Four years ago, voters here elected a slate of four school board candidates who called themselves the HOPE team and promised to bring equity, diversity, and choice to the city’s schools.
Their persistence in trying to fulfill those campaign promises, however, may prove to be the board members’ undoing at the polls next month.
The HOPE team’s philosophy is simple: Schools must be freed from bureaucratic constraints and given the money and authority to develop their own unique characters and programs.
But in their zeal to turn around what they criticize as a top-down school system, the board members have run seriously afoul of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, the administrators’ union, and other labor groups here.
Last month, the city’s 10,500 teachers and other instructional employees staged a 27-day strike to protest what they regarded as assaults on their contract. The federation now plans to campaign against the HOPE team and is selling black T-shirts decorated with chalkboards that say “Erase the board.’'
What the Detroit school board is trying to do is consistent with the nationwide movement to give schools more autonomy. But while other districts have hesitated to give schools true power, said Ted Kolderie, who tracks the movement as a senior associate at the Center for Policy Studies in Minneapolis, “the board’s intention [in Detroit] was serious and meets the test. There is a real delegation of meaningful authority.’'
“When a board gets serious,’' he added, “it turns out that some people really don’t want it after all.’'
The HOPE team, whose acronym is loosely based on the members’ last names, was elected in 1988 with the support of organized labor. In fact, labor leaders helped put together the reform slate, balancing Lawrence C. Patrick Jr., a Republican lawyer who has close ties to the Bush Administration, with Joseph S. Blanding, an international union representative for the United Auto Workers.
The other two members of the ticket were Frank Hayden, a manager in the city’s water and sewer department, and David Olmstead, a lawyer and school-finance-reform advocate.
The district at the time was in turmoil: It was running a record budget deficit and had lost a millage vote; the teachers had no contract; the superintendent was leaving; parent and community confidence was at a low; and test scores and enrollment were declining.
Today, school board members and community residents point with pride to the district’s achievements.
For the first time in 23 years, enrollment rose last year, to nearly 169,000 students; it was projected to rise by 1,500 students this fall, before the strike siphoned some students to private schools.
A superintendent who shares the board’s philosophy, Deborah McGriff, has been hired. The district’s budget has been balanced for the past four years, test scores and teacher and student attendance are up, and the dropout rate has fallen.
The HOPE team also has solidified its hold on the board, with 10 of the 11 members now in support of its approach. Two board members who were appointed to their seats--Irma Clark, the press secretary for the Wayne County executive, and Margaret L. Betts, a physician--also are running for election Nov. 3.
Doubts About Tax Renewal
At the same time, voters will be asked to approve a $46 million tax-rate renewal. Historically, district officials say, Detroiters have approved such renewals.
But this year, the strike and the resistant attitudes toward change that have surfaced here caused at least one prominent player, the Detroit Chamber of Commerce, to give serious thought to whether to support the renewal.
During the chamber’s debates on the issue, there was “a strong divergence of views as to where the chamber ought to be on that,’' said Richard Gabrys, who heads the chamber’s education programs.
“There is concern with respect to whether or not enough progress is being made in terms of the quality of the education programs,’' he said.
Last week, noting that it was solidly behind the HOPE team, the chamber’s executive committee announced it would back the millage renewal.
But in this city, whose name is synonymous with organized labor, opposition from unions could defeat some, if not all, of the board members up for re-election. Mr. Patrick, because of his Republican ties, and Mr. Blanding, because he has disappointed labor, are considered to be particularly vulnerable.
Mr. Hayden, the board president, said that losing the backing of the unions “could have a tremendous impact on our re-election.’'
“For people to judge us based on what happened in four weeks [during the strike] would be unfair to us,’' he asserted, “and to what we have accomplished.’'
Choice and ‘Empowerment’
As board members worked to fulfill their pledge of bringing more diversity of programs and school choice to Detroit, the board came to be seen as a maverick.
Last year, for example, the district made national headlines and was hit with a federal lawsuit when it sought to open three all-male academies for African-American boys. (See Education Week, Sept. 4, 1991.)
Under a court order, the board agreed to admit girls to the African-centered academies, which still serve primarily boys.
