EAA leader says she’s exploring options for district

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

The Education Achievement Authority may not exist in its current form after June 2017, but Chancellor Veronica Conforme said Tuesday the state-run district is studying alternatives to its expiring interlocal agreement with Eastern Michigan University.

Following a joint board of directors and executive committee meeting, Conforme told The Detroit News that she’s not giving up on the recovery district, which operates 12 direct-run and three charter schools in Detroit. EMU’s Board of Regents voted Feb. 5 to cut ties with the EAA, which operates under an interlocal agreement with the university and Detroit Public Schools.

“We will be finding another university to work with, working closely with DPS and with the (state) School Reform Office,” Conforme said.

Asked what “working closely with DPS” means, Conforme replied, “I don’t really know because I haven’t even explored it yet. We’re engaged in conversation, but we are completely different entities and that would take a lot of conversations.”

She added, “The schools and the work are staying. What happens with the governance may change.”

EMU associate professor Stephen Wellinski addressed the EAA board and called on members to end the relationship now, rather than waiting until the middle of next year.

“I call on the EAA to withdraw from the interlocal agreement immediately,” he said. “The EAA has the right to withdraw at any time. As Chancellor Conforme has said, this saga has gone on too long. Waiting until June 2017 is too long. We should all be concerned about what is happening, especially to African-American students.”

But Conforme said it’s not that simple.

“I called for the ending of the interlocal agreement. It ends June 2017, which gives us a transition period to close out what was called the EAA and for us to move forward. This affects the lives of 7,000 students and over 500 teachers. We can’t just flip a switch.”

During a closed session, the board discussed the chancellor’s evaluation.

When the board returned after two hours, members took turns praising Conforme’s performance since she became the district’s top official in June 2014.

“I’m pleased to announce that we evaluated her on the high end of effective,” said board president Joyce Hayes Giles. “Our chancellor has had a real presence in the community and with students inside the schools. Any time there’s any incident, she’s like a first responder and she’s always communicating with them. The chancellor has done a yeoman’s job of keeping principals, staff and students informed about what’s going on and letting them know we’re going to continue to work for them and keep their aspirations up.”

Afterward, Conforme addressed members and the audience to talk about the severing of ties with EMU.

“I thought the interlocal agreement should end,” she said. “We know our students and families need continuity. Many come from struggling homes and backgrounds. They need a stable environment, not one that is always changing or being debated in the newspapers. I agreed it had gone on for too long.”

The EAA’s future has become increasingly uncertain as debate heats up in Lansing over how to rescue and restructure the financially failing DPS, which carries hundreds of millions of dollars in debt.

The same week that EMU ended the interlocal agreement, Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof said the EAA would be scrapped as part of a DPS rescue.

The Senate and House are considering competing versions of DPS legislation; the House measure, introduced last week, calls for an eight-year wait before control of the district is returned to an elected school board.

“We will continue to monitor the legislative agenda and we want to continue the work,” Conforme said.

The EAA, started by Gov. Rick Snyder in 2011 to turn around Michigan’s lowest performing schools, has been plagued by turmoil over low test scores, financial trouble and other problems, including a corruption scandal involving employees and contractors.


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