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Proposition E is a test of Mayor Kilpatrick’s clout

Mayoral coattails?: Kilpatrick pitches Prop E to voters.
Vote Yes for Kids co-chair Ray Johnson.
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Published 10/13/2004

The most passionately debated issue on Detroit’s November election ballot isn’t whom to choose for president. That, in a predominantly black and Democratic city, is a foregone conclusion. Instead, it is the question of how to govern Detroit’s ailing public schools that has stoked the fires of this city’s voters.

It’s known as Proposal E, but might just as well be called Proposal K — for Kwame Kilpatrick.

After months of ugly publicity about alleged sexual dalliances — sworn to in court documents — theft by appointees, misconduct by police, and accusations that Detroit’s “hip-hop mayor” is more about bling than substance, the success or failure of Prop E is widely seen as both a gauge of Kilpatrick’s political clout and, with a mayoral election next year, his standing with the voters. Does he have the muscle to push through what he considers a reform vital to Detroit’s revitalization?

Last week, the young but physically imposing mayor stood before about 140 voters in the Northwest Activities Center on Meyers Road. Most were middle-aged African-Americans, some of them parents, some grandparents. A few brought their children. They came to hear Kilpatrick make his pitch for Proposal E. Essentially, the measure asks voters if they want to directly elect a fully empowered school board, or have a school system where the mayor and an elected board select a CEO who will run the district.

“This is more important than the presidential election,” Kilpatrick told the crowd. If President George W. Bush is re-elected, “we’ll survive Bush, we’ll press on.” But Kilpatrick says the city won’t survive if it fails to pass Prop E.

“When the schools don’t work,” he said, “the city doesn’t work.”

Kilpatrick said the dismal quality of Detroit schools is the number one complaint he hears from residents. It’s also a chief reason why people leave the city or are discouraged from moving to Detroit.

He believes Proposal E can change that.

It appeared from the crowd’s questions that many were undecided about the proposal. But those who oppose Prop E fear that it gives the mayor too much power over the school district. And the mayor knows it.

“Everyone wants to make this about me, about Kwame Kilpatrick,” the mayor told the voters. “It’s not about me.”

But even some of his allies admit that, at least in part, this is very much about Kilpatrick.

Prop E “is a referendum on the mayor,” says Adolph Mongo, a longtime political consultant who is working for both Kilpatrick and Detroit Public Schools. The mayor’s stance on the issue may make it “tough” for him to win re-election, since community leaders who supported his first bid for mayor oppose him on this issue. “He’s going to have to work hard.”

Mighty political heavyweights oppose Prop E and Kilpatrick’s support of it, including the Council of Baptist Pastors, which supported him in his first mayoral bid.

“When mayors become involved in schools it can become politically risky, and it’s unfortunate that this election falls so close to the mayoral campaign,” says the Rev. Edgar Vann, pastor of Second Ebenezer Church in Detroit and a member of the politically powerful council. “I’m sure the mayor considered that in his support of this.”

Vann, like most who oppose Prop E, believes it disenfranchises voters. Many see it as a continuation of the hotly contested state takeover of the Detroit school system five years ago.

In 1999, Republican Gov. John Engler, with a Republican-controlled state House and Senate, led the charge to pass legislation removing Detroit’s elected school board members and replace them with mayoral appointees, who hired a CEO to run the district. But the governor, who appointed just one board member, held the ultimate control, because his appointee had veto power over the CEO selection. Detroiters reacted to the takeover with widespread outrage.

Kilpatrick, a former Detroit Public Schools teacher himself, says he opposed the state takeover, though he reportedly did some backroom negotiating with the governor for another form of school governance, says Ed Sarpolus, political analyst and vice president of Epic-MRA, a Lansing-based polling company.

State lawmakers limited the appointed board’s tenure to five years. Originally, voters were to decide whether to continue with the appointed board or return to the pre-1999 structure. This August, however, state legislators and Engler’s successor, Democrat Jennifer Granholm, gave voters a different option — Proposal E.

If voters approve the proposal, they will vote next year, with residents selecting nine members, who will each represent specific districts; four members would serve two-year terms, five members would serve four-year terms, starting in 2006. Under this system, the mayor nominates a CEO to run the district; final approval rests with the board. The board would have limited fiduciary oversight, including budget approval, annual audits and review of contracts exceeding $250,000 and would need the mayor’s approval to fire the CEO. Changing the new structure would require legislation at the state level.

