Detroiters to consider 63 candidates for school board

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

Detroit voters next month will take a major step toward returning the state’s largest school district back to self-governance, but first they’ll have to choose seven winners from a list of 63 candidates.

The Nov. 8 election will mark the first time in seven years that an elected board will have power over a district that has been hemorrhaging cash and students, and has been under the oversight of four emergency managers since 2009.

The new board, smaller than the current 11-seat board, will have power over academics and will select a superintendent, but finances still will be watched by the state through a Financial Review Commission. The district’s emergency manager, Steven Rhodes, will leave office in January when the board is sworn in.

Domonique Hister, a parent who has three children in Detroit schools, said, “It’s about time the school board will not be under an emergency manager.”

Hister said the election is “the best thing that could happen to the district, because the new school board members know what we need because they’re from here, and will be more in tune about what is going on in the schools.”

The reinvention into the Detroit Public Schools Community District comes after Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law a $617 million state aid package in June. At that time, he said it marks “a new day” for families.

The plan will help pay off $467 million in operating debt from DPS and provide $150 million in startup funding for a new debt-free district.

John Tramontana, spokesman for the Michigan Association of School Boards, said one of the most important decisions board members will make is hiring a superintendent.

“The board and superintendent will now be able to set the direction of the district and the budget for the district,” he said.

“This is a long-overdue return to local control for Detroit. We believe voters will take that responsibility very seriously by choosing school board members who will govern the district with integrity, and make decisions to positively impact student achievement, building safety and infrastructure improvements.”

Poring through the more than five dozen candidates on the ballot will be a daunting task, say parents, teachers and education experts, especially when the ballot already is packed with national and state races and two countywide proposals.

Hister said she did not know how many candidates were running for office, but is determined to wade through the names.

“I will do my research, like Googling their names, to find out more about them,” she said. “But 63 is a bit much. It’s really ridiculous.”

Blame that on timing, explained Anna Heaton, Snyder’s spokeswoman.

“The legislative process wasn’t completed in time to hold a primary election — including the time required for printing and mailing of ballots … ,” she told The Detroit News. “We consulted with the secretary of state in an attempt to hold a primary election but were unable to meet the time frame.”

Attorney Isaac Robinson, chairman of the Michigan Democratic Future PAC and a Detroit resident, cautions voters not to rush inside the voting booth.

“Some absentee voters have found it difficult to find the candidates they want to vote for,” said Robinson, who describes his PAC as a grassroots activist group with more than 700 members. “We are urging voters to take their time to find their choices.”

He also noted that voting a straight-party ticket does not include the school board.

“I think voters will pick names they recognize and candidates they believe truly care about our children,” he said.

Robinson said the PAC has endorsed former DPS superintendent John Telford and some incumbents on the board, such as Tawanna Simpson, Herman Davis and Wanda Redmond.

The Detroit Federation of Teachers is working with the Metro Detroit AFL-CIO union to endorse seven candidates: Angelique Nicole Peterson-Mayberry, Misha Stallworth, Deborah Hunter-Harvill, the Rev. Keith Whitney, Iris Taylor, Ryan Mack and Markita Meeks.

Tonya Allen, CEO of the Skillman Foundation, said the pool of candidates is a testament to the interest Detroiters have in controlling and improving their schools.

“However, the large number of candidates makes it difficult for voters to discern and get to know the candidates,” she said. “There is no easy way to become an informed voter without hours of research or reliance on a trusted endorsement from a civic, political or business slate.”

Less than half of the candidates responded to The Detroit News’ candidate surveys.

Of the 28 who responded, their ages range from 27 to 80. The majority are in their 40s, followed by those in their 60s.

None of the respondents has children enrolled in the district, but several have children who graduated from the district. Seven hold doctorate degrees; there are 13 master’s degrees and two law degrees in the bunch.

Two are former superintendents, one is a current assistant superintendent, five are former DPS board members and one is a retired substitute teacher. Ten of the last 11 members who served on the board also are running for a seat.

The current school board has not been idle, meeting regularly even though it doesn’t have any power. President LaMar Lemmons said the board offered alternatives to selling property and came up with its own budget, both of which were rejected by the Financial Review Commission.

In a statement to The News, Snyder said the city of Detroit has “made great strides in its economic recovery during the last several years, and now the school district also has a clean slate from which to begin. Residents of the city now have the opportunity to select an entirely new locally elected board, the members of which will be tasked with keeping the district’s finances on solid footing while ensuring a high quality of education for all students.”

Steve Conn, who teaches at Western International High School and is the former leader of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said the new board should be aggressive about fighting for Detroit students.

“We need school board members who will stand up for Detroit’s youth and demand the immediate elimination of the Financial Review Commission ... a Jim Crow institution ... fight Lansing’s plans to close more DPS schools, cut class size and hike teacher pay to attract and retain teachers,” he said.

Nicole Conaway, who teaches at East English Village Prepatory Academy, criticized the lingering state oversight of the district’s finances.

“The new school board can have a big impact if they stand with the students and people of Detroit and refuse to close any schools, demand the dissolution of the FRC, and commit themselves to representing the people of Detroit, not the interests of Lansing or charter companies,” she said.

Ben DeGrow, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said one of the duties of the school board should be dealing with bureaucracy to make sure more resources are used in the classrooms.

“Detroiters should seek a board that recognizes students’ diverse needs and challenges, and embraces the role of parents in making the best decisions for them,” he said.

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Incumbents running

School board members seeking re-election:

■LaMar Lemmons

■Herman Davis

■Ida Short

■Patricia Johnson Singleton

■Rev. David Murray

■Tawanna Simpson

■Elena M. Herrada

■Annie Carter

■Wanda Redmond

■Juvette Hawkins-Williams