River Rouge's school district accuses Duggan of blocking ads on Detroit buses

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — River Rouge School District is suing Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan over an alleged scheme to thwart the district's enrollment-boosting advertising campaign to retain more kids in Detroit schools. 

In a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday, the River Rouge district contends Duggan and co-defendants including the Detroit's Department of Transportation and city-based advertising company Outfront Media, conspired to prevent the district's advertisements from appearing on DDOT buses in violation of the district's free speech rights. 

The legal action, filed on behalf of River Rouge Superintendent Derrick Coleman and school board Trustee Deborah Harper, alleges civil rights violations and a breach of contract that has resulted in $5 million in damages for the district. 

According to a complaint, the River Rouge district inked a deal in June with Outfront to run 230 advertisements posters on the back of DDOT buses from July 8 through Sept. 1.

"Defendants' removal of the district's advertisements from DDOT buses evince a scheme by defendants to breach the subject contracts via illegal content and viewpoint discrimination, in violation of the first amendment," the lawsuit reads. 

According to the complaint, the district inked a deal in June with Outfront to run 230 advertisements posters on the back of DDOT buses from July 8 through Sept. 1.

On July 3, however, an Outfront employee emailed Coleman saying that the contact could not be performed as agreed to and that the district's ads wouldn't be displayed on the DDOT buses because "the mayor of Detroit has decided for DDOT to run only Detroit Public Schools advertising on the buses," the lawsuit alleges.

 Angelica Jones, interim director for DDOT, rejected the allegations. 

“The claims made in this complaint are utter nonsense. The mayor never gave any such directive regarding River Rouge Schools or any other advertiser," Jones said in a statement. "It is curious that in the three months that have passed since this alleged incident, DDOT has not heard a word of complaint from the River Rouge School District until today.”

The mayor's office declined any further comment.

A message left with the school district's administration office was not immediately returned on Tuesday. A representative for Outfront deferred comment to a supervisor who could not be reached. 

The lawsuit notes that River Rouge's enrollment has grown since 2012, in part, due to Coleman's orchestration of the promotional effort that's been featured on DDOT buses.

Student gains result in increased per-pupil funding, which benefits students and the district. But the school district alleges direction to prevent the ads from running hurt enrollment prospects for the 2019-20 school year, the lawsuit contends.

Bob Schindler, an attorney representing River Rouge, told The News on Tuesday that the campaign previously helped the district boost its student population and the district believes that part of Duggan's plan was to prevent Detroiters from "knowing about the free educational options that they can have."

"This advertising campaign on the DDOT buses and throughout the city is something they've been doing for many years now, and we believe is an important thing because it offered educational options for students in the city," he said.

He could not cite related enrollment figures.

The termination, the suit adds, was "especially damaging" to the district because it occurred during the state-wide open enrollment period when public schools actively enroll new students.

Duggan, DDOT and Outfront, the suit argues, "conspired and collaborated" to violate the district's contract in violation of state and federal law.

The lawsuit also says Duggan attempted to cast a negative light upon the district during his State of the City address in March 2018, discussing the district's busing of school-aged students residing in Detroit to River Rouge.

It happened after Coleman formulated and executed a bussing plan for district students residing in Detroit, it says.

Duggan, during the March 2018 speech, told the crowd that 32,500 children leave the city to attend school in nearby suburbs. 

He noted that River Rouge runs "200 miles of bus routes through the City of Detroit every day." Duggan then touted plans for a transportation loop to get more children to Detroit charter and Detroit Public School Community District buildings.

"We're going to make choice available so they are not being bussed an hour away to River Rouge," he said.