Detroit school board to study next steps on arena funds

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — Amid community opposition to taxpayer-based bonds being spent on the Little Caesars Arena and Detroit Pistons’ move downtown, the Detroit Public Schools Community District Board of Education is evaluating whether it has the authority to put a November ballot measure before voters to gauge their support.

The panel discussed the potential move during a special Friday meeting at the Fisher Building prompted by a lawsuit over $34.5 million in taxpayer-funded bonds to modify the arena that argues the public dollars should not be used without voter approval. Detroit’s City Council approved the bonds by a 7-2 vote Tuesday.

Andrew Paterson, an attorney for the case’s plaintiffs — 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. The pair alleged the Downtown Development Authority and the Detroit Brownfield Redevelopment Authority are illegally using tax revenues intended for public school students and Wayne County parks to finance construction of the facilities.

Board members on Friday discussed the complexity of the issue and whether they have standing to go to voters. Ultimately, they delayed action, asking board legal counsel Phyllis Hurks-Hill to review the issue.

“I think that we should be very discrete about how our taxes are being spent,” board member Georgia Lemmons said. “It’s our schools.”

Financial implications of the deal are expected to be explored during an upcoming committee meeting, the board said.

Hurks-Hill cautioned that the board is limited in what it can place on the ballot. But Davis disagreed, saying during public comment that the state’s revised school code “lays out the legal authority for the body to put forth this question.”

Many of the more than a dozen people who spoke before the board urged them to fight the bond captures.

Keith Williams, a former Wayne County Commissioner, called it a “Robin Hood effect” in that the effort appears to benefit the rich while depleting resources for students.

“The most important thing is how we solve the issues with our children and make sure they are elevated in life,” he said.

Kathy Montgomery, who has grandchildren in the district, said diverting dollars is “unacceptable to me.”

“We taxpayers in Detroit voted for a millage for schools. ... It needs to go for that purpose,” she said.

Meanwhile Friday, District 5 Councilwoman Mary Sheffield attempted to clear up misconceptions about the deal during a raucous community meeting at the Historic People’s church.

Sheffield, who voted Tuesday in favor of the arena modifications, explained to a crowd of about 150 the money isn’t coming from the neighborhoods or the school system.

“The idea that I would divert money from our children is false,” she said, explaining that DPS was bifurcated into the “old DPS,” which exists to pay down the debt, and the “new DPS,” which has a budget that covers operating costs.

Sheffield said several times that because the arena is being built downtown, and the taxes captured by the Downtown Development Authority, the taxes of only owners of property downtown will be affected.

“Hello, District 5 – you’re not in the DDA area,” she said. “Your property taxes are not going to be captured by this. You’re making noises, and we’re talking emotions vs. facts.”

The councilwoman was repeatedly interrupted by people in the crowd, who shouted, “Abolish the DDA,” “we don’t want money going to rich people,” and “They raped us.”

Tristin Taylor said the arena is a raw deal for Detroiters.

“Nothing beneficial to anyone in this room came out of this deal,” he said. “They say they’d give us jobs. What jobs? Serving pizza to the white people who can afford a ticket to this arena? Our city is not for sale. That should be simple.”

Sheffield, who has contemplated a reconsideration of her vote, said she hasn’t yet decided.

“I want to take in all the information,” she said.