Headlines

Week in Review: Why school board candidates might struggle to pass a credit check

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit voters will have to choose among 63 candidates to fill seven seats on the new Detroit school board.

How should voters sort through the 63 candidates running for Detroit’s newly empowered school board? A collaboration among several city news organizations this week offered one suggestion: look at their finances.

The news organizations scrutinized all of the candidates’ backgrounds and found that more than half had gotten into deep financial straits, with a dozen filing for bankruptcy over the years. The reporting suggested that the records should give voters pause about candidates’ fitness for a role that includes overseeing the district’s budget — but several contenders said their stories are not unusual in a city where many families struggle.

“It was just one of those times in life. I was a single mom. I was just trying to juggle my bills with raising my three kids.”

— Renae Micou, a preschool administrator who has been sued 30 times since 2002 over unpaid rent

An early issue that the new board might have to confront: school closures, which a new state law could foist on schools with three straight years of rock-bottom test scores. Read on to learn why one Detroit school in the crosshairs says the state’s approach could derail progress that’s already underway — and for the rest of this week’s headlines. Thanks for reading!

Bankrupt and on board:

Investigations by reporters from several collaborating news organizations found that many of the 63 candidates seeking seven open spots on the new Detroit Public Schools Community District board have had financial problems including bankruptcies, foreclosures or evictions.

None appeared to have criminal records but one candidate — a man who works as a teacher’s aide at a charter school — was twice ticketed for soliciting prostitution. He has been put on leave from his job.

Candidates named in the story defended their records, noting that many Detroiters were caught up in recent mortgage and financial crises and shouldn’t be judged for not having the money to weather those storms. One candidate, a retired DPS teacher, noted that her financial burden is due in part to the “many cuts” that have been made to teacher pay in recent years.

But the general manager of a TV station that participated in the candidate review wrote that it’s “imperative” that board members “cannot be … underachievers who use the position to gain political clout or popularity.”

The Free Press compiled the findings into a database that lets voters see which candidates faced financial challenges. The database also includes responses from the 26 candidates who submitted responses to reporters’ questionnaires.

The Detroit News also published its findings on the candidates this week. Among them:

  • Less than half of the school board candidates responded to surveys from the News.
  • The 28 who did respond ranged in age from 27 to 80.
  • None of the responding candidates have children currently enrolled in the district.
  • Seven hold doctoral degrees, 13 have master’s degrees, and two have law degrees.
  • Two are former superintendents, one is a current assistant superintendent, five are former DPS board members and one is a retired substitute teacher.

The News puts the blame for the unwieldy 63-candidate ballot on the rushed timing of legislation that created the new school district, authorized the new board, and included $617 million to prevent the old school district — the Detroit Public Schools — from going into bankruptcy. A spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Snyder said the governor would have preferred to hold a primary election to winnow down the list of candidates, but there wasn’t time

As the candidates try to get some attention for their campaigns, some have banded together into slates. Candidates on the “A+ Team,” “Detroit’s Dream Team,” and the “Freedom Team” have agreed to work cooperatively with the state’s financial review commission, which will need to approve many of the board’s key decisions. Other slates — including the SPEED slate comprised of members of the old DPS board — have vowed to continue fighting state involvement in local schools.

The head of the state-run Education Achievement Authority called on Detroit voters to choose candidates with track records of supporting the city and knocked the dozens of candidates who failed to fill out questionnaires from the district. “If candidates aren’t willing to make the time to do something this basic while they are running, I doubt their commitment to a six-year term,” she wrote.

In other Detroit schools news:

  • The leader of a Detroit charter school that could be shut down for low tests scores argues that closing schools in the bottom 5 percent on state rankings will just “shuffle the deck” and send students from one low-scoring school to another. “If they’re not doing a radical turnaround design, that school will automatically be in the bottom five, and it’s like this domino effect,” he said.
  • A Free Press editor urged voters to approve a tax hike for Wayne County schools. “Look around metro Detroit, at the gross deterioration of our public schools, and ask whether less money is a path to more greatness,” he wrote.
  • The Detroit News, however, is pushing for a no vote, calling the measure a “bad deal” that won’t benefit all districts in the county and would leave charter schools in the cold.
  • The state’s top legal official is going after the pensions of the Detroit school principals who’ve been convicted of bribery.
  • A school choice supporter takes issue with Bridge Magazine’s characterization of white students leaving their own districts to attend whiter districts as the new “white flight.” Studies show that low-income black students are more likely to cross district borders in search of a better school than their white peers, he writes. “Rolling back families’ power to choose by basing enrollment on a child’s home address won’t increase integration.”
  • A business columnist writes that the fines imposed on contractors who failed to hire enough Detroiters for hockey arena construction are proof that city schools need to improve. “How can Michigan make the case to be the 21st-century hub for next-gen automotive technology, and how can it attract the kind of talent that makes its living with its brains, if it fails to shape an environment that can produce enough graduates who are prepared for, and eager to compete for, those jobs?” he writes.
  • When he’s done running Detroit schools, Steven Rhodes plans to start a mediation service.
  • A Detroit News columnist knocks teachers unions for trying to stop charter schools. “All teachers unions, including the Detroit Federation of Teachers … can’t stand that charter schools pull students (and the money that follows them) away from traditional public schools,” she writes.
  • Proceeds from a college basketball game this weekend will benefit Detroit schools.

