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. 

Looming threat

Report: Looming financial threats could undermine ‘fresh’ start for new Detroit district

The creation of a new school district last year gave Detroit schools a break from years of crippling debt, allowing the new district to report a healthy budget surplus going into its second year.

It’s the first time since 2007 that the city’s main school district has ended the year with a surplus.

But a report released this morning — just days after Superintendent Nikolai Vitti took over the district — warns of looming financial challenges that “could derail the ‘fresh’ financial start that state policymakers crafted for the school district.”

The report, from the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, notes that almost a third of the district’s $64 million surplus is the cost savings from more than 200 vacant teaching positions.

Those vacancies have caused serious problems in schools including classrooms crammed with 40 or 50 kids. The district says it’s been trying to fill those positions. But as it struggles to recruit teachers, it is also saving money by not having to pay them.

Other problems highlighted in the report include the district’s need to use its buildings more efficiently at a time when many schools are more than half empty. “While a business case might be made to close an under-utilized building in one part of the city, such a closure can create challenges and new costs for the districts and the families involved,” the report states. It notes that past school closings have driven students out of the district and forced kids to travel long distances to school.

The report also warns that if academics don’t improve soon, student enrollment — and state dollars tied to enrollment — could continue to fall.

Read the full report here:

 

familiar face

Former interim superintendent Alycia Meriweather ‘discussing’ new role in Detroit district under superintendent Nikolai Vitti

New Detroit superintendent Nikolai Vitti greets principals and job applicants with former Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather at a district job fair.

When Nikolai Vitti worked a teacher hiring fair Tuesday night, the new Detroit superintendent brought a partner — a familiar face — to stand beside him.

It was Vitti’s first full day running the Detroit Public Schools Community District. And although he was the new guy in a room full of school principals, administrators and job applicants, he stood side-by-side with someone more well-known: Alycia Meriweather, the district veteran who served for 14 months as interim superintendent until Vitti took over this week.

Whether Meriweather’s presence at the hiring fair suggests a permanent role for her in Vitti’s administration hasn’t yet been decided, she said. “We’re discussing that right now. He has made it clear that there is a position for me and, right now, it’s just a matter of me having further dialog with him about what that might look like and figure out if it’s a good fit for me.”

The news of Meriweather possibly staying on in the district could be comforting to the teachers and staff who strongly urged the school board to consider Meriweather for the permanent post. Teachers circulated petitions and protested outside a board meeting during a finalist interview after Meriweather was dropped from consideration.

For now, Meriweather is officially a senior advisor to Vitti — a role that will last at least until the end of June.

“My main focus right now is making sure this transition is as smooth as possible,” Meriweather told Chalkbeat. “Dr. Vitti and I have had really good conversations. I think we see things very similarly and he’s made it very clear that his intention is to build on the work that’s been done, which is very affirming and encouraging.”

For now, Meriweather, who is a graduate of the district and has worked in Detroit as a classroom teacher and administrator throughout her career, said she’s focused on a smooth transition.

“I really, at the heart of hearts, just want the district to continue to evolve,” she said. “I need him to be successful because if he’s successful, the district is successful, which means my kids are taken care of.”