School & District Management

Detroit’s First Elected Board in 6 Years to Face Challenges

By Karla Scoon Reid — November 08, 2005 4 min read
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Detroit residents are voting this week for the city’s first elected school board in six years, but local observers said it was unclear how the change would affect the struggling school district.

Among the 20 candidates who were vying for the 11 seats on Nov. 8, no clear consensus had emerged in the fall campaign about strategies to address enrollment declines and get the district’s books back in the black. Ideas under discussion included more charter schools, contracting with private education-management companies, and allowing schools more freedom through site-based management.

Most civic leaders agree that drastic and immediate action is necessary. In addition to facing a $200 million deficit in its $1.5 billion annual budget that had the district on the verge of bankruptcy this year, the board must select a new schools chief. The panel also must approve a new contract with teachers, who haven’t had a raise in three years, and try to deter more students from leaving the 145,000-student district.

District officials project that enrollment this school year could take a 10,000-student nose dive from the 2004-05 school year—at a cost of more than $70 million in state aid. The district bought $213 million in bonds to cover its budget shortfall and is following a deficit-reduction plan to pay the money back over 15 years.

“People are all over the map about what needs to be done,” said Greg Handel, the senior director for workforce development at the Detroit Regional Chamber. “But if we make little changes, we’re not likely to make the [academic] gains that need to be made.”

Lawrence Patrick Jr., a former school board member elected in 1988 as part of a four-candidate reform slate, said the new board must be “progressive” and consider expanding educational options, including charter schools and direct-managed schools to retain students and attract others to return.

Wanted: ‘Bold Leader’

Mr. Patrick, a finalist for the schools chief’s post in 2000 and a school choice proponent, said the incoming board could easily get “caught up in business as usual,” which he described as “throwing more money at problems. Seeking more money from the state government. They could take that approach. And they will end up in a worse financial situation.”

Michigan seized control of Detroit’s schools in 1999 under legislation that gave the mayor the authority to appoint six members of the board; the seventh member is the state superintendent of public instruction.

Last year, Detroit voters overwhelmingly rejected a measure that would have given the mayor the authority to nominate the district’s chief executive officer, who would have had control over all financial and academic decisions. Instead, they decided to return to an elected board with traditional powers. The school board members elected this week under that decision will begin their terms in January.

David Olmstead, a Lansing lawyer and former Detroit school board member, said the new board will be at a disadvantage, taking office with no protocols, no precedents, and no incumbents. Board members will have to learn how to work together and find a core group of leaders that can back the new CEO’s agenda, he said. William F. Coleman III, who replaced Kenneth S. Burnley as the district’s CEO this past summer, is scheduled to leave his post June 30.

Mr. Patrick, a former president of the school board, said the new board must move quickly to select a “bold, courageous, visionary leader” who can move the district toward comprehensive and lasting improvement. And, he said, the new members will have very little time to accomplish the task. If they don’t move fast, Mr. Patrick said, he fears that “they’ll get stuck and mired down.”

In January, Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm of Michigan named a 120-member “transition team” to give the board members guidance by crafting a report that would suggest possible solutions to the challenges facing the district. The transition team’s report should be completed by year’s end.

The governor, a Democrat, warned the team’s leaders in a letter this fall that discussions about suing the state for more equitable funding and abolishing the city’s charter schools—which some blame for the district’s enrollment and money woes—would be counterproductive. The governor has staff members attending the group’s meetings.

Janna K. Garrison, the president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, serves on the team. While Ms. Garrison believes the more than 50 charter schools in Detroit are a financial drain on the district, she stressed that the group is not trying to pit charter schools, which are public but largely independent, against regular public schools.

Ms. Garrison said, however, that she hoped the new board would sue the state. At least one school board candidate also is advocating that strategy.

The school board race was unfolding against the backdrop of a contentious fight for the mayor’s office between incumbent Kwame Kilpatrick and Freman Hendrix, who was the chief of staff to former Mayor Dennis W. Archer. Both Democrats, the contenders made the city’s schools a priority in their campaigns.

Detroit voters also were to consider a tax-levy renewal that generates about $95 million in revenue annually for the district.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 09, 2005 edition of Education Week as Detroit’s First Elected Board in 6 Years to Face Challenges

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