The oath

New board takes on ‘awesome responsibility’ of running a district plagued by serious challenges

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
The seven members of the new Detroit school board were sworn in during their first meeting at Cass Tech high school.

The era of democratically elected school boards running Detroit’s schools officially returned tonight with the swearing in of the seven new board members chosen by voters in November.

“I do solemnly swear,” the board members said as they raised their right hands for the oath. “That I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of this state and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of Member of the Board of Education of the Detroit Public Schools Community District, according to the best of my ability.”

Judge Cynthia Diane Stephens, a Michigan Court of Appeals and Court of Claims judge who administered the oath wished the board well. “And with that you are imbued with the awesome responsibility of the children of the city of Detroit,” she told them.

As of 5:57 p.m., the board formally took control of the 48,659-student, 97-school district.

The board meeting that followed, which drew roughly 250 community members to the Cass Tech auditorium, was largely civil, punctuated by a few comments and cracks from the audience — a far tamer scene than the raucous community meetings that were typical during the years when the district was run by state-appointed emergency managers.

There was some new board confusion — including a contract to run district warehouses that members voted down before acknowledging that they weren’t really sure what the consequences of the “no” vote would be.

Community members and reporters complained that the meeting’s agenda had not been posted and copies of the superintendent’s presentation were not distributed to the audience. (District officials say they’ll eventually be posted online.)

There was some controversy over the board’s announcement that it was hiring search firms to choose a permanent superintendent and to recruit new teachers.

And there were some interesting insights offered about the state of the district. Among the highlights:

The board elected its officers

The new school board president is Iris Taylor, the retired former CEO of Detroit Receiving Hospital. Angelique Peterson-Mayberry, the director of community relations at UAW-Ford will be Vice President. Community activist Misha Stallworth, who develops arts and cultural programs for the elderly, will be secretary. And Sonya Mays, a former Wall Street financial manager who now runs a nonprofit community development organization, will be the board’s treasurer.

The board will hire two search firms

Taylor, the new board president, said the board selected the search firms by inviting talent search companies to apply for the job. Four firms applied, Taylor said. The board met with three of them and is moving forward with Ray & Associates Inc., which specializes in educational executive leadership searches, to help choose a superintendent candidate. A second firm, T.J. Adams & Associates, will be brought on to recruit teachers. The board did not put a price tag on the contracts but, after the meeting, Taylor said the fee for Ray & Associates would be roughly the “midpoint” of the superintendent’s salary. “We are seeking partners in the community to help fund that so that it doesn’t have to come out of operations,” she said.

Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather says she wants the permanent gig

“I definitely am putting my hand up,” she told reporters during a break in the meeting. “I have truly loved this city and this district my whole life and I’ve truly enjoyed what I’ve been able to do since [being named interim superintendent in] March so absolutely.”

The teacher shortage is a serious problem.

Meriweather told the board that 163 substitute teachers are currently filling the district’s 264 teacher vacancies but that 97 teaching jobs are completely empty. “That means … the staff in that building is being stretched out immensely by their preps being taken and other challenges which makes a very challenging cycle because my prep gets taken, I get tired, I take off. Now my colleague has to cover my class and students are not having regular instruction so this has to be addressed. This has to be a priority.”

Another serious problem is chronic absenteeism

A stunning 48 percent of the district’s students — 23,468 of them — miss two or more days of school a month, Meriweather said. At one school, she said, 95 percent of students are chronically absent. Meriweather did not name the school and a district spokeswoman declined to identify that school saying the district was working with the school to improve attendance. “The scary thing about that is when you miss two or more days a month, research shows you are less likely to graduate,” she said.

The district is in the black

Finance officials say they expect the district to end the year with a $48 million surplus.

The board was not given a heads up that the district plans to close a school

Taylor told reporters after the meeting that Transition Manager Steven Rhodes, who ran the district until December 31, made a deal in December to close Durfee elementary school  and lease the building to a small business incubator but that the board didn’t learn about it until January. “We’re in the process of vetting that,” Taylor said. Asked how she felt about Rhodes’ decision, she said: “Let’s just say that there are all kinds of challenges that you’ve got to respond to.”

 

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)!