Headlines

Week in Review: Why school board candidates might struggle to pass a credit check

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit voters will have to choose among 63 candidates to fill seven seats on the new Detroit school board.

How should voters sort through the 63 candidates running for Detroit’s newly empowered school board? A collaboration among several city news organizations this week offered one suggestion: look at their finances.

The news organizations scrutinized all of the candidates’ backgrounds and found that more than half had gotten into deep financial straits, with a dozen filing for bankruptcy over the years. The reporting suggested that the records should give voters pause about candidates’ fitness for a role that includes overseeing the district’s budget — but several contenders said their stories are not unusual in a city where many families struggle.

“It was just one of those times in life. I was a single mom. I was just trying to juggle my bills with raising my three kids.”

— Renae Micou, a preschool administrator who has been sued 30 times since 2002 over unpaid rent

An early issue that the new board might have to confront: school closures, which a new state law could foist on schools with three straight years of rock-bottom test scores. Read on to learn why one Detroit school in the crosshairs says the state’s approach could derail progress that’s already underway — and for the rest of this week’s headlines. Thanks for reading!

Bankrupt and on board:

Investigations by reporters from several collaborating news organizations found that many of the 63 candidates seeking seven open spots on the new Detroit Public Schools Community District board have had financial problems including bankruptcies, foreclosures or evictions.

None appeared to have criminal records but one candidate — a man who works as a teacher’s aide at a charter school — was twice ticketed for soliciting prostitution. He has been put on leave from his job.

Candidates named in the story defended their records, noting that many Detroiters were caught up in recent mortgage and financial crises and shouldn’t be judged for not having the money to weather those storms. One candidate, a retired DPS teacher, noted that her financial burden is due in part to the “many cuts” that have been made to teacher pay in recent years.

But the general manager of a TV station that participated in the candidate review wrote that it’s “imperative” that board members “cannot be … underachievers who use the position to gain political clout or popularity.”

The Free Press compiled the findings into a database that lets voters see which candidates faced financial challenges. The database also includes responses from the 26 candidates who submitted responses to reporters’ questionnaires.

The Detroit News also published its findings on the candidates this week. Among them:

  • Less than half of the school board candidates responded to surveys from the News.
  • The 28 who did respond ranged in age from 27 to 80.
  • None of the responding candidates have children currently enrolled in the district.
  • Seven hold doctoral degrees, 13 have master’s degrees, and two have law degrees.
  • Two are former superintendents, one is a current assistant superintendent, five are former DPS board members and one is a retired substitute teacher.

The News puts the blame for the unwieldy 63-candidate ballot on the rushed timing of legislation that created the new school district, authorized the new board, and included $617 million to prevent the old school district — the Detroit Public Schools — from going into bankruptcy. A spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Snyder said the governor would have preferred to hold a primary election to winnow down the list of candidates, but there wasn’t time

As the candidates try to get some attention for their campaigns, some have banded together into slates. Candidates on the “A+ Team,” “Detroit’s Dream Team,” and the “Freedom Team” have agreed to work cooperatively with the state’s financial review commission, which will need to approve many of the board’s key decisions. Other slates — including the SPEED slate comprised of members of the old DPS board — have vowed to continue fighting state involvement in local schools.

The head of the state-run Education Achievement Authority called on Detroit voters to choose candidates with track records of supporting the city and knocked the dozens of candidates who failed to fill out questionnaires from the district. “If candidates aren’t willing to make the time to do something this basic while they are running, I doubt their commitment to a six-year term,” she wrote.

In other Detroit schools news:

  • The leader of a Detroit charter school that could be shut down for low tests scores argues that closing schools in the bottom 5 percent on state rankings will just “shuffle the deck” and send students from one low-scoring school to another. “If they’re not doing a radical turnaround design, that school will automatically be in the bottom five, and it’s like this domino effect,” he said.
  • A Free Press editor urged voters to approve a tax hike for Wayne County schools. “Look around metro Detroit, at the gross deterioration of our public schools, and ask whether less money is a path to more greatness,” he wrote.
  • The Detroit News, however, is pushing for a no vote, calling the measure a “bad deal” that won’t benefit all districts in the county and would leave charter schools in the cold.
  • The state’s top legal official is going after the pensions of the Detroit school principals who’ve been convicted of bribery.
  • A school choice supporter takes issue with Bridge Magazine’s characterization of white students leaving their own districts to attend whiter districts as the new “white flight.” Studies show that low-income black students are more likely to cross district borders in search of a better school than their white peers, he writes. “Rolling back families’ power to choose by basing enrollment on a child’s home address won’t increase integration.”
  • A business columnist writes that the fines imposed on contractors who failed to hire enough Detroiters for hockey arena construction are proof that city schools need to improve. “How can Michigan make the case to be the 21st-century hub for next-gen automotive technology, and how can it attract the kind of talent that makes its living with its brains, if it fails to shape an environment that can produce enough graduates who are prepared for, and eager to compete for, those jobs?” he writes.
  • When he’s done running Detroit schools, Steven Rhodes plans to start a mediation service.
  • A Detroit News columnist knocks teachers unions for trying to stop charter schools. “All teachers unions, including the Detroit Federation of Teachers … can’t stand that charter schools pull students (and the money that follows them) away from traditional public schools,” she writes.
  • Proceeds from a college basketball game this weekend will benefit Detroit schools.

