city hall watch

No longer distancing himself from education, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is looking for ways to impact schools

After largely steering clear of education during his first term, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is now looking for ways to become more invested in the city schools.

City Hall is already leading an effort called the Detroit Children’s Success Initiative that will put more social workers, therapists, and family support staff into schools. But the mayor is also having conversations with education and civic leaders about ways he can have a more significant impact on the state of education in the city. The low test scores and poor conditions in Detroit schools are often cited as the largest roadblock to the city’s recovery.  

What the mayor’s involvement will look like — and how it will go over with school leaders and parents wary of government involvement after years of state intervention in city schools — is still not clear.

“We’re trying to explore every lever that we can possibly pull to ensure that there are good schools in Detroit, so that’s what we’re looking at,” said Eli Savit, a top advisor to Duggan. “We don’t control the schools. We don’t want to control the schools. But anything we can do to help, we’re willing to do and that can take a number of different forms.”

A recent report from a prominent group of business and civic leaders called the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren anticipated a possible role for the mayor.

One of the coalition’s recommendations was to “Ask the Mayor to work with Coalition leadership to facilitate education ecosystem planning for the City of Detroit and appoint highly credible Detroiters” to work with him.

The coalition said it would ask the mayor to get involved in several delicate — and possibly divisive — issues including working with state education officials to “set school quality standards for all schools.” That could take many forms but some school advocates have raised concerns that the mayor could decide to issue letter grades or otherwise pick winners and losers in a city where most experts expect some low-performing, half-full schools to close in coming years.

The coalition also asked the mayor to take the lead on finding common ground between the city’s combative district and charter school leaders. The coalition report calls for a “charter-district compact that reviews, discusses, and presents plans for better coordination and transparency about school openings and school closings,” and that finds “opportunities for citywide collaboration in areas such as a centralized data system and a campaign to address chronic absences.” The recommendations assert that this compact should not make decisions about openings and closings or “usurp the authority” of district and charter school leaders.

Savit said the mayor is taking those recommendations seriously.

“We heard that recommendation loud and clear,” Savit said. “The coalition was a diverse set of stakeholders that came to us with that recommendation. Of course we’re looking at it and how … to potentially move that forward.”

As mayor, Duggan does not have much power over schools. The city’s main district is now run by an elected school board after years of control by state-appointed emergency managers. The city’s 90 charter schools are run by a host of education management companies and organizations that report to charter school boards and are overseen by 11 different colleges, universities, and school districts.

The result is a sometimes chaotic environment in which schools compete with each other for students and staff and rarely share ideas or resources. It was a situation that some city leaders hoped to address two years ago through the creation of a mayor-led Detroit Education Commission that would oversee issues such as where new schools should locate and how school success should be measured.

Duggan vocally campaigned for the commission when it was being considered in the legislature in 2016, but the idea met with strong opposition from both charter school and district school supporters who raised concerns about how the mayor’s influence might affect schools.

The commission was ultimately defeated in a contentious, tearful, middle-of-the-night vote, without any support from Democrats.

Since then, Duggan has not said much about whether he would again try to get involved with schools. But community leaders say he’s been holding meetings in recent weeks to figure that out.

One effort that is already underway is the Detroit Children’s Success Initiative.

The success initiative is focused on expanding “wraparound services” for schools including social workers, therapists, and support staff that can help families facing homelessness, transportation challenges, health issues, and other problems that make it difficult for children to come to school and succeed.

Schools across the country are increasingly turning to wraparound services after recognizing that earlier efforts like creating new schools and putting pressure on teachers to boost test scores were not sufficient to help children living in poverty.  

Savit declined to comment on the initiative, beyond saying that it’s a work in progress that’s being led by the city health department.

“We’ve been pulling together stakeholders and having discussions,” he said. “But … there’s nothing to announce at this time.

Several people involved in the effort say it began with a three-year, $15 million grant from an organization called the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority.

Rather than give the money to specific schools or districts, the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority approached the city about leading the effort, said Bernard Parker who serves on the Authority board and is also the CEO of the Timbuktu Academy, a charter school on Detroit’s east side.  

The mayor is using the money as a starting point to raise additional funds, working with local charities and foundations, Parker said. “We would like to double the money to $10 million [a year].”

As for how to distribute the money once it’s raised, conversations are still preliminary, Parker said.

“The model that’s been talked about is having a nonprofit organization already involved collaborate with a school,” Parker said. “The nonprofit would get the grant and could collaborate with people at the school to do various supports.”

Some advocates are hoping that if Duggan can bring district and charter school leaders together around supporting families for the Detroit Children’s Success Initiative, that could lead to other kinds of collaborations, such as efforts to recruit and train educators to teach in Detroit.

“The concept was to be a catalyst for change,” said Tom Watkins, who as CEO of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority last year first asked the authority’s board to find money for the initiative.

