2 dispute leadership of Detroit school board

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

Detroit — Months before Detroit voters elect a new school board to make way for $617 million in state aid for a new debt-free district, a rift among current board members has surfaced.

Detroit Public Schools board President Herman Davis and board legislative chairman LaMar Lemmons are claiming to be the panel’s president. Lemmons said an election was held June 9 at a board meeting and Lemmons was selected the new president.

Davis says the election was illegal. He had already adjourned the meeting “because they were out of order, before they decided to vote anyway, ” he said.

Emails have surfaced that decry the infighting. The trail of musings has pleadings like: “You all, please don’t do this! This is not what is needed at this time. And please, can’t it be worked out without mass e-mails, in an airing of dirty laundry?”

And more subterfuge allegedly was discovered Sunday, when Davis said someone sabotaged his computer, denying him access to it.

Davis, who has been board president for two years, on Sunday said Lemmons was making his move.

“LaMar Lemmons is trying to hijack the ship, but he is not currently the president, even though he would like to be.”

Both insist they are following the June 9 board meeting results even though the stint is short..

“The legislature disbands the school board on June 30, and makes the transitional manager the dictator over the “old co for 10 years, and the ‘new co’ for six months until the new school board takes over with diminished powers,” said Lemmons.

But Davis contends he remains president.

“I had already adjourned the meeting because they were out of order,” he said. “But they decided to hold the election anyway, so it is against both our bylaws and Robert’s Rules of Order.”

Lemmons was president of the board from 2012-14 and a member for seven years.

“We decided we needed a leadership change to usher us in to challenge the law through an injunction and I have greater expertise because I am a former state legislator and I have the most experience and leadership on the board,” Lemmons said.

The current elected school board has been largely sidelined since the state took over the district in March 2009 and placed it under emergency management.

Board member Ida Short said the election was not a last-minute power grab.

“We tried to have elections before but (the former emergency manager) wouldn’t allow it,” she said. “ ... (School district emergency manager Steven) Rhodes said we could and I asked that it be put on the agenda because it was long delayed. We need to have a president who has a lot of political savvy.”

The push for president signals internal conflict that is troubling, said Kenneth Wong, a professor of education from Brown University.

“Governance conflict is a distraction from a much needed focus on student achievement,” Wong said. “Instead of spending their political capital in establishing their leadership claim, the two board leaders should use their resources to leverage community support for meeting the board’s responsibility to ensure better student outcomes in the district.”

The scramble for board leadership also emerges before a press conference Monday when the board is expected to announce it is considering rejecting a $150 million loan from the state of Michigan, saying the 18 percent interest attached to the loan is excessive.

“We want to know why we’re not borrowing at the state’s preferred rate, which is about 6 percent, as opposed to the risk rate of 18 percent,” said Lemmons.

Gov. Rick Snyder last week signed into law a $617 million aid package for Detroit Public Schools. The plan, approved by the Republican-led Legislature over opposition from Detroit legislators and Democrats, will help rid the district of its $467 million in operating debt and give $150 million to start a new, debt-free district in Detroit. Under that new law, Detroiters will elect a new school board in November, with members to take office in January.

Board members also are considering rejecting a move of the district’s assets into the new district. The board said it fears the transfer of assets will continue the six-year long debt spiral they say began with the state takeover of the district in 2009.

“Ironically, the board is being asked to approve both the loan and the transfer of assets as their last action before Governor Snyder seeks to completely disempower the board despite its having been duly elected by Detroit voters,” said a news release Sunday.

Even if the Detroit school board rejects the loan, the state’s Local Emergency Financial Assistance Loan Board has the power to overrule it in favor of the DPS emergency manager’s recommendation. The three-member panel is composed of Snyder appointees.

Asked to comment on the jockeying for board leadership, Rhodes said:

“The district is looking forward to working with a newly elected board as we place our primary focus on providing a high-quality education for our students,” he said.

Rep. Fred Durhal III, D-Detroit, who voted against the legislation for a DPS rescue plan, said he has a good relationship with Lemmons and Davis.

“I would not dictate anything to another elected body, and I don’t know exactly what is going on,” he said. “But this is a time for us to be united against what is going on with the Detroit Public Schools district.”


(313) 222-2296

Staff Writer Chad Livengood contributed.