Bankole: Beware of name recognition in school election

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News

In politics, name recognition can earn one elected office easily without meeting any serious qualification that comes with that office. Sometimes it is not so much about what you know, or how bright your ideas are, or even how well equipped you are for the office you are seeking. It is all about how well known you are.

That is why the upcoming Detroit Public School Community District board election on Nov. 8 is so important. In the past, voters elected candidates with name recognition who offered no serious policy proposals to better the district. Instead those candidates became part of the distraction and the problem hindered the district’s forward progress.

Take for example the Rev. David Murray, a veteran of the Detroit Board of Education, who once lost custody of some of his children following allegations of abuse and neglect including troubling revelations that the kids were living in a dilapidated and filthy home.

Murray, who legally changed his first name to “Reverend” in a bid to get the reverence and respect that is accorded such a title, is among 72 candidates seeking a seat on the seven-member board. In the past, Murray has been a top vote-getter and that’s because of name recognition. It is not so much about substance. That is the kind of person who may be elected to the board next month.

Another example is Otis Mathis, who in the past was elected president of the school board despite being functionally illiterate. Mathis, who struggled to put simple sentences together was once the face of the school district’s leadership, and it sent a bad message about the standard of leadership that Detroit was willing to settle for.

We can fuss, blame and express righteous indignation for all of the transgressions of the state in overseeing the district including the appointment of emergency managers who for the most part left the district in more of a financial mess. But we also have an obligation to elect school board members who are role models to the children and who can best represent the interest of the district. These officials also should not become distractions to the mission of reassuring parents that the new school district will get its act together this time around.

Detroiters should not elect the David Murrays and Otis Mathises of the world this time around. Voters should be looking for candidates who have bold and refreshing ideas and have the passion and qualifications to serve. Electing candidates based on name or political connections has often been a disservice to the city.

Other examples of politicians who rode to office on the strength of their names and deep political connections are former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and former City Council president Charles Pugh. But both ended up becoming huge disappointments to the city.

One could argue that both men acted as bad politicians. And quite possibly, we can surmise that had it not been for their names and personal popularity — Kilpatrick from a politically connected family and Pugh, a former popular broadcast TV anchor — neither man would have been elected and Detroit might have been spared the respective embarrassments.

Murray and Mathis epitomize the many DPS embarrassments. And many parents are sitting on the fence about the future success of the new Detroit Public School Community District. The district will not succeed if voters place name recognition ahead of the qualifications of the candidates in this election.

The children of Detroit and the city’s future deserve a board whose members bring more to the table of educational equity than their names or the volume of their voices.

We need school board members with brains who are courageous for the new experiment of granting Detroit kids an empowering education to work. But name recognition will not take us there.

Bankole Thompson is the host of “Redline with Bankole Thompson” on Super Station 910 AM weekdays at noon. His column appears Mondays and Thursdays.