Two incumbents and a Michigan legislator win tight Detroit school board race

Sonya Mays (left), Sherry Gay-Dagnogo (center), and Misha Stallworth (right), each won a seat on the Detroit district school board. Mays and Stallworth are incumbents, and Gay-Dagnogo is the challenger.
Sonya Mays (left), Sherry Gay-Dagnogo (center), and Misha Stallworth (right), each won a seat on the Detroit district school board. Mays and Stallworth are incumbents, and Gay-Dagnogo is the challenger. (Photos Courtesy of Candidates)

The incumbents reelected to the Detroit school board say they’re ready to get back to the difficult work of transforming a school system that has struggled for years with low academic achievement.

But they’ll do that work without Iris Taylor, the school board president since 2017 who lost her reelection bid. The new president will be chosen in early 2021.

Board members Sonya Mays and Misha Stallworth were the top two vote-getters in the election, which had 14 people running for three open seats. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, a current state lawmaker, won the third seat. She’s a familiar face to the district as a former teacher. 

Mays and Stallworth said their reelection is a sign that Detroiters support the direction of the district’s reform efforts. 

“The district still has a long way to go before our community can claim it as a fully reformed school system, and I am excited to have another term to continue the important work of rebuilding for our students,” Mays said in a statement.

The district’s toughest challenges ahead include addressing the safety concerns of students and staff working inside school buildings, combating rising chronic absenteeism, curbing the effects of pandemic learning loss, and helping students adapt to the difficulties of remote learning. 

Stallworth said she is humbled that so many people voted for her.

“I ran for re-election to continue serving Detroit, our families and children,” Stallworth said in a statement. “There’s a lot more work to do to build an excellent school district. I’m grateful that the community sees the progress we’ve made so far and believes in me to continue it.”

In addition to the incumbents and Gay-Dagnogo, the field of candidates included retired educators, community activists, and several former school board members.

None of those former board members — all of whom served during the years the district was overseen by a state-appointed emergency manager — garnered enough votes to be in contention. That included LaMar Lemmons, who served during emergency management and again for two years after the district emerged from state control. 

Gay-Dagnogo said she’s excited for the opportunity to return to what she loves most: education. 

“Providing our young people with quality education is part of my theory of change,” she said. 

“If we can improve the academic trajectory of our young people ... we’ll have more children able to thrive and be good citizens.” 

She said she looks forward to working with current board members and district Superintendent Nikolai Vitti. She said she has positive relationships with many of the board members.  

“Everybody won’t have the same views or ideology, but I intend to bring my voice as a policymaker and a former DPS teacher to the table to advance moving our district forward,” she said. 

Mays currently is the board’s treasurer and Stallworth is the secretary. Taylor, who has been the board president since 2017, lost her reelection bid despite support from Mayor Mike Duggan and donations from top business and community leaders.

In her statement. Taylor said she was grateful for her time serving on the board and working with Vitti. 

“I feel the district has a strong plan and leadership team in place to continue to strengthen the academic achievement goals for each student. I look forward to transitioning this work and continue to support as a volunteer in any way possible to ensure a seamless move forward,” Taylor said. 

The top three vote-getters will take office in January and will serve on the board until 2024. 

The school board approves budgets and establishes policies for the state’s largest school district, which serves nearly 50,000 students. Chief among its duties: The board will decide whether it’s safe to continue holding in-person classes if rates of positive coronavirus cases increase. Michigan school boards must reapprove their reopening plans every month, a requirement under a recent bipartisan legislative deal

The election comes as the Detroit district navigates the obstacles of an unprecedented school year during the pandemic. School officials project an enrollment decline of about 3,000 students and rising chronic absenteeism. Education experts warn that students may have substantial learning loss due to the shift to remote instruction. And virtual learning remains a struggle for students and teachers who’ve complained of too much screen time, which may be eroding social and emotional health and wellness.

Last week, the Detroit Financial Review Commission approved a waiver to release the Detroit district from financial oversight after years of state control.

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