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Education

Forgotten election

Does the Detroit school board race matter?

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Published 10/7/2009

With a state-appointed emergency financial manager in charge of money and a mayor wanting eventual control of the district, why worry about a Detroit Board of Education election this November?

Mainly because it ensures some sort of locally elected representation and would check the "absolute" power of the financial manager, the candidates say.

"I don't believe in the white knight or even the black knight coming in to save us," says incumbent Ida Short. "You have to save yourself."

Short is one of four at-large members of the 11-member board whose terms expire this year. The top eight finishers among the 14 candidates in August's primary are vying for the seats: challengers Carol Banks, Willie Burton, Deborah Davis and LaMar Lemmons III and incumbents Margaret Betts, the Rev. David Murray, Short and Marie Thornton.

They're seeking to stay or join a board whose future power, role and responsibility are uncertain. 

The school board election also has been overshadowed by what will be four mayoral votes this year, a City Council election that promises turnover there and selection of charter commission members who could fundamentally restructure city government. City voters also will decide whether to authorize "Proposal S," a $500 million, 30-year bond measure that would allow the district to receive federal stimulus money for capital projects including school construction, renovation, demolition and security improvements.

Given all that, it's not surprising that candidate Deborah Davis calls the board of education contest "the forgotten race." But the lack of attention is in stark contrast to what she considers to be the importance of this election.

"This was once one of the finest school districts in the country. And while its resurgence will take time, it is critical to this city and this state that we again make it one of this country's finest school districts," she says.

How that should be done is more than an election-season issue, and the situation has educational and political observers watching.

"My hope is that they can quickly get on the same page and have a shared vision and common agenda that's focused on teaching, learning and children," says Tom Watkins, a former state superintendent for education. "To be quite honest with you, unless we get the Detroit education system fixed for the children that get up every day and hopefully go to school, the state is doomed. I'm not using hyperbole. It's educational genocide."


The history

Board members and candidates cite the deficit produced by the previous state takeover and reform board as the beginning of today's troubles. 

In 1999, the Michigan Legislature dissolved the elected Detroit Board of Education and replaced it with a "reform board" because of financial management issues. Then-Mayor Dennis Archer and Gov. John Engler appointed the new board members. Following a city referendum in 2005, the elected board returned with 11 members, seven chosen by districts and four elected at-large.

The financial condition of the district when the elected board returned is something the candidates are talking about this fall.

"When the elected board got back in, we talked about doing an audit," Murray says. "We should have."

Lemmons, a former state representative who served on the education committee, says "There was a $90 million surplus when the district was taken over, and a deficit of at least $250 million," when the current board regained control." 

Lemmons' father, LaMar Lemmons Jr., currently in the state House of Representatives, has introduced a bill that would force the state to forgive such debt.

After regaining control, however, the elected board didn't have much success bringing stability — financial or otherwise — to the district. In 2006, teachers went on strike until a judge ordered them back to work. Enrollment has plummeted from about 163,000 students during the 2000-2001 year to about 84,000 this fall. As funding is tied to per-pupil enrollment, the decline has meant the loss of millions of dollars.

Since the elected board returned, it has hired four superintendents and fired two of them, the last being Connie Calloway — who lasted 18 months. She publicly criticized board members for trying to micromanage the district. The board's resolution that terminated her contract in December called her "insubordinate" and "uncooperative" and said she was the reason the Michigan Department of Education had declared the district's finances were in a "state of emergency."

During Calloway's tenure, the state Department of Education and the board created a plan to remedy the district's budget deficit, but the state declared it was not being sufficiently followed. Following Calloway's ouster, Gov. Jennifer Granholm earlier this year appointed an emergency financial manager, Robert Bobb, to manage the district's finances and remedy a budget deficit calculated as high as $408 million.

Bobb, who declined comment to Metro Times this week, has earned praise for his forensic auditing, support of criminal investigations of current and former district employees, and overall attempts to "clean up" financial practices and policies in the district's bureaucracy. 

Despite some concerns that Bobb awarded a no-bid contract, worth nearly $1 million, to his previous firm, Gov. Jennifer Granholm last week announced she'd consider appointing him for a second year.

"Robert Bobb is exposing a certain level of financial mismanagement that hasn't been exposed in other districts as much, if at all," says Peter Spadafore, spokesman for the Michigan Association of School Boards. "When the emergency financial manager is in place, it gives the board the opportunity to focus on the academic achievement and learning environment of the district. The key to the success of having a financial manager is good board-financial manager communication where they can work to be on the same page."

