River Rouge Schools lawsuit alleges Mike Duggan conspired to block advertisement on DDOT buses

The River Rouge School District and the City of Detroit have been battling over students for years. Now the two will battle it out in federal court over an alleged scheme that Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan ordered Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT) buses to not use River Rouge school ads on its buses, impacting the district’s enrollment-boosting advertising campaign.

In a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, River Rouge School District Superintendent Dr. Derrick Coleman and Board Trustee Deborah Harper accused Duggan, DDOT, and city-based advertising company Outfront Media, of preventing River Rouge’s advertisements from appearing on DDOT buses in violation of the district’s free speech rights.

The River Rouge School District is seeking $5 million in damages for a breach of contract and a violation of First Amendment rights.

“For many years, the River Rouge Schools has been advertising on DDOT buses through contracts with Outfront Media (formerly CBS Outdoors). This has been a positive relationship for both DDOT and River Rouge Schools. DDOT has been paid for this advertising campaign and River Rouge Schools has benefited from the advertising by more than doubling its student population during the time that it has undertaken this advertising campaign. This relationship has also benefited school-age children in the City of Detroit as it has informed them and their families about the free quality educational options available to them. That relationship, however, has been ended because of an order by Mayor Mike Duggan. River Rouge Schools believes this is part of a targeted attack by the Mayor against the School District,” the lawsuit reads.

A River Rouge School District ad on the back of a DDOT bus.

River Rouge said it has been advertising on DDOT buses since approximately 2012 and signed a deal June 13, 2019 with Outfront Media to run district advertisement posters on the back of DDOT buses from July 8 through September 1.

The lawsuit states, on July 3, 2019, Outfront employee, Devin Holly, issued an email to Dr. Coleman indicating the contracts could not be performed as agreed and River Rouge’s advertisements would not be displayed on DDOT buses because, “The Mayor of Detroit has decided for DDOT to run only Detroit Public Schools advertising on the buses.”

River Rouge said its enrollment has grown since 2012, when Dr. Coleman was hired, due to his implementation of promotional ads that have been featured on the side of DDOT buses.

Student gains result in increased per-pupil funding, which benefits students and the district. But River Rouge officials allege direction to prevent the ads from running hurt enrollment prospects for the 2019-20 school year, the lawsuit contends.

River Rouge also alleged Duggan attempted to cast a negative light upon the district by singling out and discussing the district’s busing of school-aged students residing in the City of Detroit to the River Rouge in his State of the City speech on March 6, 2018.

River Rouge Schools runs 200 miles of bus routes through the City of Detroit every day.

In his speech, Mayor Duggan noted how River Rouge runs 200 miles of bus routes through the City of Detroit every day, losing thousands of students, and-outlined a transportation plan to get more school children to Detroit charter and Detroit Public School Community District locations.

“We’re going to make choice available, so they are not being bused an hour away to River Rouge,” Duggan said.

Mayor Duggan’s office, DDOT or Outfront could not be reached for comment on the lawsuit.

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