The board has also expressed interest in allowing private schools to join the public system, and this fall it opened 20 “schools of choice’’ offering a range of special programs.
But the cornerstone of the district’s approach--and the source of most union concerns--is its “empowerment’’ plan.
Empowered schools receive 92 percent of the district’s per-pupil spending of about $4,000 and are free to run their own affairs. The 8 percent the school system retains takes care of its overhead for paying salaries and fringe benefits. Schools are left with total discretion over how to spend the money for their operating expenses, which include utilities, building repairs, supplies for teachers and students, copying machines, in-service training, and the like.
‘Bureaucracy Has Not Worked’
Such schools cannot be penalized by having their budgets reduced if the per-pupil formula generates less money than they had been receiving. They will either get the same amount, or more, if that is what is determined by the new calculation.
In deciding how to use their money, schools can spend up to $5,000 without board approval.
If they wish, they can buy services from the central administration. But they are also free to contract with outside vendors.
That freedom offers schools the chance to get things done that have languished for years in an unresponsive and antiquated system, proponents of empowerment say.
“The bureaucracy has not worked, which is exactly why the board wanted empowerment,’' said Larry Wilkerson, the president of a local consulting firm that has a two-year contract with the district to assist empowered schools. “The central office now has what you would call competition.’'
Light Bills and Toilet Paper
That competition is a major reason that the Organization of School Administrators and Supervisors is opposing the empowerment plan. At a minimum, the union says, “outsourcing’’ central-office work threatens the jobs of people in accounting, in-service education, and supervision.
“I’m not certain that paying the light bill, buying toilet paper, and arranging for garbage pickup and snow removal has a whole lot to do with schools,’' said Helen Martellock, the president of the administrators’ group.
Both the administrators’ union and the D.F.T. argue that empowerment is a management strategy, not a tool for improving education.
If board members and Superintendent McGriff want to improve student achievement, argued John M. Elliott, the president of the D.F.T., they must listen to teachers, who want traditional improvements like smaller classes and better discipline policies.
“The only thing I can tell you is that these are the people who do the job,’' he said, “and you’ve got to give them some credit.’'
Both the administrative and teaching unions are closely aligned in their objections to empowerment. As part of the Coalition of Unions of Detroit Public Schools, they joined the Metropolitan Detroit A.F.L.-C.I.O. in issuing a brochure rebutting the board’s empowerment plan.
Union Opposition Likely
Now, Mr. Elliott said, it is almost “a certainty’’ that the teachers’ federation will formally oppose the HOPE team’s re-election bid; the metropolitan union leadership is backing the team’s opponents.
“The labor movement and the community were successful in getting the HOPE team elected,’' noted Tom Turner, the secretary-treasurer of the Michigan A.F.L.-C.I.O., who was involved in trying to break the strike deadlock. “Then they went out and decided they were going to reform the school district to their liking, rather than the community’s.’'
But in the view of Mr. Olmstead, a member of the HOPE slate, the united union opposition to empowerment amounts to an “unholy alliance’’ to protect administrative jobs and maintain the status quo.
“We are totally committed to making the public schools work,’' he said, “but in the aftermath of the strike, one has to really wonder whether the system can be reformed from within, or whether they are going to watch it happen to them’’ through some type of voucher initiative.
The crusade by the board and Ms. McGriff to open schools of choice, the African-centered academies, and the empowered schools has also led some teachers and administrators here to question whether the district is creating inequities that will leave some students in inferior or forgotten schools.
The common phrase used here to deride such initiatives is “boutique schools.’'
Such concerns have added to an atmosphere of questions and uncertainty about empowerment that has made it difficult for teachers and principals to evaluate the merits of the program.
At Greenfield Park Elementary School, for example, a stack of toilets was sitting in a back hallway one day recently awaiting installment. Bruce Bolton, the principal, said he was told that the district’s maintenance workers were out preparing schools of choice to open and did not have time to get to his building.
“By creating these schools,’' he charged, “they have taken the resources from neighborhood schools.’'
