School & District Management

Corruption Probe Muddies Efforts to Fix Detroit’s Schools

By Corey Mitchell — November 03, 2015 4 min read
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder talks about his plan to overhaul the public education system in Detroit, including the district school system, charters in the city, and schools run separately by a state-run district.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.”

Emblematic Problems

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.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 04, 2015 edition of Education Week as In Michigan, a Move To Fix Detroit’s Schools Muddied by Probe

Events

Curriculum Webinar Computer Science Education Movement Gathers Momentum. How Should Schools React?
Discover how schools can expand opportunities for students to study computer science education.
School & District Management Webinar Fostering Student Well-Being with Programs That Work
Protecting student well-being has never been more important. Join this webinar to learn how to ensure your programs yield the best outcomes.
Reading & Literacy Webinar 'Science of Reading': What Are the Components?
Learn how to adopt a “science of reading” approach to early literacy to effectively build students’ vocabulary and content knowledge.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Finalists for National Principal of the Year Cite School Culture, Equity
School leaders from California, Massachusetts, and Texas are the three finalists for the National Principal of the Year honor.
5 min read
Image of leaders as a central figures to a variety of activities in motion.
Laura Baker/Education Week and gobyg/DigitalVision Vectors
School & District Management School Nurses’ Mental Health Is Suffering. Here’s How District Leaders Can Help
It's important for district leaders to communicate to parents and the public what school nurses can and cannot do.
3 min read
The front of the Bellefonte Area School District certified school nurses office on Aug. 15, 2016 in Centre County, Penn.
Forty-five percent of school nurses reported experiencing a symptom of at least one adverse mental health condition, such as depression or PTSD, according to a national survey.
Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times via AP
School & District Management Opinion Pandemic Isolation Damaged School Culture. Here’s How Principals Can Reset
I made it my mission to help my staff reconnect and recommit.
Darin A. Thompson
4 min read
conceptual image of teacher remembering why they became a teacher
Vanessa Solis/Education week via Canva
School & District Management What People Don't Get About Being a Principal: Reflections From 3 Leaders
As school leaders mark National Principals Month, three principals discuss why they do what they do.
10 min read
Principals who are part of the online group known as Moms As Principals met face-to-face for the first time last month during a national conference in Philadelaphia.
Principals who are part of the online group known as Moms As Principals met face-to-face for the first time during a national conference in Philadelphia.
Denisa R. Superville/Education Week