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Q & A: Detroit Board Member Discusses Move From Law to Education

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David Olmstead, a member of the Detroit Board of Education, recently resigned from a six-figure position as a partner at Michigan's oldest law firm in order to devote more time to the school board and to the cause of reforming school finance in his state.

Mr. Olmstead had worked at the firm Miller, Canfield, Paddock, & Stone for 25 years, but he also has long been interested in education and school-finance issues. He represented districts attempting to reform Michigan's school finance as early as the late 1960's, and his work inspired legal arguments used in equity cases elsewhere in the nation. He was elected to the Detroit Board four years ago as a member of the pro-reform HOPE slate.

Mr. Olmstead, who plans this fall to run for re-election to the Detroit board, has clashed with Gov. John Engler over school-finance reform.

He spoke about his career move with Staff Writer Peter Schmidt.

You walked away from a six-figure job for the sake of reforming school finance and improving Detroit schools. Why?
My family and my partners have already been making a great sacrifice. I really haven't been making that much of a sacrifice because I have never really been much motivated by money or the need for money anyway. ...

When I decided to run for re-election and that I would be willing to challenge the Governor on ... what I think is a very destructive tax-cut proposal, my fate was written at that point.

Were you finding it difficult to speak out on school-finance issues in light of the fact that your firm was doing a lot of work for the state?

There was a great deal of liberty around Miller Canfield. It is really a magnificent place to work. On the other hand, although I had never been muzzled, I sure felt that I could get to the point where I might feel reluctant to speak out. ... By the way, it wasn't just with the Governor. It was also with the business community here in Detroit, which is in my mind being very irresponsible in supporting the Governor's proposal. That I would have to speak out, perhaps, against the business community as well--all blue-chip clients of a major law firm--I just felt I might feel restrained.

How have your friends, family, and associates reacted to your decision to step down from your position at the firm?

I think they are all giving me too much credit. They are treating me as if I am some sort of saint, and I tell them that I am not that. I also find there are really a lot of people out there who [ask themselves] why they haven't done the same thing.

What are your plans for the near future, both in terms of promoting education reform and paying your own bills? In regard to education reform, what will you be seeking to achieve in Detroit and at the state level?

I only have a finite amount of resources. I am trying to husband them carefully. I surely want to be able to survive until November or year end.

I do feel that, if the Governor's tax-cut proposal passes, that that truly closes the door on school-finance reform. If that passes I will probably just pack it up. ...

You have to link restructuring of our district with school-finance reform. ... If the hope of school-finance reform is destroyed, I can't politically be asking teachers to, in effect, martyr themselves, to be saints, to do more and get paid possibly less and not really be able to get the job done.

What are your long-term plans? How do you feel about working in the field of education as compared to the field of law?

I think the field of education, right now, is probably the most exciting profession there is. It is very regenerative right now. It is really exciting. A lot of great ideas. ...

But I am not an educator. ... Really, all I want to do as a school-board member is to get all the educational decisions down to the school level ... and [make] units like schools accountable for results. ... Once these reform steps are in place and somewhat self-sustaining, I see myself hopefully being able to resurrect my law practice.

Have you thought about a career specializing in school-finance law?

Even though we brought the first school-finance case in the country, ... I am not a big fan of the lawyers' and the judges' intruding into the educational system. I think they have got a horrible record. Right now I am much more intent on resolving this issue politically, and I think we are going at it with a lot more strategic sense here in Michigan than others have in the past. ...

There is enough power in the education sector to do that. We have been a sleeping giant politically. We have been passive, waiting for the people who cause the problems to solve the problems. ...

I wouldn't put another dime into public education the way it is organized right now.

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