DPS school board sues state, EMs on students’ behalf

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

The Detroit Public Schools board, left out of decision-making in the state’s largest district for the past seven years, struck back Thursday by filing a class action lawsuit against Gov. Rick Snyder and other officials over poor financial, academic and building conditions.

Thomas H. Bleakley, an attorney for the school board, described conditions in DPS as “the Flint water crisis on steroids” during a press conference at the Fisher Building.

The students represented in the class action lawsuit are described as the “impoverished children among the 58,000 more or less students of DPS (including those enrolled in EAA schools) who, from 2011 to the present have experienced and will continue to experience permanent damage caused by willful and callous indifference to their education needs.”

DPS, run by a series of state-appointed emergency managers since March 2009, has suffered decades of enrollment declines, low test scores and growing financial troubles. The state also ran the district from 1999 to 2005.

“I have the privilege of representing the Detroit Public Schools board as well as mothers and fathers of children in the district,” Bleakley said.

He said several times, while working on the lawsuit, he was brought to tears.

“As I was drafting the 103-page case, I felt tears well up in my eyes on a half-dozen instances,” he said. “I want to set the record straight on just who is responsible for this mess.”

DPS did not respond to a request for comment Thursday on the suit.

Bleakley, flanked by Detroit Public Schools board members, two parents and community activists, said the case is personal for him.

“I attended Denby High School in Detroit in the 1950s and I had every opportunity available to me,” he said. “Those opportunities are not available to students today.”

Asked if there is a monetary value attached to the lawsuit, Bleakley deferred, saying, “Asking for compensation and punitive damages puts the cart before the horse.”

Bleakley, with a practice in St. Clair Shores, is taking on the case pro bono. The lawsuit names 24 plaintiffs, including Snyder, three former emergency managers — Jack Martin, Roy S. Roberts and Darnell Earley — and individual Michigan legislators, among others.

John Telford, the school board’s appointed superintendent, described Bleakley as a “knight in shining armor.”

But like the school board, Telford has been sidelined from decision-making.

The authority for operating the school district rests with Emergency Manager Steven Rhodes, installed by the state March 1. Rhodes, a retired U.S. bankruptcy judge who oversaw the city of Detroit’s Chapter 9 bankruptcy, is the fifth state-appointed leader at DPS in the past seven years.

“This thing is going to go viral and the whole world is going to know about it,” Telford told The Detroit News. “I’ve been waiting for years for this and had a heart attack in the meantime trying to fight against the emergency managers.

“I’m 80 years old and am trying to survive long enough for us to win this for the kids.”

Parent Kathy Carthron has an 8-year-old son, Joseph Johnson, who is autistic and nonverbal and attends Cook Elementary School. She blasted the district, saying DPS has not properly attended to her son.

“He is left in his own mess and I have to complain about it and everybody knows about it,” she said. “I’m furious. How can you do my son like that?”

She said the saving grace has been the new principal at the school, whom she said has set up a one-on-one aide for her son.

Carthron, who said she is bipolar, said she is pleased the lawsuit has been filed against the district.

“I don’t need a dollar from this,” she said. “But I will not allow (the district) to dog out my son.”

The Detroit Federation of Teachers filed a lawsuit against the district Jan. 28, asking a judge to oust then-emergency manager Earley, saying his failure to address deteriorating buildings put students at risk. Earley resigned Feb. 29.

The lawsuit stems from ongoing frustration over the conditions of school buildings. The teachers union argues dangerous environments cause serious and irreparable harm to the health, safety and welfare of students.

The union is seeking the repair of building code violations, a capital plan for school facilities and restoration of local control over DPS.

The union lawsuit lists some of the conditions in Detroit’s schools, which include black mold, bacteria, freezing cold or overly hot classroom temperatures, rodent and insect infestations, exposed wiring and falling debris.

A series of sickouts this school year has closed dozens of schools and drawn attention to health and safety problems inside some DPS buildings. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan toured several schools earlier this year and announced inspections of all of the district’s buildings.

Financial woes also plague the district. On March 29, Snyder signed into law $48.7 million in emergency funding to keep DPS open through the end of the school year. The state’s largest school district was in danger of running out of money this month.

But the money is only a temporary measure while Snyder tries to get the GOP-controlled Legislature to enact a $715 million restructuring plan to split the district in two and pay off operating debt over a decade.

Snyder supports bills that would end control by emergency managers and create an appointed school board that eventually would become an elected board.

The governor proposes creating two separate entities to separate over $500 million in debt from a new district that then could use its money to educate rather than pay down debt.