New Year New board

Detroit’s first empowered school board in years is gearing up for opening day — and a long to-do list

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Members of Detroit's new school board joined community leaders to discuss the future of the district at a Detroit Parent Network event this month. They are, from left, board members Iris Taylor, Deborah Hunter-Harvill, Misha Stallworth, Detroit Parent Network CEO Sharlonda Buckman, Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather, board member Sonya Mays, and Skillman Foundation President Tonya Allen.

Detroit’s newly elected school board is planning a major celebration next month as it takes control of city schools that have been under the thumb of appointed managers for nearly two decades.

But the party isn’t likely to last for long. The new board faces a daunting to-do list including possibly going to court to stop school closures. The board faces crucial decisions about who should lead the district, and what to do with long-struggling schools that will rejoin the district this summer. Board members must also quickly absorb reams of information about a complicated district that now serves about 45,000 children in 97 schools.

“It can be overwhelming at times,” said Misha Stallworth, a community activist who is the youngest member of the new board at 27. “It’s a lot of information but, for me, the priority is really starting with a strong foundation … We have to have a really clear understanding of what’s going on and also be prepared to write policy that has a positive impact today, has a positive impact in a year and has a positive impact in five years.”

The seven board members who were chosen by Detroit voters in November have spent the last two months in an intensive orientation on Detroit schools.

As the first elected Detroiters to have any real power over city schools in years, they’ve gotten workshops on curriculum, facilities, and finances from district officials. They’ve met with Gov. Rick Snyder and other state officials currently making decisions on whether to shutter as many as two dozen city schools. They’ve talked with the state financial review board, which must sign off on many of the new board’s decisions.

And now the district is planning an official ceremony on Jan. 11 at Cass Technical High School, where students, teachers and principals will be on hand to welcome the new board.

“The return to local control should be celebrated, and hopefully that meeting will be extra special,” said Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather, who has been working with the new board to plan the celebration.

“We want the principals to be there. We want teachers to be there. We want community members to be there,” she said. “Board meetings should be a place where we celebrate what’s good in the district … and work on policies to fix things that are not.”

The Jan. 11 meeting will focus on passing bylaws and choosing officers, board members say. But they’ll soon need to turn to pressing issues facing the district. Here’s what board members say they plan to tackle first:

 

 

Gearing up for a school closure fight

Shortly after taking office, board members might find themselves in a battle to save some city schools.

Snyder is currently weighing dueling legal opinions about a new law that requires the state to close every school in the city that’s been in the bottom 5 percent on state test score rankings for three years in a row — potentially affecting dozens of district schools.

Snyder initially accepted a legal opinion that asserted that the new law did not apply to schools in the main Detroit district because the schools are now officially in a new district called the Detroit Public Schools Community District that won’t have three years of test scores until 2019 or 2020.  (State officials created the new district to give Detroit schools a chance to spend their state education dollars in classrooms instead of paying off years of accumulated debt). But State Attorney General Bill Schuette issued a legal opinion in September disputing Snyder’s assessment and asserting that the state must close schools that have years of low scores.

New board members who met with Snyder last month declined to detail his comments about the fate of Detroit schools. But one member said the board is gearing up for a fight.

“Let me say this: If we don’t get a reprieve in writing, then we will challenge that position,” said LaMar Lemmons, who is the only member of the old Detroit school board to be elected to serve on the new board. “The board will either challenge or support a challenge of school closings by the [state School Reform Office].”

Lemmons noted that the board had met with state officials and added, “Based on those discussions, if we cannot come to a meeting of the minds, you can look forward to the prospect of litigation.”

Board member Sonya Mays, a former Wall Street financial manager who now runs a nonprofit community development organization called Develop Detroit, said she wouldn’t speculate on whether Detroit schools would be shuttered or on whether the board would file suit to stop the potential closings. But she noted that school closings can wreak havoc on communities.

“I’m a community developer,” she said. “I spend my day job fighting for investments in and across Detroit and what I’ve learned is that the closing of a neighborhood school is incredibly destabilizing, not just for children but for the entire community. It creates negative property values. It frays at the fabric of our communities … I think we can do a lot better than shuttering schools without a plan.”

Looking far and wide for a new superintendent

The law that created the new school board requires the board to choose a new superintendent within 90 days of taking office.

“The law says we have to do a search and we’ll have a process and we’ll go from there,” said board member Deborah Hunter-Harvill, a school consultant who has worked as a Detroit school principal and once served as the superintendent of a small district.

Meriweather has expressed interest in staying on as the district’s top educator and several board members interviewed by Chalkbeat said she is a strong contender for the position — but they are also considering looking farther afield.

“We would like to do a national search,” Lemmons said. A national search would likely require more time and money than the board has. But Lemmons said he hopes board members can get the deadline to pick a permanent schools chief extended — and support to defray the cost.

“We’re looking at getting a search firm and we’re looking for a way to pay for that without taking money out [of the district’s budget] — through grants or nonprofits,” he said.

Mays said a thorough search would be a top priority.

“Obviously the number one objective should be to find the best person for this district for this moment to fight for our children,” she said.

 

Reabsorbing struggling schools and other priorities

Figuring out how to bring the Education Achievement Authority schools back into the district will be at the top of board members’ priority lists.

Schools that have been part of the state-run Education Achievement Authority since Snyder removed them from the district in 2012 are scheduled to return to district control this summer. But the non-union teachers and administrators in those schools currently make salaries that don’t align with what district employees make. New EAA teachers make more than new unionized teachers in the main district, while senior teachers in the main district make more than top-salaried EAA teachers.

“We’re beginning to think through the process of what that might look like,” Hunter-Harvill said.

