Jacques: Building a better school board in Detroit

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

For Detroit Public Schools to have a shot at survival, Detroiters are going to have to step up.

Sheila Cockrel understands this, and that’s why the former Detroit city councilwoman is organizing a series of meetings to get the community engaged with its school district. She wants residents prepared to elect a new school board later this year.

“We want to give people the facts,” Cockrel says.

As lawmakers consider bills that would send more than $700 million to DPS and return control of the district to an elected school board, city voters have to be ready to choose candidates who can keep the district on a stable path. Under current legislation, that election would be held in November, although Mayor Mike Duggan and others think it should happen in August.

That’s a short time-frame to educate voters about the complicated landscape of DPS’ financial and academic challenges. And strong candidates for school board must also come forward, as the current school board would go away under the legislative plan. There is wide consensus among Detroit stakeholders and lawmakers it’s best to start fresh with a new board.

The newly elected board will also have the important task of choosing a superintendent.

The financially challenged district has been under state emergency management since 2009, which left the current school board with practically zero power. Now an elected board could again call the shots.

Through the CitizenDetroit initiative at Wayne State University, Cockrel and former Wayne State President Irvin Reid are co-hosting three events in coming weeks to start teaching voters about the challenges DPS faces and what kind of leaders the district needs.

The first one was held Thursday with a capacity crowd of about 150 people. The next events will take place Feb. 25 and March 3. They are free and open to the public.

Cockrel, who teaches at the university and is a co-founder of CitizenDetroit, says the warning that the school district could become insolvent by April is catching citizens’ interest.

“It’s getting people’s attention,” she says.

The CitizenDetroit events feature several leading voices in Detroit education. Dan Varner, CEO of Excellent Schools Detroit, is one of them. He understands this is a pivotal time for the future of DPS. Electing a new board will be integral, but Varner says city residents have unplugged on the issue given the years of state intervention.

“Detroiters have not had meaningful votes on this for a long time,” Varner says. “I think it’s important that we get people reengaged on the issue. Our democracy counts on being able to vote well.”

Cockrel says the meetings will focus on teaching and learning, funding and structure and leadership and governance, as well as the impact of charter schools in the city.

Other speakers will include Geneva Williams, the former CEO of the charter management organization Detroit 90/90; Penny Bailer, the former executive director of City Year Detroit and education advocate; and Tony Saunders, who currently serves as the state-appointed chief restructuring officer for Wayne County.

Varner says returning control to an elected school board is a good call, although he’s no fan of the current board.

“DPS being locally run makes all the sense in the world,” he says.

He acknowledges that whether the election takes place in August or November, there’s not much time to get candidates lined up and residents educated on the issues. Detroiters will have to wrestle with important questions, such as what makes a good school board member.

This election could make a big difference for Detroit families and the 46,000 students who attend DPS.

“This matters,” Varner says. “It’s still a lot of kids.”