A “no” vote on Prop E will result in a fully empowered board that’s answerable only to voters. An elected 11-member, two-year board would hire a superintendent, set policy and curriculum, oversee budgets, contracts, labor relations and day-to-day operations.

Ray Johnson is co-chair of Vote Yes for Kids, a coalition of community leaders who support Prop E. A former Detroit schoolteacher and principal, Johnson says the ballot measure would create checks and balances between the board, the CEO and the mayor. It would create stability in a district that went through seven superintendents in 11 years before the state takeover.

Community leaders are deeply divided over the issue, with both sides pointing fingers. Prop E supporters are accused of wanting to use the school budget and bond money for political paybacks through contracts. Those who oppose the initiative are accused of being entrenched in the mire of Detroit school politics and ignoring the needs of the children. Detroit has long suffered from low graduation rates, deteriorating school buildings and inadequate supplies.

Like Detroit, many large cities around the nation have struggling school systems. About a dozen have changed how they’re governed in the last decade or so. During the 1990s, mayors in Chicago and Boston gained the authority to appoint school board members, who were then responsible for hiring district CEOs. These mayor-driven districts function similarly to what’s being proposed in Detroit.

Some education experts say this form of governance is successful. Dr. Kenneth Wong, a professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, has been studying districts across the country where mayors appoint the boards. “The longer [the district is] under control of the mayor, the stronger their performance,” he says.

Todd Ziebarth, an education governance expert with APA Consulting in Denver, says school systems can thrive under an elected board as long as it is committed to improving the district.

No matter what voters think about Prop E, can Kilpatrick, who could be hitching his political career to Prop E’s success, convince Detroiters to vote in favor of it?

THE DEBATE

Many Prop E opponents accuse Kilpatrick of having ulterior motives. Chief among them, they say, is the school district’s $1.6 billion school budget, and potentially nearly as much in bond money.

Earlier this month, some state legislators proposed a resolution that recommends holding a referendum to authorize $1.5 billion in bonds for continuing capital improvements to Detroit’s schools. Though the resolution would have no legal power, it sends a signal that the state is supportive of the district.

But Prop E opponents fear that if the proposal passes, Kilpatrick will control the budget and the bond money, putting him in a position to trade fat school contracts for political favors.

Kilpatrick says that’s nonsense — the CEO would be responsible for school contracts. “What am I going to do, whisper in their ear?” he says. “I don’t do that.” The mayor says the “checks and balances come in” with the board’s annual budget review, and review of contracts worth $250,000 and more.

City Councilwoman JoAnn Watson, who opposes Prop E, is among those who don’t buy Kilpatrick’s line. “It’s all about the money,” she says. “It’s all about the money.” Watson says that was also the case when Engler took over the school district in 1999.

At the time, Detroit had $1.5 billion in unspent bond money that was to have been used for capital improvements. But the elected school board failed to spend it, though voters passed the bond initiative five years before.

Watson also says the Detroit school system was doing far better than many school districts in the state not taken over by Engler. For one, it had a $93 million surplus compared to the $250 million deficit that has accrued under the current reform board and CEO Dr. Kenneth Burnley. Earlier this year, Burnley laid off about 2,300 teachers and support staff.

School officials attribute the district’s financial woes in large part on a decline in student enrollment and state budget cuts.

Burnley says the district has made strides in other areas under his watch. Scores in state reading tests rose for fourth-grade students in 2002 and again 2003, when they surpassed the state average.

Full-day kindergarten classes have increased from 50 to 457, which Burnley says is critical in preparing children to read. Twenty-one schools have been built, and $300 million has been spent renovating older schools. The district also hired 181 public safety officers and placed security cameras in almost all middle and high schools.

Despite some improvements made by the appointed board, Johnson, of the Vote Yes for the Kids coalition, will be glad to see it go. “I was a strong opponent of the state takeover and am not impressed with the so-called reform board” currently in place, Johnson says.

But he doesn’t want to return to the pre-1999 system of governance, when school board members were accused of embezzlement and many other abuses, including swapping lucrative contracts for personal favors, such as lavish trips. Johnson says Prop E would set up a strong governing structure. “The board would not be a toothless tiger,” he says.