Lemmons said he thought the salaries were that not different in practice because EAA schools have a longer school year.  “All of those things will be negotiated,” he said.

Once the board gets going, Mays said one of her top priorities will be career and technical education.

“I’m seeing what appears to be signs of an early construction boom,” she said. “We’re going to make sure that anyone who’s interested in that career path — not just construction but entrepreneurs —  is going to be prepared for those opportunities.”

Hunter-Harvill said her priorities are seeing that the district recruit top teachers, keep its finances in order and that some stability is restored to Detroit schools.

“I want to hug those kids in the district and let them know we’re going to be there for the kids,” she said. “We have to be.”

Correction (Jan. 3, 2017): An earlier version this story incorrectly characterized the amount of time that state-appointed emergency managers have run Detroit schools. While Detroit schools have only been run by an elected board for three of the last 20 years, the first emergency manager was appointed in 2009. The district was earlier run by an appointed board. 

Teachers stiffed

Detroit charter school teachers get tough news: Their school was in debt so they won’t get paid

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Matchbook Learning CEO Sajan George notified teachers at the now-closed Michigan Technical Academy that they won't get their summer paychecks.

Furious teachers at a recently shuttered Detroit charter school were notified Wednesday that they won’t be paid thousands of dollars they earned during the last school year.

Teachers at the Michigan Technical Academy had contracts that required the school to pay them through the summer for work they did during the school year. But the school’s management company, Matchbook Learning, alerted teachers in an email Wednesday that the money would instead go to pay off the school’s debts.

“Last Friday, Matchbook Learning became aware that the holders of MTA’s outstanding bond debt are refusing to allow use of funds for any summer payroll and instead, are requiring that any available funds be used toward payment of the bond debt,” Matchbook’s CEO Sajan George told teachers in the email. “We are disappointed and deeply saddened by this development because this means funds will not be there for July or August payroll.”

The school, which Chalkbeat wrote about last fall, closed its doors forever last month when Central Michigan University revoked the school’s charter citing academic and financial difficulties.

The school was one seven Detroit area charter schools that closed this year including five that had been overseen by Central Michigan.

Matchbook Learning, which had been running the school since 2015, had a contract with the school’s board that expired on June 30, George wrote in the email to teachers.

“Matchbook Learning never received and does not expect to receive any funds from the MTA Board, CMU or the bondholders to fund payment of any July or August payroll — meaning Matchbook Learning is not in a position to make payment to you,” George wrote. “Unfortunately, the closing of MTA has had a severe effect on everyone involved. We thank you for your time at MTA, sympathize and empathize with your position, and wish you the best in your future endeavors.”

George told Chalkbeat that his New Jersey-based school management organization, a non-profit, hasn’t been paid by the school’s board since February due to lack of funds. Matchbook is owed what he characterized as “a couple hundred thousand dollars.”

He said he knew Matchbook wouldn’t be paid for the last few months of the school year but that the organization stayed until the last day of class in June.

“If we left, the employees wouldn’t get paid and the school would shut down,” George said.

He said Matchbook asked the school board to approve payments that would enable the teachers to get paid in July and August. The board knew it would receive payments from the state in July and August and authorized a portion of that money to go toward paying teachers. But the bondholders are priority creditors, meaning they get paid first. The bondholders have refused to allow money to go to the teachers, George said. 

“Ultimately it wasn’t in our control,” he said.

The school borrowed about $16 million for building improvements when it first opened and only about $1 million had been paid off when the school closed last month, George said. Had the school stayed open, it would have continued to receive money from the state that could have been used to make payments on the debt. Without money coming in, the creditors moved to collect as much as they could. 

Angry teachers say they’re contacting lawyers in hopes of trying to collect what they’re owed.

“That’s money that we’ve all worked for,” said Maeve Rochon, a kindergarten teacher who said she’s owed around $5,000. “That’s for time we spent in those kids’ lives, doing our jobs. We all stuck it out to the end and now you’re telling us the money we worked for, we’re not going to get?”

Janelle Brzezinski, a spokeswoman for the Governor John Engler Center for Charter Schools at Central Michigan University, said there’s not much the university can do to help the teachers.

“Some creditors of Michigan Technical Academy have ordered an acceleration of payments due on Academy loans,” Brzezinski wrote in an e-mailed statement. “The acceleration of payments means that the Academy received no funds from the scheduled July 20, 2017 state school aid payment sent by the state of Michigan. The Academy board and the Center had been working with the Michigan Department of Education and Michigan Department of Treasury officials to ensure continued flow of state aid through July and August to allow the Academy to meet payroll and other outstanding obligations. Unfortunately, the decision of the creditors to accelerate payments under the Academy loans means that there will not be sufficient funds for the Academy to process the July 31, 2017 scheduled payroll and there may not be sufficient funds to meet the August payrolls.”

Brzezinski encouraged teachers to contact Matchbook or the Wage and Hour Division of the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs.

home sweet home

‘Finally! Something useful’ or a dangerous mistake? Detroiters respond to city’s housing deal for teachers

PHOTO: Detroit Land Bank Authority
This home on Harvard Road was up for auction the week after Detroit announced a half-off-on-city-owned housing deal for teachers.

Friday’s announcement that all Detroit school employees — whether they work for district, charter, or parochial schools — will get a 50 percent discount on houses auctioned through the Detroit Land Bank Authority stirred a lot of discussion.

Some of our commenters on Facebook had high hopes for the deal:

But one commenter wondered if it’s the city of Detroit that’s actually getting the best deal, not the employees — or other people seeking to buy homes in the city:

And others argued that people who already live in Detroit won’t benefit from this deal:

Still, some readers appear to be ready to move — and have even picked homes to bid on (though not necessarily from the Land Bank Authority)!