Leaders answer seven questions about Detroit’s new school district

Detroit Public Schools Manager Steven Rhodes answers questions about Detroit's new school district (Photo by Erin Einhorn/Chalkbeat)

During a raucous public hearing, interrupted by hecklers, State Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo and DPS leaders Steven Rhodes and Alycia Meriweather tonight attempted to answer some of the questions that are looming over the Detroit Public Schools.

Among them: Will the district get a new name? Will it hire uncertified teachers? Will class sizes get any smaller?

Not all of the answers provided were well received. With the governor’s signature this week on a DPS rescue package that will transfer all of the district’s schools and contracts to a new-debt free district, emotions were running high in the Renaissance High School auditorium during a two-hour budget and legislative briefing attended by more than 200 teachers, parents and community members.

Two hecklers had to be removed from the room while Gay-Dagnogo tried to encourage cooperation in the wake of a tough partisan fight. The bills signed by the governor this week had no support from Detroiters or Democrats in the state house.

“Our feelings – and rightfully so – are very hurt. I cried yesterday,” Gay Dagnogo said. “This has been a struggle … An emotional struggle but at some point for the sake of our kids, we have to use some form of diplomacy so that we can get what’s best for them. No, I don’t like it! … But right now, it is what it is, and so we have to govern ourselves accordingly.”

Much of the presentation from Rhodes and Meriweather will soon be posted on the district’s website, officials say, including a budget for next year that assumes a 1.8 percent drop in student enrollment, but until then, here are some of the answers offered tonight:

On what the new district will be called:

“Many of you may not know that the district now, the Detroit Public Schools, is just its public name. It has a more formal name — “The school district of the City of Detroit.” In legal papers and in law, that’s what you’ll see it referred to as. The new school district also has formal name — Detorit Public Schools Community District. But it’s going to have a public name and we are going to solicit your input into what name to give it. The details of that will come out shortly and we will ask you for your participation.” — Rhodes

On who will run the new district:

“If we want ideal, strong, robust candidates (for school board), we want to make sure they know that the deadline (to file for candidacy) is Friday, July 22nd.”
— Gay-Dagnogo

On school closings:

“Any schools that have been in the bottom five percent of (Michigan) schools for 3 of the past 4 years (could be closed). We did meet with the state school reform office yesterday … They did indicate that the new (school ranking) list will not be out until September however we have talked and discussed about creating a moratorium to insure that we don’t have school closures that will create a financial deficit or interrupt instruction.” — Gay-Dagnogo

On class sizes:

Meriweather says class size targets will remain at 38 kids in middle school and high school, less in lower grades – but teachers in grades k-8 will get four prep periods a week – up from two this year.

On uncertified teachers:

“We’re not going to do that. The whole country would be outraged if a pilot took off a plane with people on board and they had no training. We have 46,000-plus passengers whose life is in our hands. We need the most qualified, most certified, best people teaching our kids.” — Meriweather

On when the money from the state will arrive:

The first checks will start rolling in July 15.

On Rhodes’ future with the district:

“My contract as of now expires on September 30th. There will be a transition manager until the new school board takes over on January 1st so I expect at some point the governor will want to know if I’m willing to stay in October, November and December. This is a conversation we have yet to have and so stay tuned.” — Rhodes

cooling off

New York City charter leader Eva Moskowitz says Betsy DeVos is not ‘ready for prime time’

PHOTO: Chalkbeat
Success Academy CEO and founder Eva Moskowitz seemed to be cooling her support for U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

In New York City, Eva Moskowitz has been a lone voice of support for the controversial U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. But even Moskowitz appears to be cooling on the secretary following an embarrassing interview.

“I believe her heart is in the right place,” Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy, said of DeVos at an unrelated press conference. “But as the recent interviews indicate, I don’t believe she’s ready for primetime in terms of answering all of the complex questions that need to be answered on the topic of public education and choice.”

That is an apparent reference to DeVos’s roundly criticized appearance on 60 Minutes, which recently aired a 30-minute segment in which the secretary admits she hasn’t visited struggling schools in her tenure. Even advocates of school choice, DeVos’s signature issue, called her performance an “embarrassment,” and “Saturday Night Live” poked fun at her.  

Moskowitz’s comments are an about-face from when the education secretary was first appointed. While the rest of the New York City charter school community was mostly quiet after DeVos was tapped for the position, Moskowitz was the exception, tweeting that she was “thrilled.” She doubled-down on her support months later in an interview with Chalkbeat.

