School & District Management

Detroit School Board Splits Over Superintendent Choice

By Catherine Gewertz — January 26, 2000 4 min read

After an exhaustive search for a new schools chief, the Detroit school board deadlocked last week over its two finalists, bringing to a boil the resentment and anger that have simmered in the city for nearly a year about who controls local schools.

The day after the fractious Jan. 18 vote, the board gave its chairman the power to appoint a three-member board subcommittee to undertake a new search. Details of how the panel would proceed were still unclear, but the new search will begin against the ticking clock of Chief Executive Officer David Adamany’s contract, which is set to expire in mid-May.

And it will clearly be shadowed by the frustration of board and community members who have wondered whether Mayor Dennis W. Archer, who appoints six of the seven school board members, is in charge or whether Gov. John Engler of Michigan, who appoints one pivotal member to the board, truly holds the reins.

As the board faced last week’s vote, the members had winnowed a field of 320 candidates down to Superintendent John W. Thompson of Tulsa, Okla., and J. Jerome Harris, a former superintendent in Atlanta and Compton, Calif. State legislation signed last spring by Mr. Engler mandated that the new schools chief gain the approval of five of the seven board members, including the governor’s appointee.

State-Level Influence

That’s where the board hit its snag. Five members voted for Mr. Thompson and one abstained, but the governor’s appointee, State Treasurer Mark A. Murray, cast his vote for Mr. Harris, saying later that Tulsa students’ test scores had not risen sufficiently under Mr. Thompson to demonstrate a “record of improving academic achievement.”

After the vote at a city high school, many members of the audience of more than 100 were furious at Mr. Murray. Beneath that anger, in many cases, are layers of resentment about a white, Republican governor’s appointee having control over the choices of a board appointed by a black, Democratic mayor in a school system where more than 90 percent of the students are African-American.

Those tensions spilled out in angry rhetoric after the vote. Wayne County Commissioner Bernard Parker, who is black, received loud applause when he said the vote made him feel “like a slave” whose “master"—the governor—had just told him what to do.

Gail Massey, a parent and school activist, said later in an interview that, despite initial skepticism, many Detroiters had embraced the appointed board and come to respect its work. To have Mr. Murray trump the board’s decision had “pierced the heart of this community,” she said.

Vote Defended

For his part, Mr. Murray defended his vote, citing Mr. Harris’ record of improving test scores in Atlanta and elsewhere as the sort of proof that was necessary to show he was qualified to lead Detroit’s beleaguered, 174,000-student district. He denied assertions that Mr. Engler had influenced his decision.

“The governor does not second-guess me,” Mr. Murray said in an interview. “He told me to make the decision that I thought was best. I didn’t consult with him about how I was going to vote, and he didn’t express his view about how I should vote.”

Susan M. Shafer, Gov. Engler’s spokeswoman, said that Mr. Murray had made his decision independently and enjoys the support of the governor.

After the vote, Mr. Archer called on the governor to propose revising the law so his appointee would no longer have veto power over the board’s choice of schools chief.

But Ms. Shafer said it was unlikely that the governor would propose any changes: “This won’t be taken up with the legislature.”

The law has already been revised once: Within two months of its signing last spring, the school board could not produce the required seven votes to approve Mr. Adamany’s contract as interim chief, so the law was rewritten to require only five votes, including Mr. Murray’s.

But even that revised law, says Mayor Archer’s spokesman, Gregory J. Bowens, ensures that the governor “maintains the lion’s share” of power over local schools. “A bureaucrat in the state government has an opinion that carries more weight than those of the distinguished board members,” Mr. Bowens said. “It’s a travesty.”

History of Friction

Jeffrey E. Mirel, an education historian at Emory University in Atlanta who has written extensively about the Detroit schools, says the friction is part of a long history of struggle between the state and its largest city.

For the first half of the century, he said, the Motor City was an economic powerhouse that sent more than its share of taxes to Lansing, yet was underrepresented in the legislature.

In later years, when Detroit fell on harder times, the city grew to resent the control the state sought in exchange for greater funding.

With that kind of history, Mr. Mirel said, it is not surprising that community members would chafe under a governmental structure in which they feel their local voice is drowned out by the vote of one gubernatorial appointee.

“This has clearly exacerbated the historical tensions between the city and the state,” Mr. Mirel said last week.

The school board chairman, Freman Hendrix, who is also the city’s deputy mayor, worried about the effects the vote would have on the search for a new leader.

“You have to ask yourself what serious candidate from around the country would consider coming here,” he said. “We’re all a little concerned.”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 26, 2000 edition of Education Week as Detroit School Board Splits Over Superintendent Choice

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