That isn't exactly happening in Detroit.


Lawsuits and orders

Detroit attorney Ben Gonek says Detroit Board of Education members, frustrated by Bobb's absolute control, approached him this summer about representing them in a lawsuit challenging the financial manager's authority. Gonek was familiar with Bobb's appointment, but not the details of the district's operation this year. He wasn't sure the suit had merit until he did some research.

"When I heard what the facts and the circumstances surrounding the lawsuit were, I didn't have any reluctance," he says.

Filed in August, the suit claims Bobb "has violated state law and his contractual obligations by failing to consult with the Detroit Board of Education concerning matters of financial concern" and that he "has exceeded his lawful authority pursuant to his duties as EFM by implementing policies concerning academics and by setting educational policy."

Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox is representing Bobb, as is the private firm Giarmarco, Mullins and Horton, based in Troy. In a countersuit, they've argued the board has no authority to hire administrators. Bobb wants the board to rescind its August appointment of Teresa Gueyser as superintendent. Gueyser, a former city of Detroit law department member, is the district's general counsel and was appointed interim superintendent when Calloway left.

Bobb, in a motion Cox filed, also objects to the board's plan to appoint an unpaid treasurer — Walter Esaw, the former district budget director whose contract Bobb did not renew. The board says it needs a treasurer because Bobb does not provide them with financial information.

Last week Wayne County Circuit Judge Wendy Baxter agreed with Cox and ruled the board could not name Esaw to the treasurer position. She has also ordered the district and Bobb to work with a facilitator to better determine governance issues. If no resolution is reached, a Nov. 13 hearing is scheduled.

Board member Anthony Adams, who was appointed to fill a board vacancy this year and is not up for election this fall, says the attorney general's involvement in the lawsuit is something he expects Cox will attempt to turn into political capital.

"He's running for governor, so obviously it's going to be politicized. He's going to bash the city," says Adams, an attorney who served as former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's deputy mayor. "When we raised questions regarding whether or not the financial manager is complying with the statute, he was silent. Now that the issue has been raised as to whether the board is doing something in accordance with the law, he takes a very quick position."

Cox's office did not return a telephone call for comment.

Incumbent candidate Thornton says the board and Bobb need to better determine how they'll work together, with Bobb responsible for finances but sharing information and providing for academic programs the board oversees.

"If he'd say to us, ‘We've got enough money for this plan, but we don't have enough for that,' that's OK. I don't mind saying, ‘Daddy, may I?' It's sounds like a marriage. It sounds like how someone would run their day-to-day household budget," Thornton says. "But until Robert Bobb starts believing that we have a role and the board members decide how we'll work with him in that respect, we're not coming to work together."


Speaking of politics

If the unclear authority of the board wasn't enough uncertainty for candidates this fall, they're also hearing the growing chorus of public officials calling for Dave Bing to assume control of the district as mayors have in Chicago and Washington, D.C. It's become one of the most-discussed campaign issues, and could happen through a voter referendum or an act of the Legislature.

Mayor Bing's office declined to comment to Metro Times on the school board election or the calls for mayoral control of the district. But he has publicly said he wants a CEO, appointed by the mayor, to run the district.

Most candidates Metro Times interviewed are against Bing or any mayor making the district the equivalent of a city department, but Lemmons says he could support some municipal control of the district. "The citizens of Detroit have to make that decision, not somebody from the outside," he says. "I would oppose that to my dying breath."

Davis opposes it. "The mayor has enough to do trying to run the city. The school district needs its own governing body, and I see the school board as being part of the fight to make that happen," she says. "Control of the district has to be in the hands of a strong, effective board."

Another issue is accountability: If a mayor is the only elected official voters can hold responsible for the district, how is that better than an elected board?

In addition, Thornton says the mayor's "hands are full" with the city's problems, including a deficit, Besides, she says, what if Bing is only in for four years? "He cannot fix the system in one term," she says.

Board members and some candidates say they haven't seen any evidence that mayoral control of schools improves academic performance. Short, who opposes mayoral control, says she's angry about the debate. "I'm not voting for Mr. Bing. He has no commitment to this community," she says. 

Candidates Banks, Betts and Burton could not be reached or did not return telephone calls to Metro Times.

Murray says any turmoil surrounding the school board election and its operation is just what supporters of mayoral control want. 

"I think we're going to be facing it a whole lot," he says.

Sandra Svoboda is a Metro Times staff writer. Contact her at 313-202-8015 or ssvoboda@metrotimes.com.

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