Voters Oust 3 Reformers From Detroit School Board

By Peter Schmidt — November 11, 1992 4 min read

Three of four incumbent members of the Detroit school board seeking to retain their at-large seats were ousted in elections last week after running afoul of organized labor in their pursuit of school reform.

Of the four--all members of a reform-advocating slate elected to the board four years ago--only Lawrence C. Patrick Jr. succeeded in fending off challengers backed by the Detroit Federation of Teachers and other labor groups.

The others, Joseph S. Blanding, Frank Hayden, and David Olmstead, were defeated despite the fact that their first terms brought the district national attention as a leader in promoting diversity and school choice.

“Being called anti-union is the political curse of death in this town. We suffered that curse,’' Mr. Olmstead said in an interview last week.

In other local elections Nov. 3, teachers’ unions helped defeat a slate of five pro-voucher Republican candidates for the Dade County, Fla., school board.

Results for local school-funding-related measures were mixed.

The Atlanta district passed a school-renovation bond for the first time in nearly a quarter-century, but bond or levy measures failed to win approval in Seattle and St. Paul.

Detractors in Detroit

Detroit’s at-large school board races resulted in the election of three challengers backed by the teachers’ union: Rodeana Murphy, a school volunteer who pledged to upgrade science and mathematics instruction; Kwame Kenyatta, a youth counselor and advocate of an Afro-centric curriculum; and Robert M. Boyce, an assistant superintendent.

Their upset victory over most of the incumbent slate, which had called itself the HOPE team, came after a year in which the board faced controversies over some of its boldest initiatives, culminating in a 27-day teachers’ strike in September.

At the center of the board’s conflict with the union was the district’s “school empowerment’’ plan, which called for decentralization in school governance and finance. (See Education Week, Oct. 21, 1992.)

John M. Elliott, the president of the teachers’ federation, said the dispute prompted his union to work to oust the members of the HOPE slate, who “simply were not listening to our members and were not willing to work with us to find areas we could agree on.’'

Mr. Elliott downplayed the union’s impact on the election, however. He said “the key to [the incumbents’] loss was the fact that the rank-and-file parent out there who was a voter did not feel that the HOPE team was doing anything for their neighborhood schools,’' but was instead concentrating on schools of choice and empowered schools.

Mr. Olmstead last week maintained that the union was the main force that had kept the board from spreading reform to other schools.

Two allies of the HOPE slate who ran in ward-based elections, Irma Clark and Margaret L. Betts, kept their seats on the board.

While the election left HOPE supporters with a 7-to-4 edge on the board, it may have put into doubt the future of Superintendent Deborah McGriff, who was hired by the HOPE team and campaigned on its behalf.

Minority Representation

In other board elections, the United Educators of San Francisco was largely successful in its effort to bring more diversity to that city’s school board.

Angie Fa, an Asian-American, and Steve Phillips, an African-American, used union backing to emerge from a field of 14 candidates and win two of four at-large seats.

The only incumbent candidate, Leland Yee, retained the seat he assumed four years ago. He thus became the longest-serving member on a fairly unseasoned board, which is working with a new superintendent.

Voters elsewhere decided school-governance issues that have implications for minority representation. (See Education Week, Oct. 28, 1992.)

In Virginia, where state law until this year barred localities from choosing school board members by election, 42 separate districts that held referendums on their board-selection method all opted to move from appointed to elected boards, according to unofficial poll results.

Voters in San Diego appeared less enthusiastic when offered an opportunity to switch from electing school board members at-large to electing them from five distinct districts.

Fifty-nine percent of voters there rejected an initiative, backed by the school board and civil-rights groups, that called for such ward elections as a way of increasing minority representation in the district, which is about 60 percent white. Sixty-four percent of voters rejected a separate measure that would have created seven districts rather than five.

Also last week, education groups helped turn back some local tax-limitation proposals and had varying degrees of success in getting voters to approve more funding for schools.

Dayton Levy, Maryland Limits

Faced with the prospect of an $8.7 million deficit by June, school officials in Dayton, Ohio, persuaded voters to approve a 10.4-mill continuing levy earmarked for specific programs.

In Maryland, voters in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, both suburbs of Washington, soundly two defeated separate proposals to cap property taxes. The measures, school officials had argued, would sharply limit the counties’ ability to fund schools.

In Atlanta, about 80 percent of voters backed the $94 million bond proposal, which officials said was needed to bring schools up to minimum standards for safety and size.

In Seattle, however, preliminary results showed that education leaders failed in their second attempt this fall to get the 60 percent or more of voters needed to pass a $695 million school-bond issue. With absentee ballots still to be counted, the measure was drawing the support of just over 58 percent of voters. (See Education Week, Sept. 30, 1992.)

And in St. Paul, even after school officials backed off a larger previous request, voters declined to pass a levy that would have raised $12 million annually over five years.

A version of this article appeared in the November 11, 1992 edition of Education Week as Voters Oust 3 Reformers From Detroit School Board