Gov. Snyder ‘open’ to ending EAA school reform

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Gov. Rick Snyder said Monday he’s “open” to disbanding his controversial Education Achievement Authority if it’s part of a deal with the Legislature to overhaul public education governance in Detroit.

The Republican governor started the authority three years ago to try to turn around 15 low-performing schools in the Detroit district.

“Let’s look at the comprehensive education landscape in Detroit and say: If all of the pieces need to be realigned in some fashion, (then) I’m open to that as sort of a comprehensive solution,” Snyder said Monday in an interview with The Detroit News Editorial Board.

Snyder’s comments mark the first time he has signaled being open to ending his school reform effort in Michigan’s largest city in favor of a different approach.

Democratic lawmakers have long called for the 15 EAA schools to be returned to the financially ailing Detroit Public Schools. Some Republican legislators have criticized the EAA as well amid declining enrollment and the recent indictment of a former EAA principal for taking bribery kickbacks from a contractor.

“The EAA has proven to be a failed turnaround model within the state of Michigan and within the city of Detroit,” said state Sen. David Knezek, a Dearborn Heights Democrat who represents parts of Detroit’s west side. “It’s certainly acknowledging that the community wishes to have these EAA schools returned to DPS.”

The EAA’s future has hung in the balance for months since Snyder took control of the state’s School Reform Office and laid out a plan in April to create an education commission in Detroit to oversee all public schools in the city run by Detroit Public Schools, independent charter schools or some other entity. The commission would be empowered to open and close academically failing schools — a power some charter school operators have resisted.

For months, Snyder has said the EAA’s continued role in educating children in Detroit has been under review while lawmakers consider his $715 million proposal to create a new debt-free Detroit school district.

Snyder’s plan, which may be introduced in the state Senate this week, calls for the state assuming $515 million in DPS operating debt and unpaid vendor and pension bills as well as setting aside $200 million to cover start-up costs at the new Detroit school district.

As Snyder’s Detroit schools plan has lingered without action for months, the governor’s staff has told lawmakers privately that they would agree to return the EAA to DPS after this school year as part of the legislative overhaul of the city’s public schools, said state Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, D-Detroit.

“It’s not a trade for votes,” said Gay-Dagnogo, a vociferous opponent of the EAA. “It’s getting (students) the right solution in the room.”

Democrats have long contended that the 2012 transfer of 15 Detroit schools to the authority further destabilized the cash-strapped Detroit Public Schools, which the Snyder administration now says could be insolvent by spring.

“We don’t want to start creating systems that compete with local school districts because it further widens the gap in public school funding,” Gay-Dagnogo said. “We have to look at solutions that will really realize meaningful outcomes instead of pitting community members against each other in these experimental models.”

On Monday, Snyder continued to contend that the EAA is turning around chronically failing schools, despite the school reform district’s own financial and management troubles and alleged corruption during an on-going Federal Bureau of Investigation probe.

“They’re on a path to potentially keep operating,” Snyder said of the EAA.

Snyder also downplayed last week’s federal grand jury indictment of former EAA principal Kenyetta Wilbourn-Snapp for taking about $58,000 in kickbacks from a vendor to which she steered an after-school tutoring contract.

“It’s terrible to have that happen, but you’re talking about a small number of people,” Snyder said. “But to their credit, they brought the investigation, this issue, to the FBI’s attention.”

Also indicted in the scheme were Glynis Thornton, whose company, Making a Difference Everyday (“M.A.D.E.”), provided after-school tutoring services at Mumford and Denby high schools; and Paulette Horton, who was an independent contractor working for M.A.D.E.

Snyder cautioned against drawing conclusions that the alleged corruption was widespread in the EAA, which was created in 2011 through an agreement with Eastern Michigan University and the Snyder-appointed DPS emergency manager.

“I want to be careful that we don’t get overly critical of this because criminal activity can happen in any organization and ... traditional audits are not designed to find that,” Snyder told The News. “Bad people occasionally show up in a lot of places, and the real question is when you find them, or you find indications of that, how prompt are you about following up, addressing it and getting it out? And the EAA, to their credit, has been relatively on top of the follow-up once ... questions were raised.”

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