Board members would approve the schools budget and annually audit the CEO’s performance. But they wouldn’t be able to fire the CEO on a whim, like previous boards did with superintendents. A prohibition stopping them from seeking another elected office until one year after their term expires will make it more difficult for board members to use that position as a springboard, Johnson says.

But many opponents of Prop E feel the Engler administration unfairly singled out Detroit Public Schools, making it the only school system among 550 other districts in Michigan subject to a takeover. Many say that they don’t want the school board’s control to be limited.

“If it’s going to be Detroit run, let it be Detroit run. Why do you need the mayor to step in?” says Gwen Robinson, 52, who listened to Kilpatrick speak at the activity center last week.

Some see Prop E as a continued attempt by the state to control Detroit. “They did away with Recorder’s Court, the police and fire residency requirement, the school board. Now they want the water department. What’s left?” said The Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit Branch NAACP and co-chair of the Just Say No! Coalition.

Some cast Prop E supporters as white, pro-business interest groups, such as the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce. They say such groups are interested only in school contracts. “That’s ridiculous,” says Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce spokeswoman Sarah Hubbard. The organization has been supportive of the school district for decades, she says. “Growing an educated workforce has always been important to the business community,” says Hubbard.

Bob Berg, spokesman for Vote Yes for Kids, public relations consultant to Kilpatrick and former press secretary for Mayor Coleman A. Young, says Prop E has broad support that includes the Black Chamber of Commerce, Detroit Urban League president Charles Anderson, The Black Slate and the Marcus Garvey Movement. “You don’t get more diverse than that,” Berg says.

The coalition for Prop E is what convinced Gov. Jennifer Graholm to sign the legislation that put the initiative on Detroit’s November ballot. But opponents of the proposal say Granholm let them down on the issue. Granholm had promised she’d approve the legislation only if the majority of Detroit lawmakers supported it.

When it was voted on in the Legislature and in the Senate, the vote was almost evenly split. Granholm spokesperson Liz Boyd says, “But when she took into consideration the mayor’s support and the organizations’ support, the governor felt it had the majority of Detroiters to put the issue before the voters.”

Granholm says Prop E is a local issue and won’t take a position on it, according to Boyd. But her name recently appeared on literature supporting the proposal, and Granholm reportedly was furious when she learned about it. Boyd says it was an error, and wouldn’t comment further. Berg also says it was a mistake, “one of those things that happen when on deadline.”

But it’s the kind of mistake that could make voters suspicious of Prop E supporters. Many allegations have surfaced about Kilpatrick, including that he conspired with Engler on the school takeover in 1999. The mayor denies it.

“I was vehemently opposed to the takeover,” Kilpatrick says. “A lot of people say, ‘You were in on it with Engler.’ At no time was I supportive of that effort.”

Former Mayor Dennis Archer, who plans to vote for Prop E, says Kilpatrick tried to negotiate another plan with the governor. “He and his colleagues from Detroit … [proposed] what was a trusteeship,” Archer says, one in which the governor would appoint a trustee and the elected board would remain in office for five years. “I told the governor that would not work,” he says. In the end, the seven-member board was appointed.

Archer says he understands why voters were angry about the state takeover. “We saw so many people lynched and beaten and spit on just to vote, that it’s something very vital and very precious.”

Despite this, Archer says he supported the new form of school governance and still does. “I still come down on the side of maintaining a strong superintendent or CEO to obtain stability in the schools for our children.”

SECRET POLLS

Archer appointed his deputy mayor, Freman Hendrix, chairman of the reform board. “I never supported the governing structure that Engler and Lansing foisted on the city of Detroit,” but someone had to “step up,” Hendrix says now.

All but officially announced as a candidate for Detroit mayor, Hendrix also opposes Prop E. He says the school system doesn’t have to be controlled by the mayor to succeed, and he’d like to return to an elected board with two mayoral appointees who would have voting power and full oversight.

For someone who’s likely to run against Kilpatrick next year, it may be a savvy move for Hendrix to oppose Prop E. After all, the mayor has faced some serious backlash, particularly from radio talk-show host Mildred Gaddis, whose program on WCHB 1200-AM has a predominately black audience. Last week, she broadcast live from Just Say No! Coalition headquarters on Detroit’s East Side. Gaddis has been very vocal about her opposition to Prop E, a frequent subject on her show. She calls the proposal “racist by nature,” insisting that it disenfranchises Detroit voters.

