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East Detroit district opposes CEO for 4 schools

Nicquel Terry
The Detroit News

A state decision to take over four underperforming East Detroit public schools is not receiving a warm welcome from the district.

Schools officials, backed by community leaders, say they are against the appointment of a CEO to make personnel and curriculum decisions at the schools.

“The teachers in East Detroit believe we have the capacity to turn the academic performance of the schools around without state intervention,” said Lincoln Stocks, president of the East Detroit Federation of Teachers. “We have been working very hard and made a great deal of sacrifice.”

The targeted schools — Bellview and Pleasantview elementaries, Kelly Middle and East Detroit High — were ranked in the lowest performing 5 percent of all Michigan schools. Three schools in the 3,200-student district won’t be under the CEO.

State school reform officer Natasha Baker announced earlier this month that Gary Jensen, a former Montcalm County high school principal, would be appointed to oversee the four schools and work to improve education.

Jensen will receive a three-year contract at a base salary of $160,000, according to Baker.

But East Detroit school officials say the Macomb County district was making progress before the state stepped in.

It has implemented intervention programs to boost math and reading proficiency. Teachers also made concessions — 24.5 percent pay cuts in the past six years — to keep the district afloat, Stocks said.

The district recently eliminated an $8.5 million deficit.

Superintendent Ryan McLeod said East Detroit has faced many challenges including program cuts to make up budget deficits, plummeting enrollment and increased poverty.

The state takeover, McLeod said, is not necessary because the district works closely with the community and the Macomb Intermediate School District to help students.

“Part of our argument is we believe there is a way for the state to support a school district that has a high-need student population that doesn’t have to be a state takeover,” McLeod said.

Students in East Detroit have also voiced opposition to the state takeover.

Kathryrn Kondrat, who will be a senior in the fall, said teachers have been diligent about helping students excel in class.

“It kind of scares us because we don’t know a lot about what he (Jensen) wants to do,” Kondrat said. “I feel our school can handle itself without the state. They just have to look deeper into our school to understand that we are improving.”

McLeod said East Detroit still has pending litigation that seeks clarity in the role of a CEO and their relationship with the district.

In late May, East Detroit Schools obtained a temporary restraining order to stop the State School Reform/Redesign Office from appointing a CEO.

Macomb Circuit Judge Joseph Toia ruled there was a risk the school district could “suffer irreparable harm” if a CEO was appointed.

However, that order expired June 13.

McLeod said he fears the state’s relationship with the school district will not be collaborative because he didn’t know about Jensen’s appointment until it was reported in the newspaper.

Sen. Steve Bieda, D-Warren, called the takeover a “disastrous approach” and said officials were subjecting students to a policy that has failed elsewhere.

“Time and again, we have seen the same thing happen: the state strips power from local, elected officials, and takes over a struggling city or school district,” Bieda said in a statement. “Does it work? All you have to do is ask the people of Flint or the children of Detroit Public Schools.”

Stocks said he’s concerned the state is bringing in a CEO with no ties or experience with the school district.

“The most significant aspect to turning around a school’s performance is the relationships that are built between the students, teachers, parents and community,” Stocks said. “When you bring folks from the outside, they don’t understand the critical aspect of those relationships.”

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