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.

New buildings at stake

At stake in school closings: Tens of millions of dollars spent on recent improvements to targeted Detroit schools

PHOTO: Life Remodeled
Among the Detroit schools on the state's closure list is Osborn High School, which got a $5.7 million facelift in 2015 from a nonprofit called Life Remodeled.

Parents, students and staff at the Fisher Upper Academy on Detroit’s east side gathered at the school last fall for an exciting announcement:

The Ford Fund, the carmaker’s philanthropic arm, planned to spend $5 million on a new “resource and engagement center” inside the school.

Parents were thrilled to learn that they and their neighbors would soon have access to services like job training and a food bank in the same building where their children go to school, said parent Kenya Tubbs, whose 12-year-old daughter Camille is in 7th grade.

“The 48205 needs a lot of things,” Tubbs said of the high-poverty zip code where Fisher Upper is located. “A lot of people would not come to a community center if they need a job or if they need food, but they’ll come to a school.”

But three months after that joyful announcement, Fisher Upper was named to the list of 38 Michigan schools that state officials have targeted for closure because of years of low test scores.

Now, the effort to unite social services with education on the east side of Detroit has been thrown into question.

“We’re moving forward in the event that things are resolved at the state level,” said Ford Fund spokesman Todd Nissen. “But at the same time, we have to monitor what happens between the state and the district.”

The turmoil at Fisher Upper is just one consequence of a school closure effort that’s focused largely on academics without much consideration for neighborhood impact or the loss of investment in schools. The closures could mean schools that have received tens of millions of dollars in recent years from taxpayers, corporate donors or community service organizations might soon be left vacant.

PHOTO: Charlotte Bodak/Ford Motor Company
Officials from the Detroit Public Schools and the Ford Fund visited Detroit’s Fisher Upper Academy in October to announce a $5 million investment in a new school-based community center. Three months later, the school learned it’s in danger of closing.

Among them is Mumford High School in northwest Detroit, which moved into a brand new $50 million building in 2012.

The new Mumford was paid for with $500.5 million in bond funds approved by voters in 2009. That money also built a new $22.6 million Gompers Elementary-Middle School in the Brightmoor neighborhood and paid for major improvements to Denby High School ($16.5 million) and Ford High School ($16.85 million).

All of those schools are on the closure list.

Also on the list are schools that benefited from major corporate and community investments such as Osborn High School. The Osborn building houses three small schools, all of which are on the closure list. It got a $5.7 million overhaul in 2015 from a Detroit-based nonprofit called Life Remodeled.

And other schools have been put on notice that they could be closed in 2018 if test scores don’t improve this year. Spain Elementary is on that list. It got a $1.2 million upgrade last year with help from a $500,000 check from Lowe’s that was delivered to the school on the Ellen DeGeneres Show.

The 38 schools targeted in 2017 — including 25 in Detroit — were identified for closure because they landed on the bottom five percent of state rankings for three years in a row.

The schools will be ordered to close in June unless officials from the state School Reform Office decide that closing them would represent a hardship to students.

Final decisions were expected to be made in the next few weeks but Gov. Rick Snyder announced Thursday that decisions likely won’t be made until May.

When they are made, they’ll be based on educational concerns — not buildings, said School Reform Officer Natasha Baker.

“The SRO is focused on our mission: to turn priority schools into the highest performing schools in the state,” Baker said in a statement. “We do this through academic accountability and have no statutory authority with the financing or operational components of schools.”

PHOTO: Charlotte Bodak/Ford Motor Company
Students at the Fisher Upper Academy have worked with the Ford Fund to determine what will be offered to the community if a $5 million resource center is built in their school but a threatened closure of the Detroit school has thrown plans into question.

Advocates warn that closing a school impacts more than just students and teachers.

“These upgrades were done because the business community, the faith-based community and private individuals believe in these schools,” said Chris Lambert, the founder and CEO of Life Remodeled. “You’re rallying that kind of support and then you’re just going to chop it off? Cut off the limb? …  How are funders going to trust that their commitments are going to be sustainable and fruitful in the future?”

Lambert’s organization raises money and recruits volunteers to renovate schools, parks and homes in Detroit neighborhoods. In addition to the major renovations at Osborn, Life Remodeled did an estimated $5 million in improvements to Cody High School, a three-school building with one school on the 2017 closure list and two on the possible 2018 list.

Lambert said he never would have raised the money or put years of effort into renovating those schools if he had any inkling that closures were looming.

“I asked at length,” he said. “We did hours and hours and hours of research into these schools, talking with DPS, funders, stakeholders, community leaders. We’ve got to make sure that we’re stewarding the donations … and using them wisely and all factors pointed to ‘These are schools to invest in.’ ”

But school closings were not expected until state lawmakers last year approved a $617 million financial rescue to keep the Detroit Public Schools out of bankruptcy. The new law included language requiring Baker’s office to close persistently low-ranking schools in the city.

The law specifies that the district (or the authorizer in the case of charter schools) “may not open a new school at the same location … within three years after the closure of the school unless the new school has substantially different leadership structure and substantially different curricular offerings than the previous school.”

