Jacques: Keep bad actors off DPS board

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Hey, Detroit residents. You have some important decisions to make on your November ballot. And those choices go far beyond the top of the ticket.

The candidates who get elected to the new Detroit Public Schools Community District school board this fall will hold a lot of influence over the direction of the city’s school district — still the largest in the state. Strong leadership is essential. Right now, the overall poor quality of public schools in Detroit is one of the biggest impediments to the city’s comeback.

Given recent legislative action, the district has a chance to wipe away hundreds of millions of debt and will see a return to local control Jan. 1 — the first time since 2009.

This opportunity to have a say in Detroit education has inspired more than 70 candidates to file for one of seven spots on the school board. The majority have already been certified to appear on the ballot. The filing deadline was July 26.

“It’s great so many are interested,” says Dan Varner, CEO of Excellent Schools Detroit. “The good news is clearly that education matters to a lot of folks. That’s heartening.

It is a lengthy list. And while it’s encouraging to see so much interest in the board, the vast number of candidates will make it harder for the average resident to figure out who to support.

One of the potential pitfalls will be that voters gravitate to names that are familiar. There are several on the list, too. Not surprisingly, 10 of the 11 current school board members are hoping to get on the new board. They’ve hated being sidelined while the district was under state control and are eager to have more power.

Unfortunately, most of these board members have proven they are more interested in having control than they are in improving schools for kids. Plus, the board is dysfunctional. As of late June, it couldn’t even agree on who was board president.

The same holds true for candidate John Telford, whom the board appointed as superintendent of academics in 2012, after it regained some short-lived power. Telford’s stint with DPS was also brief. His ideas for academics weren’t exactly stellar. For instance, Telford was obsessed with getting rid of the Education Achievement Authority, but that idea was more about appeasing the board and returning control of these schools to the district. He also thought teaching Ebonics was a good idea, never mind that DPS students score among the worst in the nation in English.

Many of the other candidates are less familiar, but some hold promise.

“We do believe that some quality candidates have stepped forward,” observes Natalie Fotias, communications officer with the Skillman Foundation. While the foundation isn’t endorsing candidates, the group has been very involved in leading the conversation about school reform in Detroit and had worked to educate residents about the upcoming school board election.

Varner is similarly optimistic, although he’s alarmed with some of the candidates. He believes there are at least a dozen quality choices on the list who bring business and academic backgrounds, and he’s had several conversations with citizens and business and community groups who are eager to get behind a strong school board slate.

“I’m hopeful we can get a good group,” Varner says.

One of the candidates he’s impressed with is Sonya Mays, who returned to Detroit from New York to work as a financial adviser to former emergency manager Kevyn Orr during the city’s bankruptcy. Following that role, she has stayed in her hometown and recently started the nonprofit Develop Detroit to offer new housing options in city neighborhoods.

Another interesting candidate is Penny Bailer. Bailer is the former executive director of City Year Detroit, and is an education advocate who has worked with the group CitizenDetroit to spread the word about the importance of this election.

Just as voters opted for a reform slate for the City Council in 2013, they need to signal this is what they want for DPS as well.

“It’s incredibly important,” says Varner.

Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques