In the midst of all the swirl of heated public discussion surrounding whatever the latest development happens to be with the Detroit Public Schools, the one group of individuals who seem never to be called on even for a quote, or referred to in any way shape or form other than as a mistaken afterthought, is the currently elected Detroit Public School Board. Which seems strange because, even though they were stripped of much of their authority due to emergency management, they are still the publicly elected school board. After all, nobody forgot about the mayor, right? City Council either. Granted, both the mayor and city council were operating under a different emergency manager, but the system was the same, imposed on the same city by the same Governor.
All these plans and proposed legislation for a retooled DPS, for when and whether to have new school board elections, about who would and should be eligible to run for those seats, about another level of bureaucracy to be imposed on top of the school board whenever they get elected. And yet…
Nobody seems to want to hear from the board that’s already there.
Which would probably explain why they refer to themselves as the school board “in exile”. Toiling furiously to have their authority restored, an authority which they will tell you in no uncertain terms they believe was stolen from them under cover of darkness, Detroit’s school board members remain They Who Shall Not Be Named.
Board member LaMar Lemmons remains perhaps the most outspoken – and also most strategic – member, along with Dr. John Telford and Elena Herrada, whose passionate views on what is happening to Detroit’s public schools are regularly posted in detail on her Facebook page. Telford and Lemmons agreed to sit down for an interview at Dr. Telford’s Detroit apartment on Tuesday afternoon.
What is the current condition of DPS?
The district is insolvent, and it was made so by the emergency management system and the state experiments of Public Act 10 of 1999, and then exacerbated under the emergency manager laws. And abuse by the emergency financial manager laws.
What are your feelings about the current DPS rescue legislation that is being proposed?
Well first of all the House version is unrealistic and no one is really going to entertain that. The Senate version is…all of the versions are essentially cover-ups and do not deal with the exploitation of the district over the past years. What they intend to do is to (quote unquote) ‘move forward’. And although the Gov. is famous for saying ‘no credit no blame’, there is blame when there’s penalty, and the Senate version imposes a penalty on the Detroit Public School District. And it also puts in place a financial review board much like what the city has. Unfortunately, the difference between the city and the school district is that the school district has absolutely no culpability in its financial demise.
In our case, when the state took over the district in 1999, there was a $114 million surplus and a 92 percent market share. Market share is the percentage of students that are eligible to attend Detroit Public Schools that actually attend the Detroit Public Schools.
Because we’ve had emergency management, all they’ve done is to further damage the quality of Detroit education with DPS to make the charter schools, in our opinion, to make them more attractive, because the DPS has been rendered unacceptable to most parents with means to send their children. So they are saying that the parents are voting with their feet. That is true, but they’re essentially educational refugees being flushed out of the district by the lack of quality education, health and safety issues, as run by the governor and his emergency managers.
Would you say that’s purposeful?
It’s either malice of intent or gross incompetence. Either way the results are the same.
We believe, we cannot prove, but we believe that the original takeover, the motive was the $1.3 billion remaining out of the $1.5 billion bond. At that time I was a state legislator, and I offered an amendment to allow the elected school board to stay in charge over the bonding which the citizens had voted for those individuals to be over. And then the state could run its pedagogical experiment unimpeded while the school board would be over the bond. And of course that amendment failed on partisan lines.
How would the Detroit Public School Board and the proposed Detroit School Commission work together?
They would conflict because they (DCS) would determine whether we could open and close schools, and that directly affects programs. So, for example, if I want to close Pershing and change the name and programming, I would have to get permission from the commission, and no other school district in Michigan has such impediments to their operation. That slows down the response time. Even if they’re going to consent. Who wants a ‘Mother May I?’ before it’s OK to proceed?
And remember we are in a competitive marketplace in the tri-county area. Many of the school districts who have been losing students have been opening up their enrollment. And if the quality of education is not dealt with quickly in Detroit we’ll lose them. In fact, we’ve lost over 35,000 of our students to suburban schools. Detroit residents. Not to mention how many have made the transition from Detroit Public Schools and they’ve moved their entire family out to Farmington and Hazel Park. Not to mention that many of those districts open up their enrollment. At least 50 percent of the students in Ferndale are Detroit residents. Oak Park, 50 percent.
So if you look around, you’ll see a large percentage of our students. We only have 42 percent of our marketshare. Down from 92 percent. We believe that their efforts to deplete us of marketshare, either purposefully or not, is also a Headlee [Amendment] violation because the State is taking action and that action is forcing the locals to take a financial hit.
Also, we’ve had numerous credit and bond rating decreases as a direct result after the state operation which directly affects the local taxpayer. So even as the State’s bond rating has increased, our bond rating has gone down as a direct result. That too, we believe, is a Headlee violation.
The Headlee Amendment is part of the Michigan constitution, Article 9 section 25 thru 32, which essentially says that any action the State that causes financial difficulty or financial penalty, the State must eat the difference. So you can’t impose a program and not pay for it. It’s the law against unfunded mandates. And all of these are unfunded mandates because they imposed a program and then it forces the locals to pay the penalty. And exclusively the locals.
What about the current DPS kickback scandal that’s in the news?
Right now they’re getting the bottom feeders but the sharks are still swimming. The people that have stolen 8 and 9 figures from the districts. Tens and hundreds of millions of dollars from the Detroit School District, which we can trace but we can’t prove because we don’t have access to the books. And, by the way, they fired the auditor general at the beginning of this year. So we don’t even have a mechanism to determine anymore. And the inspector general. So whatever he [the emergency manager] says goes and there’s no accounting. The auditor general on numerous occasions had advised the emergency manager against his own actions, his own appointed auditor general.
So they ignored the parents, they ignored the board, they ignored the citizenry, and they even ignored their own financial experts.
Anything else you’d like to add?
We sacrifice tremendously, and we don’t get paid. All this fighting, all this traveling, all these things we do we do for free. Time away from our families. And the public doesn’t know that. And that’s because the media has – either directly or indirectly through omission – has misled the public.
All we want is the same thing they have in Livonia, the same thing they have in Bloomfield. The same thing they have in Grosse Pointe. An elected board that can select its superintendent with checks and balances and accountability.
In 1966, when I was just a boy, a baby boomer, we had 300,000 students in DPS. We lost 130,000 between that period and 1999. Yet we still had a $114 million surplus. So we lost 130,000 students and were still able to have a surplus. Now look at what’s happened under State supervision. And they blame it on the loss of students.
Our district was the #1 district in the nation for school districts with over 100,000 where the majority of students were free and reduced lunch. Now was it the best school district in the nation? Of course not. But class and race affect education. As a matter of fact, people came from all over the country to see what Detroit was doing. This is 1999. When Dr. Eddie Green was the superintendent. When Dr. Eddie Green left the district, he walked the next day into Cranbrooke. They wanted him.
Return the EAA to DPS. Empower the Detroit School Board.