“If it’s just used as another funding source,” he said, “then we’ve missed an opportunity.”

Watkins, who was the state schools superintendent from 2001 to 2005, said he’s seen lots of money flow to lots of programs but their impact is often limited.

With this money, he said, “the whole concept was to pull the players together and to figure out ways in which we could really attack in a systematic way the issue of why kids aren’t successful. A lot of that resolves around the extra needs of children coming from poverty and all the social issues that go with that. What are the things outside of the academic environment that prevent children from succeeding?”

Watkins left the Mental Health Authority in August but said he was glad to hear that City Hall is moving the effort forward.

“The mayor is the epicenter to bring people together. Community groups, foundations, businesses, civic associations, whatever,” Watkins said. “Oftentimes, who convenes the meeting will bring players to the table.”

choice and competition

It’s not just Detroit. Across Michigan, ‘active and aggressive’ competition imperils schools

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Eric Lupher of the Citizen Research Council of Michigan, Benjamin Edmondson of Ypsilanti Community Schools, Randall Davis of Albion-Marshall School District and Scott Menzel of Washtenaw County Intermediate School District testify before the Michigan Civil Rights Commission

Detroit is not the only district struggling with lower enrollment and other challenges related to competition from charter schools and surrounding districts. On the other side of the state, similar forces led to the Albion school district’s demise.

After years of declining enrollment, falling revenue, poor student performance and school closures in the district, the Albion district in western Michigan faced a difficult problem: How to keep the district from dying. The city of Albion had a large number of students, but many of them travelled outside the city to attend school, forcing the Albion Community Schools district to merge with nearby Marshall Public Schools in July 2016.

Albion’s story was one of many shared Monday with state’s Civil Rights Commission, which held its first in a series of public hearings Monday in Ypsilanti to hear firsthand about issues confronting school districts. Representatives from public policy organizations, school districts, as well as parents, educators and advocates from Detroit and around the state shared stories of hardships and difficult decisions they face.

The commission is charged by the state’s constitution with investigating alleged discrimination. It launched the hearings this week after learning from education experts that state schools are in crisis. The goal of the hearings is to determine if minority students and those with special needs have faced discrimination in the state’s schools.

Albion’s story came from Randall Davis, superintendent of the Albion-Marshall School District, who told commissioners he blamed what happened to Albion schools — a district that had primarily served low-income, African-American students — on a law passed more than two decades ago that allowed students in Michigan to attend any school in any district that would take them.

“Schools of choice decimated the schools,” Davis said. “They had three or four of our contiguous districts that were driving into their district picking kids up. It was active and aggressive….I believe that is not the intention of schools of choice, but that’s what happened.”

The hearing was not intended to focus on competition from charter schools and between neighboring districts, but many of the people who testified came from traditional district schools or from policy organizations, so much of the testimony centered on the consequences of choice in Michigan.

Individuals also came forward to raise various concerns about equity in schools. The commission did not hear from charter school advocates but the commission plans to hold at least two other hearings.

“We also open it up to anyone to offer their opinions,” said Vicki Levengood, communications director for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. “We encourage people on all sides to bring their messages to the hearings.”

The next hearing will be July 23 but a location has not yet been set, she said.

At the first hearing Monday, Benjamin Edmondson, Superintendent of Ypsilanti Community School District, painted the grim, poignant picture confronting him when he became the district’s school chief in 2015.

The Ypsilanti district lacked money to pay for services students needed such as social workers, homeless services, school safety officers, and washers and dryers. The district only managed to provide those services by partnering with the University of Michigan, Eastern Michigan University and community colleges.

“Those partnerships are critical,” he said. “I don’t know how we would survive without those entities buying into the district.”

Edmondson said his district had lost 300 students before he arrived, costing the district nearly $2.4 million. That forced him to scrap advanced placement classes and meant he couldn’t pay teachers enough to fully staff his classrooms. Graduation rates were low and the district was swimming in debt. The district’s challenges were compounded by the fact it competes with the nearby Plymouth-Canton Community Schools district, which enrolls more than 17,000 students. “We were David and Goliath,” he said.

The district also faces a “strong charter school presence,” he said, recalling a charter school representative who came vying to purchase a vacant district building. He said he felt threatened by the potential buyer’s ability to automatically take 300 students from the district.

“Here I am a new superintendent with a new school board and I just want to paint the story,” he said. “In 2015, we had declining enrollment, white flight, poverty, low expectations, low wages, high debts and priority schools, neighboring charter schools, and a state takeover threat for our schools.”

This year, Edmondson said the district is improving but still facing daunting challenges.

With population declines and fewer students in districts, even with consolidated districts, Michigan’s districts are too small, Eric Lupher of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan told commissioners. He said it means school districts from around the state are struggling because they are losing so many students to surrounding districts.

For example, he said Ypsilanti Community School District is continuing to bleed students to Ann Arbor, Plymouth-Canton and other districts. Ferndale schools are gaining almost 800 students from Oak Park and Detroit schools, but is losing about 350 students to districts further from city line such as Royal Oak and Berkley schools.

The issue isn’t limited just to southeastern Michigan, he said, pointing to Wyoming Public school district, about five miles from Grand Rapids, which has lost students to nearby Jenison and Grand Rapids.

“It’s a bigger issue, and it’s a lot bigger than just consolidation,” he said. “It’s the choice we’ve offered. I’m not here to speak ill of choice, but it’s creating issues we’re not dealing with.”

The eight commissioners listened intently through the six-hour hearing at the Eagle Crest Conference Center, Ann Arbor Marriott in Ypsilanti, occasionally asking questions.

Commissioner Jeffrey Sakwa at one point expressed sympathy for the superintendents. “You guys are in a tough place,” he said.

While Michigan once had nearly 600 school districts, Sakwa said, that number is shrinking.  

Sakwa blamed competing school districts as a primary reason for the changes.

“It’s like Burger King, McDonald’s, and Kentucky Fried Chicken all on the corner trying to steal everybody’s lunch every single day,” he said.

PHOTO: By Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Helen Moore

About 20 people from Detroit, Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor spoke during the public comments portion of the hearing. Among them was longtime Detroit education advocate Helen Moore. “Don’t play games with us,” she told commissioners over applause that sometimes drowned her words.

“You know the discrimination we have received as black people and our children. You know that during slavery it was against the law to read. This is what’s happening to our children now.”

 

Dropped charters

Detroit board members decide not to renew charter, leaving 3 schools and 700 students in limbo

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Earl Phalen founded Phalen Leadership Academies, a fast-growing network of charter schools that could have to scramble following a Detroit school board decision.

Three Detroit charter schools face renewed uncertainty after two school board panels voiced opposition to renewing their contracts.

Murphy, Trix, and Stewart academies were removed from the city’s main district by the state in 2012 and placed into a state-run recovery district that converted them into charters. They remained charters when the recovery district dissolved last year and its schools returned to the district. 

Now the schools managers that run the three schools must find a new backer — and perhaps move into a new building, too.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s position has been clear for months: The main district competes with charter schools for teachers and students, he says. It shouldn’t spend its time overseeing them.

Dealing with district-authorized charter schools “is not a priority,” he told board members at a public meeting on Monday morning. “The lift is so heavy right now with our own schools, that one second not spent on our schools seems to be… a lost opportunity.”

But when Vitti brought the issue to the board in November, the board didn’t come to a decision.

Facing an uncertain future, some district-authorized charter schools chose to find other backers. But the organization that operates Murphy, Trix, and Stewart — an Indianapolis-based charter network called Phalen Leadership Academies — held out, hoping the school board would grant the schools more time.

On Monday, board members on two sub-committees decided not to do that. They agreed not to renew the schools’ charter, which is set to expire in June, meaning the issue will not go before the full board.

Sonya Mays, chair of the finance subcommittee, declined to support the renewal of the schools’ charter despite concerns that the transition could be turbulent for students there.

“My primary concern is not having the academic experience of those students disrupted,” she said.

Dozens of universities and school districts authorize charters in Michigan, and Vitti expressed confidence that Murphy, Trix, and Stewart, which together enroll more than 700 students, will be able to find an authorizer elsewhere. Phalen Leadership Academies contacted at least one other charter authorizer about a transfer, but did not submit the requisite paperwork. Creating a new charter can take much of a year, but officials at Central Michigan University, the authorizer contacted by Phalen, said a three-month turnaround is not impossible.

Earl Phalen, the organization’s president, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

For LaMar Lemmons, who joined Mays in opposing the charter, the issue was clear-cut.

“They were basically funneling our children into the charters,” he said of the state officials who spun off the former district schools into independent entities. “Those students walk to school to Trix. We would immediately absorb 90 percent of those students.”

But the district likely won’t be able to open a school on Trix’s building for a couple of years. Vitti wants to renegotiate the lease on the district-owned building with Phalen’s organization, saying it was “very generous.” If those talks fail, the district would regain control of the building, but Vitti says the buildings are in poor repair.

Starting a new school could pose a challenge for a district already racing to fill nearly 200 open teaching posts by next fall. The building already has many buildings that are far from fully occupied.

“I don’t want to start the school year with 25 vacancies at one school,” said Angelique Peterson-Mayberry, who also opposed renewing the contract.

It will be years before the district can get out of the charter business entirely. Three of its 10 remaining contracts don’t expire until 2022 (see below for a full list).

Without a means of exiting those agreements, the Office of Charter Schools, which oversees the district’s charters, won’t close its doors any time soon. Indeed, even as the finance subcommittee spoke out against renewing charters for Trix, Murphy, and Stewart, it approved $4,000 to send district employees to training for charter authorizers.