Across the state:

  • Michigan fourth and eighth graders ranked in the middle of the pack nationally on a rigorous national science test, with last year’s fourth graders earning higher scores than their counterparts who took the exam in 2009. Eighth-grade scores saw a slight dip since the last test.
  • The leader of a new state education commission explains what he hopes an upcoming “listening tour” across the state will accomplish.
  • A Free Press columnist says new rules forcing schools to hold back third graders who aren’t making the grade won’t actually help kids. What would help, she writes: “Money. Resources … Investment in our kids, starting at birth.”
  • Legislation aimed at softening “zero tolerance” discipline policies in Michigan schools has cleared the house and is waiting for senate action.
  • The education policy director at a free market think tank urged Michigan school officials to consider a school funding system — often called “weighted student funding” — that distributes money to schools based on student characteristics. This system, he argues, would ensure that schools with more needy kids get more money.
  • The principal of a Michigan online charter school says the solution to helping teachers who feel demoralized is to give them more flexibility. “If we want to resolve the student zombie apocalypse of the 21st century, inspiration is the key.” he writes. “[Teachers] must be given the latitude to move well beyond teaching to the test. For they are on the front lines and the energy they demonstrate to their students will be given back in kind.”
  • A Democrat running for a seat in the Georgia senate cites the challenges of Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority as a reason to oppose a state recovery district in Georgia.

In other news:  

  • Fifteen metro Detroit schools that serve low- to mixed-income students will be chosen to receive a fully funded series of teacher trainings in a program called Playworks that uses games to improve children’s social and emotional learning. To be eligible, schools must send a representative to a “PlayShop” next week. The free program comes courtesy of a $1.14 million grant.
  • An affluent suburban school was on lockdown after a student reported bringing a gun to school. No weapon was found.
  • A former suburban teacher’s aide faces charges for sexual contact with teens.

From Chalkbeat:

making plans

Controversial integration plan for Upper West Side middle schools changes, but it’s unclear whether more parents will get on board

PHOTO: Rachel Holliday Smith
CEC member Genisha Metcalf speaks at Wednesday’s hearing on a proposal to desegregate Manhattan’s west side middle schools.

Following controversy over a plan to desegregate  Upper West Side and Harlem middle schools, the Department of Education unveiled two alternatives it hopes sit better with parents and educators.

At a Community Education Council hearing Wednesday night, the education department gave an overview of two alternatives to the initial proposal to integrate the district’s 16 middle schools, which angered some parents who were concerned it would shut their children out of sought-after schools.

The major difference between the initial proposal and the new plans is that they factor more than just state test scores into admissions offers — but it’s unclear whether the changes will quell the uproar over the integration effort, which has gained nationwide attention.

In both new plans, the agency aims to level the playing field for middle schoolers in the diverse but highly segregated west side Manhattan district.

In the first proposal, priority for 25 percent of middle school seats in every middle school in the district would be given to students who come from elementary schools with high economic needs and have low scores on both English and mathematics fourth grade state tests.

Out of that quarter of seats, 10 percent would be given to students in a group comprised of the very highest-need schools with the lowest-performing test scores; 15 percent of seats would be set aside for the next-highest need and lowest-performing group of students.

In the second proposal, priority for 25 percent of seats would be given to students based on a combination of their report cards and state test scores.

The hearing was much calmer than one several weeks ago, when a video went viral showing mostly white parents complaining that their children wouldn’t receive coveted middle school spots after excelling on state tests. The furor grew when Chancellor Richard Carranza tweeted the footage with a headline that said: “Wealthy white Manhattan parents angrily rant against plan to bring more black kids to their schools.” He has stood by  his decision to share the footage, saying it “speaks for itself.”

