Detroit school board member Lemmons weighs leaving, slams colleagues he says listen to special interests

One of the most vocal voices on Detroit district’s school board says he’s frustrated with the impact he’s having on the board and is pursuing a different elected office.

LaMar Lemmons, whose two-year term will expire at the end of December, has filed to run in the August 6 Democratic primary special election for the Michigan State Senate District 2. The seat became vacant after Bert Johnson (D-Highland Park) resigned in March after pleading guilty to theft involving a ghost employee receiving $23,000 for no work.

“I’m running because I couldn’t find any candidates to commit to the agenda of the Detroit Public Schools and the restoration of the funds that were pilfered from Detroit taxpayers and the DPS coffers over the decades,” Lemmons said.

Lemmons has been the most outspoken member of the new Detroit school board that took control of the city’s main school district in January 2017 after more than seven years of control by state-appointed emergency managers.

The current board was the first elected to run the new Detroit Public Schools Community District, which was created in 2016 to replace the debt-burdened Detroit Public Schools. The board’s seven members were elected to staggered terms with the two top vote-getters elected to six-year terms, the next three elected to four-year terms and two members elected to two-year terms.

One member elected to a six-year term was Lemmons’ wife, Georgia Lemmons, so even if he leaves the board, he’ll still be able to influence it.

Lemmons is the only member who served on the old school board. Its members were elected but had little power while emergency managers ran the district.

The old board often used its platform to sue the state and emergency managers on behalf of Detroit children and voters. Since joining the new board, Lemmons has continued to advocate for legal action against the state for damage to the district that occurred during emergency management, such as the poor maintenance of district buildings that led, in one case, to students being displaced from their school this year.

Lemmons said he’s disappointed that his fellow members and superintendent Nikolai Vitti haven’t joined him to seek compensation from the state. He wants them to sue the state for poor conditions of school buildings, and other matters dating back several years. The school board, he said, has poor “institutional memory.”

“For a first-year school board, I can think of no better school board,” he said. “The problem is there is no institutional memory and the tendency is for them to move forward and seek no redress for things in the past. … So sometimes the validity of my assertions are not taken. That includes the superintendent, and all my colleagues minus one,” his wife.

Lemmons said Vitti and the other board members are listening too much to people like Mayor Mike Duggan, as well as philanthropic and business leaders who Lemmons believes have conflicts of interest. They “are not for the children,” he said.

Duggan’s office declined comment.

Detroit board president Iris Taylor said the board is so successful because of its diversity, wealth of experience, and knowledge about the community and business sector.

“We appreciate the institutional knowledge that members bring to the table to help understand the framework and we find it to be beneficial, but it is not the exclusive determining factor for making decisions,” Taylor said in an email. “We do work well together and that’s because we are all on this board for the children. We have made a commitment to put children first.”

If elected to the state Senate, Lemmons said he wants to create policies to help people leaving prison he claims dropped out of school while the district was under emergency management, committed crimes and wound up incarcerated.

Lemmons said a “myriad” of candidates are interested in running for his school board seat, but no one has officially announced plans to run.

In the Senate race, he will face off with Democratic candidates Abraham Aiyash, Brian Banks, George Cushingberry Jr., Jeremy Henner, Adam Hollier, John Olumba and Joe Ricci in the primary election.

Lemmons acknowledges his candidacy is contingent on whether he can raise at least $100,000 in campaign money. Some of his opponents have been campaigning for about a year. He said his “significant name recognition” will help, but if he doesn’t find enough support, he will run for school board re-election.

The July 9 filing deadline will give him time to decide that, he said.

School board member Deborah Hunter-Harvill, an educator and former school superintendent who chairs the boards’ curriculum and academics subcommittee, also has a two-year term. She said she is running for re-election and plans to file a candidate petition this week.

“My work is not done yet,” she said. “I would feel like I’m walking away if I didn’t stay at least four years.”