Across the state:

  • Michigan fourth and eighth graders ranked in the middle of the pack nationally on a rigorous national science test, with last year’s fourth graders earning higher scores than their counterparts who took the exam in 2009. Eighth-grade scores saw a slight dip since the last test.
  • The leader of a new state education commission explains what he hopes an upcoming “listening tour” across the state will accomplish.
  • A Free Press columnist says new rules forcing schools to hold back third graders who aren’t making the grade won’t actually help kids. What would help, she writes: “Money. Resources … Investment in our kids, starting at birth.”
  • Legislation aimed at softening “zero tolerance” discipline policies in Michigan schools has cleared the house and is waiting for senate action.
  • The education policy director at a free market think tank urged Michigan school officials to consider a school funding system — often called “weighted student funding” — that distributes money to schools based on student characteristics. This system, he argues, would ensure that schools with more needy kids get more money.
  • The principal of a Michigan online charter school says the solution to helping teachers who feel demoralized is to give them more flexibility. “If we want to resolve the student zombie apocalypse of the 21st century, inspiration is the key.” he writes. “[Teachers] must be given the latitude to move well beyond teaching to the test. For they are on the front lines and the energy they demonstrate to their students will be given back in kind.”
  • A Democrat running for a seat in the Georgia senate cites the challenges of Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority as a reason to oppose a state recovery district in Georgia.

In other news:  

  • Fifteen metro Detroit schools that serve low- to mixed-income students will be chosen to receive a fully funded series of teacher trainings in a program called Playworks that uses games to improve children’s social and emotional learning. To be eligible, schools must send a representative to a “PlayShop” next week. The free program comes courtesy of a $1.14 million grant.
  • An affluent suburban school was on lockdown after a student reported bringing a gun to school. No weapon was found.
  • A former suburban teacher’s aide faces charges for sexual contact with teens.

From Chalkbeat:

Week In Review

Week in review: Some Detroit schools are saved. Others get bad news

As parent Britney Love learned that the Woodward Academy would be closing, the school was still advertising enrollment for next year.

When I walked into the parking lot of the Woodward Academy charter school this week, I expected to talk with parents about their efforts to find new schools. I had already spoken with the state education department, the school’s authorizer and a charter school organization about plans to close the school and had no reason to think the closure was a secret. Somehow, though, the school had not yet notified parents. And the ones I met were alarmed.

 

“They told me it wasn’t closing. [The principal] told us that like three weeks ago, me and my kids’ father, we had a meeting with her … [Now] I don’t know what to do because my other school of choice was Starr Academy, and I heard they’re closing too. I may have to change my work schedule and everything now.”

— Britney Love, mother of a Woodward Academy first-grader

 

The episode is just the latest turmoil in a city where education seems to be defined by constant change and persistent threats. The news comes, ironically, the same week that two dozen Detroit schools that had been threatened with closure by the state were officially spared by a new partnership agreement but the closing threat for district schools won’t be gone for long. Students in other Detroit district schools are taking tests this month that could land their schools on next year’s closure list if their scores don’t improve.

Read on for more on these stories, the latest updates on the Detroit new superintendent and the rest of the week’s Detroit schools news. Also, we’re continuing to feature the stories of Detroiters talking about our schools. If you have a story to share, please let us know.

