Michigan's International Academy faces controversy
Bloomfield Hills — The International Academy is used to getting attention with its ranking as one of the top public high schools in America since 2003.
Just last year, the school's Bloomfield Hills campus was ranked 30th in the top 100 schools nationwide by U.S. News & World Report.
But this year, the school is getting attention for a different reason: An online petition is calling for the removal of its principal, and the school's governing body faces allegations it has repeatedly violated the state's open meeting law.
A petition, started by a former student on Jan. 27 at change.org, calls for the removal of Lynne Gibson, principal of all three International Academy campuses in Oakland County. An initial form of the petition indicated it is in response to concerns raised by teachers, former students and parents over Gibson’s involvement in the establishment of a private school in China known as the Qingdao Okma International Academy.
The IA sister school was established in 2015 by Gibson’s husband, Bert Okma, who started the International Academy in Oakland County. It was closed in June 2017 after it failed to thrive, school officials said.
The petition has been signed by at least 1,100 people.
"Several involved parties have tried to bring concerns surrounding the QIA Project to the attention of the (IA) Joint Steering Committee, but feel they have been largely ignored," the petition states.
“These concerns include inconsistencies and lack of transparency regarding funding, legitimacy of licensing of the school, issues with retaliatory behavior, and drafting and execution of contracts,” the petition says.
The petition alleges officials haven't been upfront about IA's exact role in the foreign school and that IA resources were used to drive decisions at the school in China.
The IA is a tuition-free countywide magnet school with three campuses that educates about 1,554 students. It is run by a consortium of 13 Oakland County districts. The Bloomfield Hills Schools district is the fiscal agent for the IA campus in Bloomfield Hills.
To get into the school, students must enter a lottery and take a math placement test.
Gibson, chairwoman of the Joint Steering Committee, is also an employee of the Bloomfield Hills school district and oversees all three IA schools. She has been principal since 2009.
Gibson said last week the superintendents of each of IA's consortium districts are actively addressing the Open Meetings Act allegations.
"This is an issue that is not within my level of responsibility. ... The consortium districts of the IA are in the process of finalizing their own investigation of the situation," Gibson said in an email.
Gibson declined to comment directly on the petition but referred to a Feb. 13 letter from her attorney, Jackie Cook.
Cook sent a letter to the Bloomfield Hills board of education requesting that members use its bylaws to prevent a former IA teacher from "personally attacking and defaming" Gibson and Okma during public comment at board meetings.
Steven Eschrich sued Okma and the IA school in China inOakland County Circuit Court alleging Okma fraudulently induced Eschrich to leave his teaching position at the IA and move to China to open up the sister school. The lawsuit was dismissed on Nov. 21.
"Enough is enough," Cook wrote in the letter to the school board. "As the allegations presented by Mr. Eschrich to the Board over the last month are nearly identical to allegations dismissed as baseless by the District in 2017 and the Circuit Court in 2018, we respectfully request that this Board cease giving him a platform lodging his personal attacks against Principal Gibson and Mr. Okma."
Bloomfield Hills school board president Paul Kolin said Friday he has reviewed Cook's letter with district attorneys and they feel it is inaccurate.
"We think everything said at public comment was not a personal attack against an employee," Kolin said.
Attorneys for the district also reviewed allegations that the IA's Joint Steering Committee meetings were violating the Open Meetings Act, he said.
"In the meetings, they were making decisions in violation of the Open Meetings Act. Our attorney concurred. They will be open to the public. ... We agree they should be open. The next meeting will be open," Kolin said.
On Feb. 7, Kolin announced a task force is being formed to examine allegations involving the IA and to review documents provided by the public.
The Bloomfield Hills school board president has invited all 13 consortium districts to participate in the task force, which will ultimately produce findings, Kolin said.
Bloomfield Hills Schools superintendent Rob Glass said an investigation was done by the district's legal counsel in 2017 into allegations that the district, the IA and Gibson violated Michigan law or district conflict-of-interest standards.
It found no wrongdoing against Gibson or IA, he said.
"Due diligence was undertaken," Glass said.
No taxpayer dollars were spent to establish or staff the sister school in China, Glass said. No students came from China to attend the IA either, school officials said.
According to a letter from Robert Lusk, an attorney for the Bloomfield Hills district, Eschrich took a voluntary leave of absence from his teaching position to accept a position at the school in China. There was no written employment or other contract with the school or Okma, Lusk said.
"Unfortunately for all concerned, QIA did not thrive, was not always able to meet its commitments to its employees and ultimately closed," the letter said.
"The District believes, from an educational perspective, there are positive and negative considerations to an exclusive sister school relationship between IA and another international academy. These considerations will be taken into account should the opportunity for another sister school relationship arise," the letter said.
Eschrich attended a Feb. 4 meeting for the Bloomfield Hills Schools board of education to ask for a continued investigation into Gibson and conflict of interest issues.
He called the district's investigation "farcical" and accused the IA and Gibson of using IA school resources such as teachers' time and lesson plans for the school in China.
"I am here today, not solely as an aggrieved party, but also as a resident who is deeply concerned that lack of transparency and effective oversight of IA administration, almost since its beginning, has cost the IA ... its students ... and the community some of its most valuable assets," he said.
Nancy Costello, director of the Michigan State University First Amendment Law Clinic, says the Joint Steering Committee has violated the state Open Meetings Act for years, thwarting the public’s right to know what decisions are being made to operate the school.
Costello alleges the body held meetings to conduct official business without a quorum, failed to make meeting minutes available to the public and closed meetings that should have been open.
On Tuesday, Costello said the law clinic is filing a complaint with the state Attorney General's Office against the Joint Steering Committee and the IA for violating the Open Meetings Act.
"I think there's evidence there is intentional violation of OMA and also some community members have submitted a FOIA request and were charged in excess of $8,000," Costello said.
Ken Jackson, who has two children in Bloomfield Hills Schools, says the bigger issue rising from the controversy is why officials used school time and resources to support the creation of a private school in China when districts in Michigan are facing school closures and competition from for-profit charter schools.
“This is a case where a consortium of districts supported a private school venture in China,” Jackson said. “That is the height of hypocrisy when you are spending resources to stop privatization on one hand and on the other hand you are asking for taxpayers to foot the bill for Okma and Gibson.
“To me, it's completely nuts,” Jackson said.
IA graduate Nicole Valdivieso said she tried emailing Gibson to get her side of the story and was told by Gibson that she had been "advised by my superiors to not engage in a back and forth dialogue in regard to these accusations."
Valdivieso, who graduated from the school in 2013, said she cares deeply about IA and what it stands for.
"I know it's troubling both to myself and to many other members of the IA community to think we might not have the entire story," she wrote in her email to Gibson.
Valdivieso attended the Feb. 4 meeting to ask again for information from Gibson and the board.
"We have been unable to get any comment from the other side — that was my attempt to get something from her, and she basically said nothing," Valdivieso said.
Glass says he has confidence in Gibson to do her job. The school pursued a school partnership in China, Glass said, because the International Baccalaureate program is about global mindedness and there are Chinese students who want to come to the United States to study.
According to a website explaining the IB, its focus is on teaching students to "think critically and independently, and how to inquire with care and logic."
"Anything new that comes into question, we will certainly look into it .. .We will not shy away from that," Glass said. "There are no plans (by us) for any new schools" in China.