On Wednesday, parents repeatedly told the CEC as well as District 3 Superintendent Ilene Altschul and other education department officials that the proposals, while addressing very high- and low-performing students and schools, leave other students behind.

In education department simulations of how each proposal would work, both plans resulted in double-digit increases in the number of low-performing students offered seats in three high performing schools: J.H.S. 54 Booker T. Washington, P.S. 245 The Computer School and West End Secondary School.

“Great, we’re doing a bigger push for diversity in some of the schools that have been highly sought after that historically fewer parents or students felt like they had as an option, but what are we doing to attract level 3 and level 4 students to [P.S. 180 Hugo Newman College Preparatory School]?” asked parent and CEC member Genisha Metcalf, referring to a school that fell roughly in the middle of the education department models for how each proposal would affect the district’s schools.

“Otherwise, we’re overcrowding four schools,” she added, over loud applause from the audience.

“Here’s the problem: Maybe instead of there being four desirable middle schools, there should be fifteen,” said parent Josh Kross, 41. “This is only going to create more problems.”

About a dozen parents asked questions of the plan during Wednesday’s hearing, asking how the plan would affect students with disabilities (it will not because those students will be prioritized first, regardless of the new plan, the education department said) and students who opt out of tests (students without state test scores will not be considered for the 25 percent of set-aside seats in the diversity plan, Altschul said).

They also brought very specific concerns such as whether or not potential changes to the plan would change the economic makeup of the school enough to threaten its Title I status, a federal designation that gives more funding to high-poverty schools.

“You didn’t have the answers … You didn’t do the math,” said parent Leslie Washington, whose daughter is in fourth grade at P.S. 242.

Though most who spoke up opposed the plan in some form, the proposal did have supporters in the room, including a group of principals and teachers. Cidalia Costa, a middle school teacher at West Prep Academy, said a plan to desegregate the area is “long overdue” to fix a system that’s been flawed for years.

“This plan is not for people who already have an advantage to get more advantage. So, I’m sorry, but I have to advocate for my students because they face a lot of challenges,” she said.

The Department of Education plans to make a decision about the proposal by the end of the school year, and changes would go into effect for the District 3 middle school class of 2019. A public comment period is up through May 29. The CEC is taking feedback through email at d3feedback@gmail.com.

After the meeting, Kristen Berger, chair of the CEC’s middle school committee, said she isn’t sure which proposal would be best. But she’s happy the conversation about measures to desegregate schools in the district is ongoing.

“It is a small fix, but it is a movement in the right direction,” she said of the middle school effort, adding that the group still needs to address system-wide issues including whether “all schools at all levels, elementary, and middle, are of good enough quality.”

DeVos in Detroit

Betsy DeVos’s first Detroit visit featured Girl Scouts, robots, and talk of beluga whales

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos takes pictures on her phone during the FIRST Robotics World Championship, held in Detroit on April 27, 2018.

Betsy DeVos was all smiles on Friday as she toured the world’s largest robotics competition and congratulated student contestants.

The event was her first visit to Detroit as education secretary. DeVos, a Michigan-based philanthropist before joining the cabinet, has a long history of involvement with the city’s education policies.

It was a friendly environment for the secretary, who has often faced protesters who disagree with her stance on private school vouchers or changes to civil rights guidance at public events. (Even her security protection appeared to be in a good mood on Friday.)

Here are four things we noticed about DeVos’s visit to downtown and the FIRST Robotics World Championship.

1. She got to talk to some local students after all.

DeVos didn’t visit any Detroit schools, and didn’t answer any questions from reporters about education in Michigan. But as she toured the junior LEGO competition, she did stop to talk to a handful of Girl Scouts from the east side of the city.

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor

2. She knows a thing or two about beluga whales.

She also stopped to stop to chat with students from Ann Arbor who called themselves the Beluga Builders and designed a water park that economizes water. DeVos asked how they came up with their name, and they told her how much they love the whales. “They have big humps on their heads, right?” DeVos said. “Yes,” they answered in unison.

3. She is an amateur shutterbug.

She stopped often during her tour to shoot photos and videos with her own cell phone. She took photos of the elementary and middle school students’ LEGO exhibits and photos of the robotics competition.

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor

4. She was eager to put forth a friendly face.

As she stopped by students’ booths, she often knelt down to children’s eye level. When she posed for group pictures, she directed students into position. And she shook lots of hands, asking kids questions about their projects.