Money to run

Detroit school board candidates rake in thousands from friends, unions — and their own pockets

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
There are 63 candidates angling for seven seats on the new Detroit school board

More than 60 candidates are running for seven seats on the new Detroit school board — and most are running their campaigns on a shoestring.

A Chalkbeat review of state and county campaign finance records shows that just 15 candidates seeking seats on the crucial new board reported receiving campaign contributions as of Oct. 23, the most recent date for which numbers were available.

That includes several candidates who dipped into their personal savings, spending thousands of their own dollars on their campaigns.

The totals suggest that most candidates are going into election day without much of a chance to influence voters in a city-wide race that will define the future for a new district. Board members will be the first locally elected officials to control Detroit schools after years of state-appointed emergency managers — but their campaign spending suggests that most candidates have not had a chance to connect with the nearly 700,000 Detroiters they will represent.

Candidates who have the backing of labor unions, which gave money to candidates in addition to spending thousands on union-led mailings and ads, are likely to have the farthest reach.

Just six candidates raised more than $10,000, including Angelique Peterson-Mayberry who raised the most: $57,980 to pay for radio ads, campaign materials, consulting fees, and yard signs.

Nearly all of Peterson-Mayberry’s funds — $47,500 — came from a political action committee associated with UAW-Ford, the union where she works as the community relations director.

Peterson-Mayberry also benefitted from another $57,500 that the UAW-Michigan PAC reported spending independently to boost her campaign as well as nearly $12,000 that was spent by a PAC connected with the American Federation of Teachers union. The independent expenditures are designed to supplement the spending of the campaign itself.

Here’s a list of other candidates who reported raising funds:

John Telford:

The radio host and retired school superintendent reported raising $31,000 — nearly every penny from himself. A total of $500 came from four other donors.

Sonya Mays:

The CEO of a real estate and housing development nonprofit and a former investment banker reported raising $23,792 including $2,857 from herself and $2,000 from former city emergency manager Kevyn Orr, who she worked with as an advisor during Detroit’s bankruptcy. She also picked up money from two political action committees: $1,000 from a PAC associated with UAW-Michigan and $500 from one associated with the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Penelope Bailer:

The retired former head of Detroit nonprofits reported raising $17,539 including nearly $10,000 from herself and her husband. She also reported receiving $2,000 from political action committees — $1,000 from the UAW-Michigan PAC and $500 each from the Michigan Building and Construction Trades PAC and the Chamber of Commerce PAC.

Mary Kovari:

The former Detroit high school principal reported raising $14,383 including $8,799 from herself — most of which she identified as a loan — and $500 from a PAC associated with the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, which endorsed her. She says the money she lent to her campaign went to pay attorney fees after an activist tried to get her named removed from the ballot on a technicality.

Leslie Andrews:

The director of community relations and corporate giving at Quicken Loans and Rock Ventures reported raising $14,114 mostly from individual donors including six who gave $1,000 or more. She also picked up $500 from the Chamber of Commerce PAC.

Iris Taylor:

The retired former CEO of Detroit Receiving Hospital reported contributions totaling $10,725 mostly from individuals including from four people who wrote checks of $1,000 or more. She also got $500 from a PAC associated with the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce and benefitted from a nearly $12,000 independent expenditure from the teachers union PAC.

Deborah Hunter-Harvill:

The head of an education consulting firm raised $3,810 including $1,000 from UAW Region 1A. The rest of her contributions came from small individual donors. She also benefitted from a nearly $12,000 independent expenditure from the teachers union PAC.

Kevin Turman:

The pastor of the Second Baptist Church of Detroit reported receiving $5,967 including $1,835 from himself and his wife and a $150 contribution from a political action committee associated with the Miller Canfield lawfirm. The rest was from individual donors.

Phillip Caldwell II:

The former teacher and administrator who now works as an educational consultant reported raising $2,915, mostly from small individual donors.

Herman Davis:

The head of the old DPS school board and a retired personal banker was the sole contributor to his campaign. He reported giving himself $2,141.

Tawanna Simpson:

A member of the old DPS school board, Simpson reported raising $1,200 including $1,000 from the Operating Engineers Local 324 and $100 from the Michigan Democratic Future PAC.

Ida Short:

The vice president of the old DPS school board and a local college professor received $975 in contributions — all from a man named Roger Short.

Ben Washburn:

The retired Wayne County Commission lawyer reported loaning his campaign $500 in cash and spending another $702 of his own money on campaign expenses.

Markiga Meeks:

The clinical lab scientist reported receiving one $100 contribution — from herself.

Two candidates who have not yet reported individual campaign contributions were the beneficiaries of spending by the American Federation of Teachers whose Michigan political action committee reported spending nearly $12,000 on each of the candidates it endorsed including Keith Whitney and Misha Stallworth.

Detroit's future

To protect 24 schools from closure, the Detroit school board made a deal with the state. This is what it says, and doesn’t say

Exactly what changes are in store for 24 low-performing Detroit schools remains unclear — even after the school board signed a deal sparing them from closure.

The Detroit school board this week signed a “partnership agreement” with state officials that was required to keep the schools from being closed by the state. The schools were among 38 Michigan schools targeted for closure because they had been in the bottom 5 percent of state rankings for three years in a row. But in the face of strong political and community pressure, officials agreed to give districts a chance to partner with the state to avoid forced closures.

The agreement the Detroit school board signed Thursday night is not yet a plan to improve the schools. Instead, it gives the district a deadline of July 31, 2017 to outline “goals and strategies” for the schools and a deadline of Jan. 31, 2018, to have conversations with school communities about those goals. In exchange, the schools won’t face closure for at least three years.

