroit Federation of Teachers union filed a lawsuit last month asking that the court compel the district to fix health and safety problems within school buildings.

The next DPS leader will inherit a 46,000-student school system expected to run out of money by April. It is the subject of ongoing state legislative debate over a package of bills that seek to address a budget deficit of about $515 million, among other problems.

Chris White, a co-chair of the Coalition to Restore Hope, a grassroots education group based in Detroit, said that Beckham and Allen may have clout in political and community circles, but many residents want the schools to be run by someone with experience in education.

“We have had several emergency managers, none of which had academic experience and yielded no positive results,” White said. “We need someone that understands the community, that understands the academic challenges and also has a very good fiscal background.”

Beckham, 68, manages the Buildings, Safety Engineering & Environmental Department as well as seven directors stationed in each of the seven city council districts. He has a long history of working within city government, having worked for every mayor since Coleman Young. He also served time in prison for 1984 conviction for taking $16,000 in bribes in connection with a sludge-handling contract as the city's water and sewage department director.

Allen, 43, was a co-chair for the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, a group of community, business and education leaders who released a report last year with recommendations to the governor and legislature for improving city schools.

Neither Beckham nor Allen could be reached immediately for comment.

Legislative fix needed

Bill Hanson, a spokesman for the coalition, called on the legislature to quickly approve the coalition’s recommended long-term fixes for the city’s schools.

“Emergency management of Detroit Public Schools has not worked. The media speculation on who might step in after Mr. Earley leaves is understandable, but the real story is whether the governor and legislature are going to make the necessary structural fixes,” he said.

Hanson also is chief of staff at Skillman.

He said the fixes needed include “a speedy return to local and democratic control of DPS, resolving the huge DPS debt the state rang up while controlling the district, and creation of a community education commission that would set high standards, close poor-performing schools, force charter and traditional schools to compete on a level playing field, and finally put Detroit schoolchildren and their families first."

State Rep. (and former DPS teacher) Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, D-Detroit, was a member of the coalition, and has in recent weeks led legislators on tours to see the conditions in DPS schools. She questioned whether either candidate has a track record for being a change agent who can garner public support.

“While both parties mentioned have impressive backgrounds, I’m not certain of how their leadership will help quell the concerns of the general population, DPS parents, teachers and administration, thus stabilizing the system,” Gay-Dagnogo said.

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