School & District Management

Detroit Voters Face Options On School Board

By Natasha N. Smith — April 14, 2004 5 min read
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The Detroit public schools have undergone a facelift since 1999, when the city’s elected school board was eliminated in favor of one appointed by the mayor.

Renovations have left many schools sparkling, with new windows, doors, and fresh coats of paint. Sixteen new schools have been built, and five more are planned. Reading scores for 4th graders on state tests have increased.

But since the governance change, enrollment has dropped by 16,000, or 9.6 percent, to 151,000 students. The dropout rate is still high, class sizes still surpass 30 students in most grades, and the district announced massive layoffs this month to close a growing budget deficit.

Those are some of the factors residents here will weigh in November, when they will vote on whether to return to a traditional, elected school board or choose a “reform board” that will continue to give Detroit’s mayor a hand in running the district.

What seems certain is that residents will regain some right to vote for school board members. For despite progress since the state “takeover” five years ago, Detroiters haven’t lost any of their passion for the right to vote. Activists who challenged the Michigan law that gave the mayor the right to appoint six of the seven board members, in fact, took their case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear it in February 2003.

In this majority-black city—where many remember the struggle by African-Americans to gain unfettered access to the polls—the school board is a potent symbol. Some Detroiters also feel singled out for unfair treatment by the state of Michigan, noting that theirs isn’t the only district to have suffered financial and academic problems, but was the only one to have its school board swept aside.

“We’ve seen progress in this administration. We’ve seen improvement in the classrooms. The needle is moving in the right direction, and it has to continue,” said Shirley R. Stancato, the president of New Detroit, an organization charged by the Detroit school board with the task of creating an improvement plan for the public schools.

Academic Progress

New Detroit’s reports have found progress on some academic fronts since 1999.

The district has implemented the Open Court reading program citywide, and the approach is credited with improving scores among 4th graders on the Michigan Education Assessment Program test. In addition, the curriculum was aligned with state standards. And each school has written an improvement plan.

Because enrollment is shrinking, the Detroit schools plan to eliminate 3,200 positions at the end of the school year. The district faces a projected deficit of $78 million this fiscal year and $91 million for the 2004-05 fiscal year, out of a budget of $1.6 billion.

On the chopping block are 900 teaching jobs and 2,300 nonteaching positions, many of which will be cut by layoffs.

After poor student achievement, financial mismanagement, and disorganized governance in the Detroit schools reached what critics deemed a crisis level, then-Gov. John Engler of Michigan, a Republican, signed a bill in 1999 that gave the mayor of Detroit 30 days to form a school board. (Had then-Mayor Dennis Archer not acted, the governor would have had the power to name a board.)

The bill included a provision saying residents of Detroit could vote on whether to return to a traditional board or to continue to use the “reform board” in the future.

Mr. Archer named six members; the seventh is the state superintendent of schools. In 2000, the Detroit board hired Kenneth S. Burnley, who is credited with bringing stability to the system, as the district’s chief executive officer.

In November, voters will be asked to decide between a traditional school board made up of 11 members elected at large or a board that preserves some of the mayor’s authority over the schools.

The traditional board would have the power to hire and fire the superintendent or CEO as well as craft policies, such as setting the budget, approving transfers of personnel, and approving the curriculum.

The question now on the minds of local politicians and residents is what sort of “reform board” will share space on the ballot.

Last November, Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick proposed an elected board that would play an advisory role to the CEO, whom the mayor would have had the power to hire and fire. That proposal was shot down in the state Senate last month.

One plan now circulating was drafted by Sen. Samuel Thomas III of Detroit, a Democrat. It would allow residents to vote for board members by district. The nine members would serve staggered terms. The mayor would appoint the schools chief, but the school board would have to approve the candidate.

Liz Boyd, a spokeswoman for Gov. Jennifer Granholm, said the Democratic governor would not sign any bill on the issue that did not have the support of a majority of the members of the Detroit delegation in the state legislature.

Mixed Priorities?

Various players in the city agree that residents deserve the right to vote.

Tonya Allen, the executive director of the Detroit Parent Network, a nonprofit organization that provides information for parents, is certain that the outcome of the election will be some form of elected board.

“Ultimately, parents do not care who runs the school,” Ms. Allen said. “They’re concerned with whether or not their children are receiving a good education. This priority gets convoluted with politics.”

At the Detroit Federation of Teachers, the local affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, President Janna Garrison was not sure which arrangement would be best. The district needs continuity and stability, she said. Before state lawmakers stepped in, the district had gone through seven superintendents in 11 years, she noted, with each new superintendent launching new programs and ending others.

In part due to Mr. Burnley’s relatively long tenure as chief executive, the district has been able to put programs in place and monitor their success, Ms. Garrison said.

“Teachers’ focus is on the kids,” she said, “and less on the grown folks involved in politics. Governance is only a small part of what goes on in politics.”

Whatever type of board is chosen, and whoever serves on it, William C. Brooks wants there to be a real understanding about the job description.

“This is not a political job,” said the chairman of the Detroit school board, who is the president and CEO of a health-care company. “This is not a job where you just go to school board meetings. This is a job where you get a lot of chances to meet some angry parents. You have to come to this job with a real feeling for education and students.”

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