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:

Week In Review

Week in Review: A final push to fill classrooms before the start of school

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit schools superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

With the start of the school year now just over two weeks away, pressure is mounting on schools to hire enough teachers before classes begin. That pressure is especially intense for new Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who has been trying to fill hundreds of vacancies ahead of his first full year as the district’s leader. The new contract approved by the school board this week could help by raising salaries, but the district is still listing nearly every teaching category as an area of “critical need.”

As teachers prepare to return to class, some may be thinking of ways to talk to their students about last weekend’s violent attack on demonstrators protesting white supremacists in Virginia. Chalkbeat has been gathering ideas from teachers about how to help kids through these difficult conversations. Check them out — or add some of your own ideas.

Also, this newsletter is available as a weekly email that can be sent directly to your inbox every Friday morning. Please sign up here.

The final countdown

  • As it tries to recruit enough teachers, Detroit’s main district is using several new tactics. Among them are job fairs like one yesterday that drew 150 candidates. Another job fair is scheduled for Aug. 31.
  • The Detroit News urged Vitti to take his time to make sure the people he hires are up to the task.
  • The head of the city teachers union says the teaching shortage is the direct result of recent state policies.
  • The teachers’ new contract was approved by the school board on Tuesday. If it wins final signoff from a state financial oversight board, first-year teachers in Detroit could soon make more than their peers in Grosse Pointe and other suburbs.
  • The school board Tuesday also approved a $28 million settlement with a contractor as well as an agreement with the Highland Park School district to educate some Highland Park students — as long as the school board of the tiny district agrees.
  • If you missed the board meeting, you can review contracts, hiring decisions and other actions considered by the board by clicking here. For the first time in recent memory, that information will now be posted online days of ahead of scheduled board meetings.
  • Among teachers joining the Detroit district this year are 11 who’ve come from Spain to teach Spanish.
  • Teachers are not the only target for recruitment. The district is also trying to recruit students, hosting a free day at the Michigan Science Center tomorrow for district families, as well as a special “Slow Roll” bike ride, among other events.

The new boss

  • Vitti says he draws on his memories as a child with dyslexia as he relates to Detroit children with special needs. He and his wife, who are co-hosting a forum for special education families next week, talked with the Free Press about their experience as special ed parents.
  • One school advocate took Vitti to task for a district Tweet that quoted him saying poverty shouldn’t be an excuse for poor school performance. Those comments are “not helpful,” she wrote. “It puts the blame on those who are victims.”

Courting literacy

Across the state

  • The head of a state association of charter school authorizers says the state’s decision not to close low-performing schools means that “future generations of Michigan students are going to be failed by their schools.”
  • A bill that would require schools to teach African-American history is getting a new push from its sponsors after a weekend of violence in Charlottesville, Va.
  • A News columnist says the “sad reality” of poor educational quality in Michigan is imperiling the state’s future economic prospects. But the state’s top education and economic officials say they’re ramping up efforts to prepare students for good-paying jobs.
  • The state education department will reduce the overall score students need to pass an English-proficiency test.
  • The state’s largest teachers union opposes a new alternative teacher certification program that a private company can now offer in Michigan.
  • Community groups, churches, businesses and other organizations are hosting school supply drives and shopping sprees to help Michigan kids get ready for school.
  • Parents and advocates are worried that a successful after-school program that last year served 26,623 Michigan students could lose funding under President Trump’s proposed budget.
  • While Detroit has dozens of shuttered school buildings now sitting vacant in city neighborhoods, closed Grand Rapids schools are mostly still occupied.
  • A quarter of the teachers in this district missed more than 20 days of school.
  • These are the state’s top private high schools.

 

Detroit week in review

Week in review: A hurry-up-and-wait moment for Detroit’s landmark education lawsuit and more in this week’s school news

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
On his first day as Detroit schools superintendent, Nikolai Vitti, with former interim superintendent Alycia Meriweather, greets principals at a teacher hiring fair at Martin Luther King Jr. High School.

Was this week’s education news big? We won’t know for a long time — at least a month, but possibly years.

That’s after a lawsuit filed nearly a year ago over the conditions in Detroit schools had its first day in court. A judge will rule within 30 days whether the suit can proceed over the objections of Gov. Rick Snyder, whom the suit targets and who argues that the state can’t be held responsible for Detroit’s schools. If the suit does move forward, it’s likely to take years to have any real effects on local schools.

Of more immediate consequences: Michigan got a rare reproach from federal education authorities, teacher vacancies remain, and an outside-the-box strategy to reach poor kids over the summer. Read on for that news and more, and have a great weekend!
— Philissa Cramer, Chalkbeat managing editor

STILL LOOKING: The main Detroit district is still scrambling to hire hundreds of teachers in hopes of being fully staffed for the upcoming school year.

OUTSIDE THE BOX: Libraries Without Borders is turning laundromats into learning spaces this summer. “At the laundromat, there is a population that often has fallen through the cracks,” the group’s executive director told Chalkbeat. “For the most part, especially during the day, you have unemployed adults and very, very young children.”

ABOUT THAT LAWSUIT: Catch back up on the bleak picture the lawsuit paints. Plus, a city teacher and public school graduate responds to the state’s argument that poverty, not state officials, is holding local students back.

NOT SO FAST: The 70-percent reduction in testing that Detroit schools chief Nikolai Vitti announced last week won’t be distributed evenly; high school students will take fewer tests, but students in other grades won’t see many changes. Vitti says he wants to do more over time.

NEGATIVE FEEDBACK: Less than a week after a phone call that state officials said was positive, the U.S. Education Department rejected Michigan’s plan for holding schools accountable. Now the state has to revise and resubmit — but to whom? The federal official responsible for approving the plans is reportedly on his way out.

A MYSTERY: The number of students in Michigan receiving special education services is on the decline. Were students inappropriately being determined to have special needs? Or are students who need services going without them? A parent group says that’s what’s happening.

TEACHER PREP: A tiny local college, Marygrove, will stop offering undergraduate courses; some local schools employees studying education are among the students stranded. A national group offering an online teacher certification program, Teachers of Tomorrow, got approval from the state to start funneling educators into Michigan classrooms.

STUDENT SHIFTS:  A Wayne State University study shows early evidence that as more African American and poor students choose schools in suburban districts, students in suburban districts choose schools further away from Detroit.

MOVERS AND SHAKERS: The new Detroit Children’s Fund picked Jack Elsey, formerly a top official in the state-run recovery district, as its executive directorTonya Allen, head of the Skillman Foundation, has joined an effort to rethink the way schools are funded in Michigan … Get to know Earl Phalen, the head of a growing charter network that has its roots in Indiana and schools in Detroit. … Top Detroit schools official Alycia Meriweather ranks as “the teacher’s favorite” in MetroTimes’ People Issue … And meet Chris Lambert, who’s inspired by God to recruit volunteers to spruce up city schools. (See the sprucing.)

THE DUVAL CONNECTION: Vitti’s former district, Duval County Public Schools in Florida, is gearing up to replace him. According to news reports there, Vitti is also importing one of his deputies from Florida to lead “marketing and rebranding” for Detroit’s schools.

MARK YOUR CALENDAR: Detroit Public Television’s annual teacher summit is next Friday; educators working in prekindergarten through third grade can sign up now.