“I believe that education reform has to be a bipartisan issue,” she said.

During Monday’s press conference, which Success Academy officials called to push the city for more space for its growing network, Moskowitz also denied rumors, fueled by a tweet from AFT President Randi Weingarten, that Success officials had recently met with members of the Trump administration.

Shortly after the election, Moskowitz met with Trump amid speculation she was being considered for the education secretary position. This time around, she said it was “untrue” that any visits had taken place.

“You all know that a while back, I was asked to meet with the president-elect. I thought it was important to take his call,” she said. “I was troubled at the time by the Trump administration. I’m even more troubled now. And so, there has been no such meeting.”

Civil action

Detroit school board to protesters: Please remain civil. Protesters to school board: You’re naive

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore speaks with her supporters from the stage at Mumford High School. Her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to the meeting's abrupt ending.

A day after the Detroit school board abruptly ended a meeting that was disrupted by protesters, the meeting is being rescheduled, while the board president is making an appeal for civility.

“The board is extremely disappointed that the regularly scheduled meeting tonight was adjourned early due to extreme disruptive behavior from several audience members,” school board president Iris Taylor wrote in a statement issued late Tuesday, several hours after the meeting’s chaotic end.

“It is our hope moving forward that the community will remain civil and respectful of the elected Board and the process to conduct public meetings. We must be allowed to conduct the business the community elected us to do.”

The drama Tuesday night came from a large group of parents and community members, led by activist Helen Moore, who packed the board meeting to raise concerns about a number of issues.

Moore had sent the school board an email requesting an opportunity to address the meeting Tuesday on issues including her strong objection to the news that Taylor and Superintendent Nikolai Vitti had attended a meeting with Mayor Mike Duggan and leaders of city charter schools to discuss the possibility of working together.

The mayor, in his state of the city address last week, discussed the meeting, calling it “almost historic,” and said district and charter school leaders had agreed to collaborate on a student transportation effort, and on a school rating system that would assign letter grades to Detroit district and charter schools.

When Taylor told Moore during the meeting that she would not be allowed to give her presentation Tuesday night, saying she had not gotten Moore’s request in time to put it on Tuesday’s agenda, Moore and her supporters angrily shouted at the board and proceeded to heckle and object to statements during the meeting.

The meeting was ultimately ended during a discussion about the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, a school whose classes are being relocated to other district buildings for the rest of the year because of urgent roof repairs and the possibility of mold in the building.

As Moore shouted over Vitti’s discussion about the school, Taylor ordered that the 81-year-old activist be escorted from the Mumford High School auditorium where the meeting was being held. That triggered an angry response from her supporters and ultimately brought the meeting to a close.

The current Detroit school board came into existence a little over a year ago when the state returned city schools to Detroiters after years of control by state-appointed emergency managers.

The board’s swearing-in last January was heralded as a fresh start for a new district — now called the Detroit Public Schools Community District — that had been freed from years of debts encumbered by the old Detroit Public Schools.

Since then, meetings have been interrupted by the occasional heckler or protester, but they’ve largely remained orderly, without a lot of the noise and drama that had been typical of school board meetings in the past.

In her statement Tuesday night, Taylor lamented that the new school board wasn’t able to get to most of the items on its agenda.

“Detroiters have fought long and hard to have a locally elected board to govern our schools,” Taylor wrote. “It would be shameful to have our rights revoked again for impediments. It sets a poor example for the students we all represent, and it will not be tolerated by this Board.”

Wednesday morning, Moore said she plans to continue her vocal advocacy, even if it’s disruptive.

“If that’s the only avenue we have to get our point across, when they don’t allow us to speak, then we must take every avenue,” Moore said. “Time is of the essence with our children. And they spend too much time with distractions, listening to the mayor, listening to the corporations, and not listening to people who have children in the public schools.”

Moore, who is active with an organization called Keep the Vote/No Takeover Coalition and with the National Action Network, said she fought for years for Detroiters to again have a locally elected school board. City residents did not have control of their schools for most of the last two decades.

“We worked like crazy,” Moore said, but she asserts that most school board members are “naive.”

“They don’t know the history,” she said. “They need to be educated and that goes for Dr. Vitti too. We need to educate them and that was a first start.”

The board has scheduled a special meeting for 12:30 p.m. Thursday at its Fisher Building headquarters where it can return to its unfinished business from Tuesday.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore waved to her fellow activisits from the stage at Mumford High School. She returned to the room after her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to a school board meeting’s abrupt ending on March 13, 2018.