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Jacques: Find candidates for DPS school board

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

The Legislature has passed a comprehensive bailout and restructuring plan for Detroit Public Schools, and Gov. Rick Snyder is expected to sign it soon.

Now what?

The first order of business is finding qualified candidates to run for school board and convincing them to do so. Second, the business and philanthropic community should help recruit and support a solid slate of candidates and propel them into office this November.

That sounds easy enough, but given the history of school board elections in Detroit, it’s not simple at all.

The election this fall will mark the first time in seven years the DPS school board will have full control over the district — albeit with oversight from the city’s Financial Review Commission.

Although current board members have continued their power struggle against the string of state-appointed emergency managers, many residents in the community may have grown lackadaisical over who is on the powerless school board.

They should start caring now.

The members they elect in November will hold the reins to the debt-free district, thanks to the $617 million rescue package passed by the Legislature, and their first job will be to chose a new superintendent.

There isn’t much time to get interested candidates to throw in their names. The filing deadline is July 26.

Stakeholders like former Detroit Councilwoman Sheila Cockrel have worked for months to raise awareness about this upcoming transition and educate residents about the importance of selecting a quality school board. Through the initiative CitizenDetroit at Wayne State University, Cockrel and former WSU president Irvin Reid have put together a series of events to get the community up to speed with the academic and financial condition of DPS and what’s needed to turn it around.

Their last one was held Thursday night and nearly 200 signed up to attend. It revolved around several key DPS issues, including the transition to local control, financial stability, corruption, school building conditions and finding the best teachers.

“There is a great deal of interest,” Cockrel says. “We want to encourage people to explore what being on the school board means.”

Under the legislation, the new school board will be composed of seven members elected at large. The current board has 11 members, with the majority elected by district.

The members on the board now are mulling whether to run for the new seats.

“I’m undecided,” says LaMar Lemmons, one of the most outspoken board members.

This week, Lemmons tried to get the State Board of Education on board with legal action to block the new DPS legislation, which Lemmons argues violates the state constitution. Plus, he thinks the district would get better treatment under bankruptcy — a scenario that would cost the state billions and create even more instability for the district’s families and teachers.

That’s a bizarre approach, and a symptom of how the sitting school board operates.

Some fear that if current members run they can rile residents and make a case that voting for them is fighting against Snyder and state control.

That’s why it’s so important for the business, civic and foundation communities to get involved and support the best candidates for the district’s long-term health. Mayor Mike Duggan, who understands how important it is to improve schools in Detroit, should also offer his endorsement of a qualified slate.

State Superintendent Brian Whiston agrees this is what would give the new DPS its best shot at survival. He recommends finding a range of candidates, including parents, social workers and people with business backgrounds.

“We need to find the right candidates that are there for kids,” Whiston says. “The politics and other things that go on with these boards has to stop.”

Unfortunately, in today’s climate, that’s a tall order.