At the same time, Mr. Bolton stressed that he is open to the concept of empowerment and has been trying to get more information on how it would affect his school and budget.
While district officials do not deny that money has been spent to open some new schools, they insist that the schools of choice will not receive any more operating money than neighborhood schools. Fourteen of the 20 new choice programs, in fact, are housed in neighborhood schools.
Creating alternatives is essential if parents and students are to be attracted to the public system, Ms. Clark of the school board argued.
“What we have to recognize now,’' she said, “is we have to provide the kinds of schools that can compete with private and parochial schools in order to attract students.’'
Ms. McGriff pointed out that many of the schools of choice now have waiting lists.
“Why am I not creating more,’' she asked, “instead of trying to convince parents and students to take something they don’t want?’'
The superintendent pointed out that all 255 schools are eligible to participate in all of the district’s initiatives. Teachers and principals in the schools, she maintained, are more enthusiastic about the programs than their leaders would indicate.
“Over half of the schools responded to the initiatives I have put on the table,’' she said. “I am not complaining.’'
‘Forcing the Concept’
For a school to become empowered, 75 percent of the teachers must vote to enter the program. Schools then draw up plans for a governance system and for the programs they plan to create. Those whose plans are accepted are treated to a special moment at school board meetings, when they are handed an oversized check for the amount of their school budget.
While board members argue that empowerment gives teachers the professional freedom many have sought for years, Mr. Elliott of the teachers’ union asserts that similar approaches in other large districts have failed to produce academic gains for students.
“Site-based management is not what you would call an overwhelming success nationwide,’' Mr. Elliott said. “Teachers don’t see it leading to the kinds of things they have put a priority on.’'
The D.F.T.'s concerns over empowerment erupted last December, when the union issued an “embargo’’ asking teachers not to vote on the matter. The move effectively put a halt to empowerment, although a memorandum of understanding about the program between the district and its unions was still in effect.
Before the embargo was issued, 15 schools had become empowered and another 30 were waiting in the wings.
Frustrated by the union’s reluctance to allow its members to choose whether to work in empowered schools, board members decided to try to expand the empowerment program in negotiations for a new teachers’ contract.
‘We wanted to get it in the contract,’' Mr. Patrick said, “so it becomes part of the system.’'
That decision is viewed by some people here as a mistake.
“They tried to force the concepts on the personnel through school negotiations,’' observed Paul L. Hubbard, the president of New Detroit Inc., a community-service agency. “That’s not the way you sell change.’'
Suspicions were also aroused by a report issued last spring that was written by Mr. Wilkerson’s firm and another consulting firm. The document has become the blueprint for empowerment here, but labor leaders charge that they were not consulted about the plan and that the report contained recommendations that were hostile to unions.
“Board members were trying to force on some schools things that they neither knew anything about nor understood,’' Mr. Elliott complained.
In the wake of the strike, board members say they realize that the idea of empowerment is complex and a radical departure from how the system is now run.
‘A Frame of Mind’
“This is not easy to explain to people,’' Mr. Olmstead said. “Empowerment is not a contract--it’s a frame of mind.’'
In negotiations, the board proposed that teachers in empowered schools be allowed to waive any portion of their contract without going to the union for approval. That suggestion further fueled fears that empowerment was a vehicle for “union busting,’' said Timothy Michalak, a marketing teacher at Southwestern High School.
The agreement that ended the strike lifts the union’s embargo on empowerment and sets a goal of creating 45 empowered schools this academic year. (See Education Week, Oct. 7, 1992.)
Teachers will be allowed to waive only contract rules that apply to relatively noncontroversial items such as parent-teacher conferences, testing, materials, in-service training, textbook review, and librarians.
Although the board gained less flexibility than it sought, Mr. Patrick said, the contract “establishes that they should have absolute rights over a few provisions.’'
“It took a strike,’' he said, “but we have established that teachers at the local schools are smart enough and professional enough to get the job done.’'
‘Nothing But Suspicion’
Mr. Michalak, who is a member of the D.F.T.'s executive committee, has taught at Southwestern High for 22 years. An imposing school of dark brick, it stands out in a neighborhood of warehouses and boarded-up shops. The grass was cut recently for the opening of school, leaving clumps of the summer’s growth strewn around the building.
As he surveyed his windowless classroom, crowded with desks for 34 students, the plans for empowerment seemed remote to Mr. Michalak.
“I’d like to see a good, strong basic curriculum,’' he said, “discipline in the schools, and some true standards for the basics.’'
Teachers in his school, he said, are under pressure to try “innovative’’ methods.
“The administration says, ‘We don’t want to come in and see you lecture,’'' Mr. Michalak said, “but when you’ve got 34 kids it’s hard. One of the best ways to put out all that you can is to lecture.’'
Veteran Detroit teachers have seen many cycles of change come and go, he said, while chronic issues like class size continue to fester.
“In this system, everything has been blamed on teachers, and we see this as another way of having things blamed on us,’' Mr. Michalak said of empowerment. “And we are tired of it.’'
“There has been nothing but suspicion of anything this board has tried to do,’' he added.
‘I Have the Checking Account’
Across town, children in dark pants and white shirts lined up on a recent morning to enter the Marcus Garvey African-centered academy. Thanks to empowerment, the school has a brand-new roof after years of leaks, boasted Harvey Hambrick, the principal.
“I have the checking account,’' he said, “and in my other school I had nothing.’'
The teachers in Mr. Hambrick’s school received special training in building a “normative culture’’ for decisionmaking. All are committed to the African-centered approach. Each day at the school begins with a whole-school assembly in which the children chant motivational phrases and sing songs, sometimes in Swahili.
Empowerment has realigned the system’s priorities to put children, not administrative procedures, first, Mr. Hambrick said.
“In order to work for the child, you almost have to be a rebel to get it done,’' he said. “It was not control I was seeking, it was the spirit of cooperation, so we could educate our children.’'
New Union Chapter
Many Detroit teachers simply have not grasped the potential benefits of working in an empowered school, according to Clyde Lewers, a 4th-grade teacher at Marcus Garvey.
During the strike, Mr. Lewers and teachers from other empowered schools decided to form a chapter of the D.F.T. to represent their views.
“Empowered schools were being bashed by the other teachers,’' he explained, “because they didn’t understand the concept.’' One teacher even thought the staff at Marcus Garvey no longer belonged to the D.F.T., he recalled.
“I didn’t realize that empowerment would be such a big issue,’' Mr. Lewers said. “The strike was a power struggle. Now the superintendent realizes you can’t come in and walk all over us.’'
For Paul Taylor, the head of the school’s parent organization, empowerment is the realization of a long-held dream.
“Many of us have fought for it for a number of years,’' he said. “We liken it to community control. Choice within the public schools is an excellent idea.’'
Other empowered schools, according to Mr. Wilkerson, the consultant to the school board, have arranged to have their buildings repaired, have contracted for staff development, and have drawn up new technology plans. Some are drafting “charters,’' by which they would enter into a formal agreement with the school board that would further define their programs and the approaches to be taken to meet their goals.
Mr. Patrick of the school board predicted that, by the first of the year, two or three schools will be ready to submit charters to the board.
A charter, he said, would “formalize and give maximum assurance to a school of its right to exercise its options.’'
“As long as the board ultimately has the power,’' he noted, “when you get different board members, those rights can be snatched from you.’'
Eventually, Mr. Patrick added, he hopes that private schools in the area will ask to be chartered as public schools.
Expectations for All
The bottom line, board members stress, is that all schools will be expected to improve.
“They will all be held to the same standard of achievement,’' Mr. Blanding said. “The question is, do you want flexibility, or to have the central office holding the rules and then have us expect you to reach the standards we have set.’'
Whether teachers now will step forward to create empowered schools is anyone’s guess, observers here say.
“Now, we’ll see,’' said N. Charles Anderson, the president of the local Urban League. “There are a tremendous number of people in this community who want change and who are involved in promoting empowered schools. They want it.’'
“That’s why the board has gotten as far as it has,’' he said.
A version of this article appeared in the October 21, 1992 edition of Education Week as Crusaders in Detroit Fight To Keep Board Seats