Further details are notably absent. The agreement gives the district some new flexibility with respect to state reporting and spending rules and requires the district to “develop and refine goals and strategies” for affected schools. The schools will have to meet targets that remain undefined.

The isn’t the first time the state has required the district to come up with a plan to improve the schools. All of the schools under the partnership agreement had to have formal improvement plans in past years because of their status on the state’s list of Priority Schools. It’s unclear how any changes emerging from the partnership agreement would be more effective than the changes promised under those plans.

Read the full agreement here:

closing arguments

Three Detroit-area charter schools are set to close in June, but not all parents know

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Britney Love, a parent of a first-grader at Woodward Academy.

At least three Detroit-area charter schools will close in June after years of low test scores, leaving hundreds of families to scramble for new schools — including some who haven’t yet been notified.

The schools set to close include Woodward Academy, one of Detroit’s oldest and most established charter schools. It opened near downtown Detroit in 1996. Also closing are the Starr Detroit Academy, which is located just across the city line in Harper Woods but serves primarily Detroit children, and the Academy of International Studies in Hamtramck.

All three schools are being closed for academic reasons, said Janelle Brzezinski, spokeswoman for the charter school office at Central Michigan University, which oversees the schools.

“We’re committed to having high academic quality in our schools,” Brzezinski said. “We’ve always held our schools to a high standard.”

A fourth charter school overseen by Central Michigan is also in danger of closing. The Michigan Technical Academy in northwest Detroit was issued a “notice of intent” in February indicating that the university planned to revoke the school’s charter. The university is still reviewing the school’s response, Brzezinski said.

Michigan Technical Academy, which Chalkbeat featured last year, was among 38 Michigan schools threatened with closure by the state earlier this year for being in the bottom 5 percent of state school rankings for three years in a row. State officials have largely backed away from those plans for now, allowing districts to negotiate “partnership agreements” with the state to keep the schools open. Of those schools, 24 were in Detroit.

A press release from the state Education Department on Tuesday about the agreements said Michigan Technical Academy was being closed down by Central Michigan.

Brzezinski said the press release was not accurate.

“We were surprised by that statement,” she said.

The school closings are bound to surprise teachers and parents connected to the schools.

Families at the Starr Academy were notified that their school would close several weeks ago.  But at the Woodward Academy, where the school’s website as of Wednesday still said it was accepting applications for September, parents dropping their children off Wednesday morning said they had no idea their school would close.

“I’m kind of shocked because they had such a great program and the teachers are helpful. I’m actually very shocked,” said Porschua Reliford, 28, who just transferred her three kids into the school in January after a bad experience in a traditional district school.

“Now I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said. Woodward is the third school that her two fifth-graders, Adrian, 10, and Lawrence, 11, have attended, she said. Her first-grader, Torence, 7, is on his second school.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Woodward Academy, one of Detroit’s oldest and most established charter schools, is set to close.

Britney Love, 32, said she was told by the school’s principal just three weeks ago that the school would not be closing.

She was alarmed to hear a different report Wednesday morning.

“I need to find out because I need to be looking for another school,” she said. She has a five year-old entering kindergarten in September and a six-year-old now in the first grade at the school.

“I don’t know what to do because my other school of choice was Starr Academy, and I heard they’re closing too,” she said. “I may have to change my work schedule and everything now.”

Parents just finding out now that they need a new school for next year are already at a disadvantage because many of the city’s top district and charter schools have already begun their enrollment processes. Many schools had application deadlines that passed weeks or even months ago.

“Currently, the timing of when closures are announced and how our city’s enrollment processes work are not in any way aligned to meet the needs of the students and families,” said Maria Montoya, director of Enroll Detroit, an organization that assists families in overcoming enrollment barriers from preschool to college.

“In our work supporting families in securing placements, we hear time and time again from families that it doesn’t make sense to close a school for failing to perform and then not have enough higher quality options available to take on these students,” Montoya said, adding that she’s hopeful that recent conversations will lead to improvements.

Georgia Hubbard, Woodward’s chief academic officer, said the administration planned to inform parents on Friday.

“It’s very upsetting for all of us,” Hubbard said, as she angrily asked a reporter to leave the school’s parking lot Wednesday. “We have 520 children. We have 65 staff people. We are very emotional and very concerned about why they would make such a decision when our school is improving. We are devastated by what they’ve done to us and we definitely need time to orderly communicate this to our parents.”

Woodward has seen some recent improvement in its test scores. On last year’s state exam, 4.9 percent of the school’s students scored high enough to be considered proficient in math and reading, compared to 2.8 percent the year before. But the school is still one of the lowest-ranked schools in the state. It was ranked in the fourth percentile among Michigan schools last year.

Charter school authorizers in Michigan have come under fire in recent years for not holding charter schools accountable for low performance.

The quality of charter schools in the state and how they’re overseen by universities was one argument against U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos during her nomination hearings. Critics charge that DeVos has used her wealth and influence to block regulation of charter schools in the state.

Dan Quisenberry of Michigan Association of Public School Academies, a charter school organization, say these closures are not a response to the political climate.

On the contrary, he said, authorizers routinely shut down low-performing charter schools. Three charter schools were closed in Detroit last year, two closed in 2015, three in 2014 and five in 2013, he said.

Closing a school is “a traumatic thing,” Quisenberry said. “No one is saying it’s not. But the goal is to get [students] in a better place.”

Quisenberry’s organization is working with Enroll Detroit to help parents at the Starr Academy learn about other options, he said. The group invited nearby schools that are ranked above the 25th percentile on state rankings to meet with Starr Academy parents.

“I understand the disruption this causes,” Quisenberry said. “The question isn’t, is this ideal? The question is, if kids are in a school that’s not performing for them, should we leave them there? That just doesn’t make any sense.”