In Detroit

  • The Woodward Academy is one of at least three Detroit-area charter schools that are expected to close in June. Families just finding out now that they need a new school are already at a disadvantage because deadlines to apply to many of the city’s top-rated schools passed weeks or months ago.
  • The partnership agreement that the Detroit school board officially signed Thursday night with the state education department will keep 24 threatened district schools safe from state closure for at least three years, an attorney representing the district says. The schools, which will have to set ambitious improvement targets, will get help from partners including four major state universities and the Wayne County educational service agency.
  • A teacher got this Detroit woman’s troublemaking brother involved in her classroom — and transformed both siblings’ lives
  • Grosse Pointe schools are considering accepting kids from Detroit and other communities — as long as they’re willing to pay $13,000 a year (and have a decent transcript). The proposal caused one columnist to declare the “end of public education.”
  • A scholarship program makes community college free for all Detroit high school grads, but only a fraction of participants stay in the program long enough to earn a degree. That has led organizers to add a coaching component so students will get both money and support from the program.

The new boss

  • The Detroit school board has gotten the green light to negotiate a contract with Florida superintendent Nikolai Vitti to lead the city schools. Negotiations had been temporarily stalled by a legal challenge from an activist who says the search process broke laws.
  • The board last night voted to hire an an attorney to negotiate the contract. It also named the board’s president to represent the board in negotiations. She said she expects Vitti to sign the contract by late May.
  • “There was no comparison” between Vitti and Derrick Coleman, the other finalist, one board member said during a break in the meeting where Vitti was selected. That’s according to a Free Press reporter who heard a recording of the conversation that surfaced during a hearing to discuss the activist’s motion to block negotiations.
  • In applying for his new job with district, Vitti wrote that he has “directly experienced the challenges of immigration, single motherhood, teenage pregnancy, unemployment, alcoholism and foreclosures” and got his work ethic from delivering the Free Press at 5 a.m. as a child. Read his full application here.
  • Advice for Vitti is piling up. One Free Press columnist urged Vitti to eschew the “reform-of-the-month approach” and “play the long game.” Another penned an open letter to Vitti, reminding him that his new job “is literally changing the lives of our children.”
  • A former city teacher urged people who are disappointed that Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather didn’t get the job to move on. “It’s time for everyone to come together in support of Dr. Vitti,” he wrote.

Across the state

  • The state superintendent objects to “incorrect” reports that he opposes assigning letter grades to schools. In fact, he wrote, “I continue to support an A-F report card for school accountability.”
  • The state’s lieutenant governor — a possible GOP candidate for governor — says the U.S. Department of Education should send back the state’s plan created under the Every Student Succeeds Act because it doesn’t have high enough standards for students with disabilities.
  • Voters in 10 suburban communities will vote Tuesday on tax hikes to fund new buildings, buses and facility improvements.
  • A former state lieutenant governor urged lawmakers not to “dumb” down the state’s graduation requirements.
  • The Detroit News blasted state political and educational leaders for failing to work together to improve education. Too many separate efforts, the paper wrote, have “led to a confusing mix of proposals and benchmarks for schools.”
  • The president of  a Michigan small business association argues that any serious conversation about improving the state’s schools “must begin with a comprehensive look at how we fund” public schools.
  • A Democratic candidate for governor penned an op/ed urging more charter school accountability and arguing that education should not be a partisan issue.
  • U.S. News and World Report is out with its top high school ranking but no Michigan schools were in the top 200. The ranking prompted the state charter school association to crow that charters are among the highest-ranked high schools in the state. In Detroit, Renaissance was top high school, coming it at 67th in the ranking. Cass Tech was at 111th.
  • A retiring state teachers union leader is due to receive a generous pension from the state.
  • A suburban district plans to close a high school after years of enrollment declines.

In other news

  • These Detroit kids wrote a letter to the Pistons — and got a new basketball court outside their school.
  • Nearly 400 works of art from Detroit students are now on display at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
  • A Detroit public school STEM administrator is this week’s Michigan Lottery Excellence in Education award winner.
  • A public-private partnership is addressing a major reason why kids struggle in school by providing them with eyeglasses.
  • A former University of Michigan football player is now the principal of a suburban school.

Extra credit

PHOTO: Doug Coombe/Hope Starts Here
Hundreds of Detroit community members came together on Thursday to celebrate the First Annual Detroit Day of the Young Child. Across the city, parents, caregivers, educators and policymakers attended “listening sessions” to discuss what early childhood could and should look like in Detroit. The gatherings, which focused on issues affecting children including education, nutrition, health, child care and transportation were among more than 60 events that are expected to attract over 600 participants by May 5.

 

 

 

Week In Review

Week in review: A new Detroit schools boss — and (another) panic over closing threats

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
The Detroit school board discusses superintendent candidate Nikolai Vitti before his selection on Tuesday, April 18, 2017.

The biggest news in Detroit schools this week was the selection of a new superintendent, Nikolai Vitti — at least until the city was swept by rumors of looming school closures.

