EMU board could cut ties to Michigan's EAA

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Three years after Gov. Rick Snyder invited Eastern Michigan University to be a partner in a statewide school district to turn around low-performing schools in Michigan, turmoil surrounding the Education Achievement Authority could come to a head Friday.

As educators balk, unions shun EMU student teachers and alumni express outrage, scores of issues have emerged in the EAA. They include inappropriate use of travel funds, faulty education software and problems in the classroom with teachers and teaching methods.

At a meeting Friday afternoon, the EMU Board of Regents will consider whether to sever its relationship with the EAA — set up by Snyder in 2011 to turn around the academic performance of students in the state's lowest performing schools to prepare them for the workforce and global competition.

But the initiative has been controversial. EMU students, faculty and staff, along with faculty from other universities and Detroit educators, are expected to be out in force, demonstrating before the 1:30 p.m. meeting.

It is the last meeting of the year, and regents must give notice by Dec. 30 if they intend to withdraw from the interlocal agreement, according to the contract.

Steve Wellinski, an EMU associate education professor and leader among those demanding that the university end its partnership with the EAA, said he's confident the regents will exit the contract.

The agreement called for the university to provide educational services and expertise, but some professors have said that did not happen, faculty have been excluded and the educational practices in the EAA are questionable.

"This is not only going to help EMU and the EMU community but also the wave of understanding of how problematic and what a farce Snyder's experiment is," Wellinski said. "If we don't get out, it's going to kill the College of Ed. ... There are people in Detroit who are being hurt by this. They are experimenting on kids."

Mario Morrow, EAA spokesman, declined to speculate on how regents will vote.

"We currently have an agreement with EMU until June 2015 and look forward to a long productive partnership that benefits our students, families and staff," Morrow said in a statement. "Over the past three years, the Education Achievement Authority has made major strides in providing a new direction for the education of our students. ... There have unquestionably been growing pains at the EAA, which is not unusual for start-up districts. But we are moving quickly to address them."

It's unclear how the issue will shake out among the eight EMU regents, five of whom are Snyder appointees. Regents have been mum, though some say privately that this issue has been rigorously debated among them, and extensively discussed across the campus community.

Regardless of each regent's political appointment, some contemplate whether the issue could boil down to the impact on education students such as Josh Lowe. Last year, unions in some Washtenaw County school districts backed a boycott of student teachers from EMU in protest of the university's ties to the EAA.

While Lowe studies to be a teacher, he is required to observe students in the classroom. Earlier this year, EMU was supposed to assign him to an Ann Arbor school for his pre-student teaching experience, but the assignment was delayed for more than a month.

Eventually, EMU told him and other students they would have to find a placement on their own because the Ann Arbor schools would not accept students at EMU, Lowe said.

Soon after, he learned that the EAA was the reason — some school districts are boycotting EMU student teachers due to its ties with the recovery district.

EMU faculty members and teachers unions object to the EAA's practice, when it takes over a school, of firing teachers and making them apply for jobs. They also say the district has used inexperienced educators to replace terminated teachers and claim the EAA uses flawed teaching methods.

Hoping to avoid chaos before he graduates in April, Lowe is now trying to get a student teaching assignment far away, in Asheville, N.C.

"I don't think they realize the damage they are doing to student teachers," Lowe said. "They're punishing us."

Since opening in 15 former Detroit Public Schools in the fall of 2012, the EAA has struggled with low test scores, falling enrollment and funding shortfalls. In October, the district estimated this fall's enrollment at 6,500.

Legislation backed by Snyder to expand the district has stalled.

A Detroit News investigation earlier this year showed that credit cards issued to former Chancellor John Covington racked up more than $240,000 in charges in two years, including more than $178,000 in travel. Covington quit as chancellor in June and received more than $74,000 in severance.

Meanwhile, a moveon.org petition urging that the EMU-EAA agreement be dissolved has garnered more than 2,100 signatures, with many supporters adding comments.

"Cut the ties," Betsy Coffia of Traverse City wrote earlier this week. "EAA is a sham, a shame and needs to be disbanded. Do the right thing, EMU leadership."

Added Linda Boron of Dearborn: "As an EMU alum, I am expecting participation in the EAA to end. How can a university that trains teachers actually have supported this in the first place?"

The 27-page agreement between EMU and the EAA includes an exit clause for the university.

EMU could sever its role in the contract, which also includes Detroit Public Schools, if the agreement is amended and another public university joins the agreement. It also can opt out if it gives notice by Dec. 30. EMU also can also opt out if its expenses aren't covered.

If EMU does opt out, it wouldn't terminate the EAA, according to the contract. As long as another public university or public school district steps in, the state-run school district will be viable.

Morrow said when Veronica Conforme became the EAA's interim chancellor this summer, she did so with a determination to make the changes the EAA needed, launching a top-to-bottom review of the organization, restructuring staffing, implementing tighter financial controls, re-evaluating instructional practices and announcing strict new ethics policies.

Conforme was hired as the EAA's permanent leader last month.

"One of the many changes that Chancellor Conforme envisions is in the EAA's relationship with the Eastern Michigan University community. Over the past few months, she has been listening to parents, principals, teachers, students and community leaders about what improvements the EAA needs to make," Morrow said. "She firmly believes that dialogue must extend to EMU's educators, administrators and students, and she intends to make that happen in the months to come."

But critics such as Ellen Lipton, D-Huntington Woods, think the EAA's days should be numbered.

"The EAA is a train wreck," Lipton said. "It is harming students and it should be dissolved immediately, if not sooner."

kkozlowski@detroitnews.com

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