Suit

Detroit lawsuit stops just short of accusing Education Secretary Betsy DeVos of bribery

A new lawsuit all but accuses U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos of bribery for her role in influencing Detroit schools legislation last year.

The suit, filed this month by the former Detroit school board and Detroit parents, seeks potentially millions of dollars from the billionaire Michigan philanthropist, asserting that she used campaign contributions to kill a controversial education commission.

“I am not accusing her of bribery,” said lawyer Tom Bleakley, who this month filed the suit in Detroit’s Wayne County Circuit Court. “What I do in all fairness is I set out what she has done and then I give the definition of bribery in the state of Michigan and I contend that it’s up to a jury to draw any reasonable inferences.”

The suit refers to the fierce political battle in Lansing last year over a package of bills that were designed to keep the Detroit Public Schools out of bankruptcy.

Early drafts of the bills would have created a Detroit Education Commission that would have had influence over the opening and closing of district and charter schools in the city.

The commission had broad support from community leaders in Detroit but was strongly opposed by DeVos and some charter school advocates, who feared the commission would favor traditional district schools over charters.

The DeVos-founded Great Lakes Education Project, a political organization, worked aggressively to block the commission.

In the weeks after lawmakers removed the commission from the final bills, the DeVos family poured $1.45 million dollars into the campaign coffers of Republican lawmakers who took her side in the fight — contributions that amounted to $25,000 a day for seven weeks.

“It’s up to a jury to draw any reasonable inference from the amounts as well as the timing of the money and whether it influenced any state officials,” Bleakley said.

A civil suit does not have the authority to charge anyone with a crime such as a bribery. The suit seeks financial damages from DeVos.

The U.S. Education Department did not respond to a request for comment, but Greg McNeilly, who is a member of the Great Lakes Education Project board, called the suit a “publicity stunt” that is taking advantage of DeVos’s new position as education secretary.

The actions alleged in the suit all occurred months before President Trump was elected and chose DeVos as his top education official.

“Some people are still upset that they weren’t able to create a rigged and politically corrupt system, which is what the Detroit Education Commission proposal was,” McNeilly said. “It would have further harmed students.”

The former school board that brought the suit is the 11-member elected body that was largely powerless during much of the last decade as the city schools were run by state-appointed emergency managers. The board filed unsuccessful challenges last year after the Detroit legislation passed, creating a new school district called the Detroit Public Schools Community District. The new district is run by a new seven-member board that was elected last fall. Just one member of the old board was elected to the new board.

The old board filed a number of lawsuits during the emergency manager era, from 2009 until 2016, mostly challenging the emergency manager law.

The latest suit is the first from the board that names DeVos as a defendant. Also named are state officials, including Gov. Rick Snyder.

The suit accuses the state of under-funding special education in Detroit and seeks to block language that allows Detroit schools — but no other Michigan districts — to hire uncertified teachers. Snyder’s office declined to comment.

Read the suit here and a brief supporting it here.

 

 

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.”