Detroit schools to discuss Little Caesars Arena bonds

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — The Detroit Public Schools Community District will convene a special Friday meeting to discuss whether a ballot measure should go before city voters in November to assess their support for taxpayer-based bonds being spent on the Little Caesars Arena and Detroit Pistons move downtown.

The school board’s 5 p.m. meeting at the Fisher Building comes in the wake of a lawsuit over $34.5 million in taxpayer-funded bonds to make modifications to the arena that argues the public dollars shouldn’t be used without voter approval.

Detroit’s City Council approved the bonds by a 7-2 vote on Tuesday with Council President Brenda Jones and member Raquel Castaneda-Lopez voting no.

Andrew Paterson, an attorney for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit — activist Robert Davis and Detroit clerk candidate D. Etta Wilcoxon — urged school board members in a letter this week to place the question on the Nov. 7 general election ballot.

Board member LaMar Lemmons said he felt “disrespected” by the council’s vote and was among several on the school board to request the special meeting.

“I don’t see any reason for us not to put this before the people and let them decide,” he said Thursday.

Lemmons said he doesn’t expect the board to take action Friday because more research is needed. But he does anticipate a decision by its next regular July meeting. If a measure is submitted for the ballot, it would have to take place by Aug. 1, he said.

The majority of the seven-member school board would have to vote in favor of the ballot initiative for it to proceed, Lemmons said.

Board President Iris Taylor said Friday’s meeting is for discussion. There isn’t any official request before the board for action, she added.

Taylor said she’s not taking a position on the matter at this time, saying she would rather first “sort through the facts.”

The council vote on the bonds came after a federal judge late Monday declined to issue a preliminary injunction that would have blocked the Detroit Downtown Development Authority from capturing taxes to pay for the bonds.

U.S. District Judge Mark Goldsmith ruled Davis and Wilcoxon failed to demonstrate the right to vote guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution is being violated by the team’s move.

The pair sued the DDA, seeking a temporary restraining order against the tax authority and voter approval before tax dollars could be used for the arena.

The two have alleged the DDA and the Detroit Brownfield Redevelopment Authority are illegally using tax revenues intended for the city’s public school students and Wayne County parks to finance construction of the facilities.

The state reimburses the district through the School Aid Fund for any shortfalls that are the result of tax deals or other shortages. But other local entities which collect taxes, such as the Detroit Public Library, do not get reimbursed.

Davis has said he and Wilcoxon plan to appeal Goldsmith’s ruling on the injunction in U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals and pursue a separate action in state court to invalidate the council’s vote.

Also Friday evening, District 5 Councilwoman Mary Sheffield is hosting an “emergency community meeting” to discuss the Pistons deal and DDA amendment vote.

Sheffield said she called for the meeting to educate residents about the terms of the agreement and clear up misinformation. Representatives from the Pistons and council’s legal staff are also expected to take part.

“It is important to me that those I represent have the correct information,” she said.

At Tuesday’s formal City Council session, Sheffield raised the issue of school funds and whether there would be implications from the amendment. Council’s legal staff drafted a report that concluded there would not, she said.

“I would never support any deal that would take funds away from the children of the Detroit public school system,” she said.