During the four-hour morning show, according to the Coalition, hundreds of people pledged donations. Some called in while others walked through the front doors.

The Coalition says it has raised just under $40,000, but pledges are still streaming in. Vote Yes for Kids reportedly has raised about $2 million. Berg denies that this figure is accurate, but adds that he does not know how much money the group has raised. Both groups are required to submit a financial report to the City of Detroit’s elections department next week.

Loretta Rodgers, 47, donated $25. Although her daughter attends a private school, she says she believes citizens should have the right to elect a school board that has full authority over the district. Rodgers, who voted for Kilpatrick the last election, says she won’t vote for him again.

Rev. Anthony and other local dignitaries joined Gaddis for the live broadcast, calling Proposal E “evil.” When the broadcast ended, Anthony told Metro Times that there are “plenty of great people” in Detroit who could serve on the school board. But he is adamant that a program be put in place to train board members extensively on budgets, management, business and other areas. “They do it for Congress, for mayors, why not school boards?” he said.

Anthony wouldn’t speculate on how Kilpatrick’s stance on Prop E might affect his bid for a second term. “I’m in it for one issue,” to defeat Proposal E, Anthony said repeatedly.

But Gaddis, who’s known for tough talk, wasn’t so reserved. “It’s unthinkable that any of these people would expect Detroiters to be a conspirator in the effort to disenfranchise themselves,” she said. Gaddis claimed that most city residents oppose Proposal E. “Trust me on this — 70 percent of the voters are against this. We know people conducted polls. The [Detroit Regional] Chamber and the mayor have done polls, and we know this measure is headed for defeat.”

Both Kilpatrick and the Chamber say they conducted no such polls.

Gaddis also said the mayor’s approval ratings are down. She attributed this, in part, to his stand on Prop E. “I think it will be a referendum on his leadership.”

Gaddis cited another “secret” poll, saying, “Currently, today, only 31 percent of voters in Detroit would vote for Kwame Kilpatrick to be re-elected. That’s troubling for anyone” seeking another term. Gaddis said she couldn’t reveal the source of that poll.

Kilpatrick says he’s confident his approval ratings are high. “We’re doing fine,” he later told Metro Times.

The mayor says his approval ratings hover around 70 percent. He says the last poll conducted for him was in August — before Prop E was approved for the November ballot.

Given the constant applause he received last week at the Northwest Activities Center, his stand on Prop E doesn’t appear to have cost him all of his supporters.

“I love the mayor,” said Pat Alexander, who has not decided how she’ll vote on the proposal. “Detroiters should have a say-so on the future of their children. It doesn’t make sense that someone from Lansing should dictate.” But Alexander said the mayor’s support of the proposal might sway her to vote for it. “Now, remember, he was a schoolteacher. He would know what schoolkids need.”

But a middle-aged African-American woman who also heard Kilpatrick speak at the Northwest Activity Center last week and asked not to be identified said, “I’m definitely on the fence. I understand both sides of the issue. I understand that the majority of the black community is concerned with voting rights. However, without checks and balances, people are doomed to failure.” She added that Kilpatrick’s support of Prop E wouldn’t persuade her to vote for it.

A Cass Tech High School graduate made an impassioned speech at the center. The woman, who has seven children in the Detroit Public Schools, told how her daughter came home with a textbook that had her, the mother’s, name in it. “We don’t want to go back to that old board. If we go back, I’ll look for another option,” she shouted.

Kilpatrick concedes that Prop E has affected him “a lot” politically. “I have a lot of work to do to bring people back together because of the divide this has brought,” he says. “Whether we win or lose [passage of Proposal E], I have to bring people back together.”

IN OTHER DISTRICTS

Did the state takeover foster so much resentment among Detroiters that Proposal E is doomed to fail?

In other districts around the nation, the demand for change came from the local level. In Chicago, Mayor Richard M. Daley initiated school board reform, and most of his constituents backed him.

In 1995, Illinois lawmakers gave Daley authority to appoint a six-member school board seated for four years. A CEO, hired by the board, is responsible for labor negotiations, setting policy, procuring contracts and day-to-day operations.

Celeste Garrett, press secretary for Chicago Public Schools, says there wasn’t much opposition to the change. “Chicago public schools performed so poorly that everyone was ready to try anything new,” Garrett says.

Although no one expected Daley and the appointed board to improve the school system, they’ve made great strides, she says. “Test scores have risen dramatically. In 1995, only 26 percent of the students were meeting national norms. Now we have 43 percent reading at national norms.”

