Corruption Probe Muddies Efforts to Fix Detroit's Schools
Feds look into alleged vendor kickbacks
An ongoing federal corruption probe of Michigan's Education Achievement Authority, a state-run district that operates the worst of the states' lowest-performing schools, could add a stumbling block for the system at a time when Gov. Rick Snyder is planning to relaunch efforts to turn around all of Detroit's troubled schools.
The wide-ranging investigation of an alleged vendor kickback scheme could lead to federal indictments for an undetermined number of current and former Education Achievement Authority officials and employees in the Detroit public schools.
The controversy has emerged as Snyder, a Republican, prepares to unveil legislation to overhaul public education in Detroit—including the Detroit school system, all charter schools within the city, and the 15 state-run schools operated by the EAA.
All of the EAA schools are in Detroit, but are separate from the rest of the city's school system, which is also under state control.
Snyder spokesman Dave Murray said the governor has still not determined how the three-year-old EAA and its nearly 6,000 students will fit into the restructuring plan.
"These were the worst schools in Detroit. Those students needed help," Murray said. "It takes time to turn that around. There are a lot of things that could happen." But state Board of Education President John Austin, a Democrat, said the governor's plan provides an opportunity to put the "EAA out of its misery." Many Michigan Democrats have opposed the state-run district from its inception, dismissing it as a GOP-led attempt to dismantle Michigan's public education system.
"Everyone would like to see the EAA disappear. It's tainted and tarnished," Austin said. "We have a chance to get right what went wrong."
The EAA's struggles reflect widespread problems in Detroit, where the public schools have been under state oversight since 2009. The district's enrollment losses, school closures, stagnant academic achievement and budget woes have since persisted.
The EAA, the brainchild of Snyder's administration, hasn't fared much better since its rollout. It was created to turn around the bottom 5 percent of Michigan's schools, and most of the EAA-run schools have also been plagued by declining enrollment and mediocre academic progress.
Snyder's proposed overhaul plan would cost the state about $715 million over 10 years to retire the Detroit's schools operating debt. Snyder warned that failure to do so could put the state on the hook for an even bigger financial burden down the road.
The plan would bring all schools within the city's borders—regular public, charters, and the EAA-controlled schools—under one umbrella.
The Detroit Education Commission, a panel of mayoral and gubernatorial appointees, would fill many of the roles of a traditional school board, including hiring a chief education officer. It would also mandate additional oversight in areas such as school performance and finances.
To satisfy demands for a return to local control, the plan calls for an all-elected school board to replace the appointees by 2021.
"We need this restructuring to address the crushing debt and to address the academics," Murray said.
But the governor's staff acknowledges that the plan could face hurdles in the GOP-controlled legislature, where lawmakers who represent other parts of Michigan may be reluctant to devote more money to bail out Detroit's schools. And the added scrutiny the EAA and Detroit schools have faced since the FBI and U.S. Attorney's Office launched their corruption probe in 2014 has probably only further complicated the matter.
"The EAA has been notified by the FBI that it is a possible victim in an ongoing investigation," EAA spokesman Robert Guttersohn said in a statement. "We have been specifically requested not to discuss or disclose any information regarding the investigation, and we are honoring that request except to say we have and will continue to fully cooperate with the investigation."
Plea Deal Reported
EAA staff who found financial discrepancies in the entity's records reported the possible misconduct to law enforcement officials.
Though no one has been criminally charged with wrongdoing in the probe, Kenyetta Wilbourn-Snapp, a former principal at an EAA school, told the Detroit Free Press that she plans to plead guilty to bribery and tax evasion as part of a deal she cut. The EAA did not make administrators or staff members available for interviews with Education Week.
Austin, the state school board president, said Michigan should have a state-run district as part of a serious effort to turn around its failing schools. But he said there were several decisions that made the EAA a target for both political parties, including a lack of adequate oversight.
Murray said it's too early to label the EAA a success or failure.
The EAA is "well-intentioned," Austin said. But, he added, "it would have been hard to work under any circumstances because school turnaround is hard."
Vol. 35, Issue 11, Page 17