Detroit school officials could, in theory, put new schools into closing buildings or move existing schools into them. But new schools would need to be approved by the School Reform Office and it’s not likely that the district would be ready to open new schools by September.

PHOTO: Life Remodeled
The non-profit Life Remodeled organized donations and volunteers to renovate Osborn High School, which could now be closed by the state.

Some school buildings could be snapped up by charter schools if the district is willing to sell them but negotiations and sales could take months or years so Detroit — a city riddled with vacant and blighted buildings — could soon get some more. And that will cost money.

“Even a very brief period of vacancy is going to result in scrappers getting into buildings,” said John Grover, a Loveland Technologies staffer who last year authored a comprehensive report on school closings and vacancies in Detroit.

Grover’s report, called A School District in Crisis, found that the city had 82 vacant school buildings last year. Most had been stripped, damaged by fire and had become dangerous, blighted eyesores in city neighborhoods.

Past school closings by the Detroit Public Schools cost the district an estimated $100,000 per school in one-time “mothballing costs” such as securing the buildings, removing equipment and  turning off water so pipes don’t freeze in the winter, Grover said. The district also spends roughly $50,000 per year per school to maintain and secure vacant buildings, he said.

“At the worst of times in 2012, they had so many [vacant school] buildings that they were monitoring all night long, they were out there playing a game of cat and mouse with the scrappers, going from one building to the next,” Grover said. “If you dump another 20 buildings into the school police department, that’s going to put a lot of strain on their resources … and they have a hard enough time dealing with active school buildings.”

It’s not clear who would cover the expense of securing vacant school buildings if they’re closed down by the state but the district, now called the Detroit Public Schools Community District, owns the buildings. Some of the schools including Mumford, Ford and Denby are currently part of the state-run Education Achievement Authority but they are scheduled to revert back to the district this summer.

Baker said the state has “made no decisions” about who will pay expenses related to closures. A spokeswoman for the district said city schools do not have the resources to shoulder those costs. “We would definitely need assistance,” she said.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Among schools that could be closed by the state is Mumford High School which moved into a new $50 million building in 2012.

Trouble with transcripts

Mayor: Detroit high school grads lost jobs because city schools couldn’t produce their transcripts

In his State of the City address, Mayor Mike Duggan said Detroit high school grads lost jobs because school bureaucracy made it hard to get high school transcripts.

By the time students graduate from the Detroit Public Schools, they have likely endured many years of frustrations, indignities and disappointments, but Mayor Mike Duggan revealed in his State of the City address Tuesday night that, for many Detroiters, the challenges didn’t end with graduation.

Until recently, graduates lost job opportunities when they struggled to get copies of their transcripts from the district.

Duggan, during  his roughly hourlong speech, said officials with the city’s Detroit At Work job training program discovered the transcript problem when they were talking with the heads of major hospitals in the city.

The hospital leaders said they were having difficulty filling entry-level positions despite Detroit’s high unemployment rate because Detroiters who applied couldn’t produce their high school transcripts.

City officials were skeptical, Duggan recalled. “So they went over to the Detroit Public Schools and do you know what they found? One million paper transcripts in a warehouse, in a school system run by an emergency manager who was dealing with everything he or she could at the schools.”

It had been taking two to three months for hospitals to get applicants’ transcripts, Duggan said, and “by the time they got the transcript, somebody else had the job.”

The Detroit At Work program contacted Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather who “got really mad,” Duggan said, and ordered the district to speed up the process.

Soon, one local business leader donated scanners so transcripts could be digitized and another business leader marshaled his employees to volunteer to physically scan the documents. The issue is being resolved, Duggan said, but he seemed alarmed that the problem existed in the first place.

“How many barriers do we have to erect in front of the folks in this town?” he asked.

The mayor’s speech largely focused on economic and community issues. Since he has very little authority or influence over schools, it’s no surprise that he didn’t spend much time on education.

But he did tout the Detroit Promise scholarship program, which guarantees two years of community college tuition to all Detroit grads as well as four-year tuition to qualifying grads who have good grades and test scores.

“If you apply yourself, college is going to be available to any resident of the city of Detroit who graduates from a Detroit high school,” Duggan said. “It’s one of the privileges of growing up in the city of Detroit.”

He also reiterated his recent vow to fight forced school closings by the state. State officials have threatened to close 25 schools in the city after years of poor test scores but Duggan said closures won’t improve education.

“Here’s what I know for sure,” he said. “We have 110,000 school children in this city, which means we need 110,000 seats in quality schools. Closing a school doesn’t add a single quality seat. All it does is bounce our children around from place to place.”

Duggan said he and the newly elected school board “know we need to improve these schools but before you close a school, you need to make sure there’s a better alternative and I’ve been encouraged by the conversations between the school board leadership and the governor’s office this week. I’m optimistic we’re gonna work things out but I want everybody in this community to know that I will be standing with [School Board] President Iris Taylor and the Detroit school board on this entire school closure issue.”