Graduation rates also have improved, with 70 percent of students completing high school last year, compared to 61 percent in 1995. The district is also retaining more students from middle-class families, who commonly opted in the past to send their kids to private schools.

To return to an elected board system, legislation would have to be enacted. But no one is rallying for a return to the old board structure, Garrett says. “The mayor has made so much progress with the school system, it is unlikely” that his authority would be revoked.

Boston’s mayor also appoints the school district’s board, with seven members serving four-year terms. In 1991, Boston residents voted to give the mayor control of the district, which had been run by an elected, two-year board. But some resisted the reform.

“There was a huge amount of uproar,” says Gretchen O’Neill, Boston Public Schools spokesperson, “the main issue being that people don’t like to give up their right to vote.” The public feared the board would answer only to the mayor. But power over the district is shared.

The superintendent, who’s hired by the board, oversees curriculum and capital improvements. The board handles labor contracts and approves the budget, which the city council and mayor must also endorse.

The current board is racially diverse and includes a college professor, a former bank CEO, a social worker and other professionals. The superintendent has been with the district about nine years, considered a long time for an urban school system. And Boston has had the same mayor for almost as long. “There is a lot of stability,” O’Neill says.

In 1996, voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum to keep the appointed board system. Last week, the National School Boards Association Council presented the district with an award for Urban School Board Excellence. The annual award is given to the district that best demonstrates excellence in governance, academic achievement and community engagement.

Some experts credit Chicago’s success to the lengthy tenure of its superintendent, and Boston’s to its long-serving mayor. They say stable leadership is critical for a school system to succeed.

But can a school district flourish if the mayor is not committed to its success?

“That is a concern I often hear,” says Wong, education and public policy professor of Vanderbilt University. But he says this system of governance “goes beyond an individual or their personality and gets to the structure. The whole notion of mayoral control is to streamline accountability.”

Mayors who take control of a district must help it succeed or risk being voted out of office. Voters can do the same to elected boards, but it is more difficult to hold an elected board accountable, Wong says.

Elected boards also don’t have the same ability a mayor has to bring city resources to bear on district improvements. Wong says mayors who oversee public schools are committed to putting resources into the system even though the city itself is having financial difficulty. Wong said his studies revealed that mayors with appointed boards have tended to cut other services to protect public schools.

Wong says that the mayor must want control and have strong authority for the system to work.

Others say that mayor-controlled school boards are not necessarily better than elected ones.

“In either case, abuse can happen,” says school policy analyst Ziebarth, who studies school district governance. The key is to make the actions of the board, superintendent or mayor “transparent, from hiring people to selecting contractors to fixing schools. If those in power want to ‘take the steam out of the skeptic,’ accountability through transparency is an effective antidote,” he says.

In 2002, Cleveland residents voted overwhelmingly to continue with their mayor-appointed school board, which hires a CEO to run the district. Ziebarth says the Cleveland mayor has a lot of credibility with voters.

The mayor’s credibility has a lot to do with whether voters will grant control over a school district, he says.

Some critics say Kilpatrick already has his hands full with Detroit’s high crime rate and massive deficit.

Zeibarth suspects that in Detroit’s case it is the state takeover that has made voters suspicious of Prop E. “This may have poisoned the well,” he says.

Stanford University education professor Michael Kirst agrees.

“In some ways, the mayoral control never got the full test in Detroit” with both Archer and Engler having oversight of the district, says Kirst, who has been studying school board reform around the nation.

He says he understands why voters feel disenfranchised by the state takeover. On the other hand, most voters don’t participate in school board elections, much less know who is running, he says. On average nationwide, only about 15 percent of voters turn out for school board elections that do not run concurrent with city races, Kirst says.

No matter how Detroit votes on Prop E, he does not see it as a referendum on the mayor.

“I think it’s really whether the city wants to go in a different direction than the past,” Kirst says.

Will Detroit go in a new direction or did the state takeover render that possibility remote?

“The mayor and governor had control and the citizenry never bought into it,” Kirst says. “That always gave Detroit a lack of legitimacy that could backfire in an election.”

And the victim of that backfire might well be Proposal E’s most visible supporter.

Ann Mullen is a Metro Times staff writer. She can be reached at amullen@metrotimes.com or 313-202-8015.

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