Rumors began circulating Thursday after the state superintendent told reporters that the Detroit district planned to voluntarily shutter “some” of the 24 schools that had been targeted by the state earlier this year for forced closure. The news — broadcast by local papers including one that issued a news alert —  set off a panic and fury from parents and even school leaders. Two school board members expressed alarm when contacted by Chalkbeat, saying they’d heard nothing about closures. The matter didn’t die down until several hours later when the district issued a denial.

“You may have read recent news reports that indicated Detroit Public Schools Community District planned to close schools. Currently, the district is only relocating two programs, Durfee and Turning Point Academy, to other buildings for the 2017-18 school year.”

— Detroit Public Schools Community District statement

The episode illustrated just how on edge Detroit is when it comes to its schools — hardly an easy landscape for Vitti to enter. Read on for more about Vitti’s selection, the steep challenges he faces, and the rest of the week’s education news.

Also, we’re continuing to tell the individual stories of Detroit schools including this week’s story from a student who says her charter school promised art classes and college tours — then didn’t deliver. If you have a story to tell about Detroit schools or know someone who does, please let us know.

 

The new boss

  • The school board’s unanimous vote to select Vitti, the superintendent of Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, came after one member changed his no to a yes to show Vitti that he has the full support of the board.
  • The vote drew jeers from a heckler who was angry that the board had chosen a white man to lead the primarily African American school district. “You all know we’re black, right?” she shouted.
  • The selection of a white man for the job is bound to concern some parents in a city where most kids are poor and nonwhite, a Bridge Magazine reporter said during a radio broadcast. “There are parents who very understandably want someone in the role who understands the achievement gap,” she said. But she noted that Vitti’s wife his black and so are his four children. “He is like a lot of the parents in Detroit Public Schools in that he has the achievement gap living in his home,” she said.
  • The board now plans to negotiate a contract with Vitti — though those talks are on hold until at least Tuesday due to a legal challenge from activist who says the search process violated the law.
  • If Vitti formally accept the job, he’ll have a lot of work to do. Among things that Detroiters and educators say should be at the top of his list is addressing the disappointment of the community members who wanted Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather to get the job.
  • Once the news broke of Vitti’s selection, school board members in Duval County praised his track record in the Florida district. “I believe he can be very successful in Detroit,” one board member said. “I frankly think success in Detroit will really put him on a national stage. I’m excited about this opportunity for him and his career.”
  • A Detroit News columnist called him a “game changer,” adding: “He needs to be. Because it’s now or never” for Detroit schools.
  • Vitti beat out River Rouge superintendent Derrick Coleman who called Vitti a “great hire,” adding that he felt “almost a sense of relief” that he didn’t get the job. “It would have been extremely difficult to leave my current position,” he said.

 

In other Detroit news

  • The state superintendent later clarified his panic-creating remarks about Detroit school closings saying the Detroit district may need to close schools in the future “based on their enrollment numbers.” The only changes planned this year, the district says, are at Durfee Elementary-Middle school, which will be moved into nearby Central High School. The Turning Point Academy will be moving to another nearby building.
  • A town hall meeting was held Thursday night to give parents a chance to air their concerns about school closures in Detroit.
  • A Free Press columnist urged city philanthropic leaders to “drop the mother of all philanthropic bombs on the city’s schools,” but the head of a major local foundation said fixing city schools will take more than cash. “If we knew that money was the solution, we would have done exactly that.”
  • The same columnist earlier in the week renewed the call for a citywide education commission that would oversee all Detroit schools. “Who’s minding the entire store, perusing the landscape, making sure that schools  — public, private and parochial — are open where families need them and work successfully for all children?” she asked.
  • One Detroit student —  who says she and her siblings have attended 22 Detroit schools — says her charter school broke promises when it failed to provide art classes and college tours.
  • A Detroit charter school is hoping new legislation that got a hearing in Lansing this week will help preserve the school’s diversity. (Read this to learn more about the challenges faced by Detroit charter schools seeking diversity).
  • A coalition of Detroit organizations looking to expand early childhood education is inviting Detroiters to find or host a “listening session” this month or next — especially on April 27, Detroit Day of the Young Child — as part of a yearlong planning process to make Detroit a “kid-friendly city” by 2027.
  • An Ann Arbor couple is helping to send Detroit high school students to New York to perform at Carnegie Hall.
  • A Detroit charter school is spending $6 million on a new addition including space for new classrooms as well as broadcast and performing art studios.
  • More than 150 Detroit high school students will gather with teachers next weekend to prepare for Advanced Placement exams.

Across the state

In other news

More from Chalkbeat