Jacques: Priorities, pitfalls for Detroit school board

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

It’s a new year, and that means a fresh slate for the Detroit Public Schools Community District and its newly elected school board.

Bailout legislation wiped the district’s debt clean and returned the city’s schools to local control after seven years of state oversight. The Detroit district’s troubled financial past, shockingly low student performance and time under emergency managers mean that the school board is under a lot of scrutiny as it takes over this month. Its first meeting is Wednesday.

And right away the board will tackle complicated decisions, including hiring a permanent superintendent, putting together a set of academic and financial benchmarks, working with the State Reform Office and figuring out how to handle the integration of Education Achievement Authority schools back into the district.

Not to put too much pressure on the board.

“There is a lot that is going to come at us,” says Sonya Mays, one of the board members.

Major tasks await new Detroit schools board

The challenges facing Detroit schools could strike fear in the most experienced school board member. But with the exception of LaMar Lemmons, who was on the former board when it had no power, the other six members are newbies to overseeing a school district. Lemmons’ wife, Georgia Lemmons, also got elected.

The people of Detroit clearly wanted a clean start for their schools, and this board — selected out of 63 candidates — reflects that.

Since their election, members have undergone intense training from the district as well as the Michigan Association of School Boards.

“I’m pretty thoroughly impressed with the quality of candidates,” says Don Wotruba, executive director of MASB.

That crash course has helped, says Mays, who has a strong financial background and runs the housing nonprofit Develop Detroit.

“It’s been a lot of work,” she says. “We are getting really smart on the inner workings of the district.”

And even though they are a group of “relative strangers,” Mays says they are striving to work as a team and set the right tone.

Education leaders in the state want to be a resource for the Detroit board, and the board shouldn’t be shy about reaching out for help.

State Superintendent Brian Whiston says he’ll be watching what the board does closely. He says the board should prioritize a few big ticket items, such as crafting a tougher academic plan — especially for the students struggling the most.

Similarly, Whiston says the board should focus on how the district hires and trains its teachers and administrators. Given the recent misconduct from a dozen DPS principals who took bribes, the board should also create a strict code of conduct.

The most important task will be finding a superintendent. Whiston thinks the board should stick with Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather, who has earned the respect of many in the community. She wants to keep the job.

“She has done good work and ought to continue,” Whiston says. He’s also worried about the transition time in bringing on a new administrator.

Yet Wotruba thinks the board should hire a search firm and conduct a serious nationwide search for candidates. The bailout legislation called for the superintendent search to take only 90 days, but the board will need more time than that, Wotruba says. A start date of July 1 is more realistic.

The board should select someone members trust to fulfill their goals. It’s harmful when school boards meddle too much, experts say.

“I’m going to have high hopes until the board proves me wrong,” Whiston says. “We can’t allow the district to move backward.”

Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques