Originally posted on the ACLU’s website at http://www.aclumich.org/democracywatch/index.php/entry/detroit-s-elected-school-board-pushes-back-against-state-control

Detroit School Board members and supporters pray for U.S. Justice Department intervention outside the McNamara Building. (aclu.org)

Already shoved to the sidelines by a state-appointed emergency manager, Detroit’s elected Board of Education could soon find itself even further removed from the job of overseeing how the city’s public school students are educated.

The board still meets weekly, but only because a court victory in a case involving a previous emergency manager allowed them to do so. The frustration is that the district, while under state control, continues to fall deeper into debt while losing ever more students while the board watches, unable to take virtually any substantive, official action.

There is, however, at least the hope that they might someday have their authority restored. But even that glimmer would be extinguished if Gov. Rick Snyder’s newest plan for the district is implemented.

Snyder wants to create an entirely new entity for educating Detroit’s public school students while keeping the old district in place as a vehicle for paying off the district’s operating debt, which is currently reported to be $483 million.

Under Snyder’s proposal, the elected school board would remain under the thumb of Emergency Manager Darnell Earley. Neither Earley nor the board, however, would have any responsibility when it comes to actually determining how children in the city are educated. The task of deciding education policies would be turned over to a new entity called the City of Detroit Education District, which will be controlled by a seven-member board. Initially, that board would be composed of four gubernatorial appointees and three people selected by the mayor.

“I have no interest in that role,” Mayor Mike Duggan told The Detroit News. “I am very disappointed in this plan. In particular, that it basically creates long-term state control of local schools.” 

Elected members would begin to replace appointees in 2017, with an all-elected board in place by 2021.

Under Snyder’s proposed plan, a Financial Review Board will have oversight over the old and new districts until the old district’s debt has been eliminated.

Taken together, one overall effect of Snyder’s plan is to further marginalize the current elected school board, which has seen its authority gutted since falling under state control in 2009. The relationship between the board and emergency manager Earley, appointed to replace Jack Martin in January, has quickly grown contentious.

Recently, some board members and a small group of supporters gathered outside the McNamara Federal Building in Detroit to draw attention to a complaint, filed with the U.S. Department of Justice, alleging violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which “prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance.”

The complaint covers a lot of ground, but is based in large part on the claim that Michigan now has two different school systems, with districts that are financially well-off and predominantly white allowed to function as democracies, while poor districts with large numbers of African-American and Latino students are subject to control by an EM, and that both finances and the quality of education suffer as a result.

That is not a new concern. A law suit challenging the constitutionality of the state’s emergency manager law, PA 436, is currently working its way through the federal courts.

“It is a separate and unequal system,” said board member LaMar Lemmons.

Among other things, the complaint filed last week highlights the degree to which emergency management thwarts the kinds of checks and balances that are key to a well-functioning democracy.

Under the current emergency manager law, elected school boards and city councils have a right to weigh in on a variety of matters, including property transfers and borrowing. If the elected officials disagree with an EM’s proposal, they can craft a counter-proposal in an attempt to save or generate an equivalent amount of money.

It is then up to the Local Emergency Financial Assistance Loan Board – a three-member panel composed of the governor’s appointees – to decide which plan gets implemented.

It was one of the additions made to the current law after voters rejected its predecessor. The clear intent was to address concerns about the unprecedented scope of power placed in the hands of an emergency manager.

According to the Justice Department complaint filed by school board members, conditions imposed by emergency managers – especially by Earley since his arrival in January –have made it impossible for them to properly fulfill their responsibilities under the law.

From attempts to limit the frequency of board meetings to prohibiting access to a copy machine to denying the board the funding needed to hire outside consultants and experts, the emergency manager’s actions have impeded the board’s ability to evaluate proposals and produce counter-proposals if it objects to the EM’s plans.

“The Emergency Manager … refuses to provide legal counsel, CPAs and experts in other fields to assist the board. This was never done before. These experts help board Members understand complex contracts, bonds, and other information to better serve the voters they represent.”

The board recently invited Earley to attend one of its meetings and talk about these issues, as well as his $81 million bond proposal. Instead, he sent outside counsel and consultants hired by him to the meeting. Earley also sent DPS general counsel Jean-Vierre Adams in his stead.

Things did not go well.

At one point, sitting at a table in a small conference room without microphones, people in the audience began shouting that they couldn’t hear what Adams was saying in response to questions from board member Lemmons.

When Lemmons asked her to speak up so that the audience could here, Adams snapped, “I’m not talking to them. I’m talking to you.”

Lemmons reminded her that it was a public meeting and that, in fact, she was addressing the public, who had a right to hear what she was saying.

Adams responded by gathering up her things and making an abrupt exit.

That attitude, say some board members, is indicative of a broader problem that starts at the top, and has resulted in the district’s overall debt increasing by more than a half-billion dollars since the state took control in 2009.

“The governor’s policy to limit information to the elected School Board has infringed on the rights of the minority community to have fully functional representation and oversight in the management of money and district operations. … This is not the best way to manage a public institution and community dollars. This is not justified to meet educational goals. This practice and policy is unacceptable.”


Curt Guyette is an investigative reporter for the ACLU of Michigan. His work is funded by a grant from the Ford Foundation.