Editorial: DPS fraud highlights deep culture problem
The news last week of felony bribery charges against 13 current and former employees of Detroit Public Schools comes at an awkward time for the district. Reports of corruption are not going to make Michigan lawmakers any more eager — and rightfully so — to send $715 million to DPS with no strings attached.
These charges, however, shouldn’t derail what must be done. The Legislature should complete its work and send off the money that will give DPS a fresh start. Last month, the Senate passed its version of the bailout, including a new framework for oversight of the district and all city schools. The House, which has its own package, will take up the issue once lawmakers return from their spring break.
While some, including grandstanding members of the DPS board, are using this opportunity to point blame at emergency management of the Detroit district, the problems go much deeper than that. Arrests for kickbacks have occurred at DPS for decades, and they surely contributed to the financial mess the district was in when the state took over six years ago.
Governors, starting with Jennifer Granholm in 2009, have appointed a string of emergency managers to oversee the district’s finances. But the culture of corruption runs deep at DPS, as the latest charges demonstrate.
Fourteen people were charged Tuesday in a nearly $1 million bribery and kickback scheme, which began in 2002 and ran through January 2015. The employees involved allegedly took bribes from school vendor Norman Shy, who sold a range of school supplies. Seven current principals were allegedly involved, and some of the principals oversaw schools recently in the news for horrible conditions.
That’s infuriating. New DPS Emergency Manager Steven Rhodes placed current staffers on unpaid leave and suspended business with the vendor charged in the case. And he expressed the outrage that all Detroit residents —especially parents and students — should feel. The scheme deprived students of nearly $3 million in resources.
“And I am sure that this sense of outrage is shared by the other dedicated and committed DPS employees, as well as DPS parents and everyone who is interested in the future success of DPS,” Rhodes said.
In legislative discussions underway, it’s likely control will return quickly to a newly elected school board. Yet both the House and Senate have included bills that would extend the current oversight of the city of Detroit’s Financial Review Commission to the school district. That’s vital.
And the commission should have broad involvement in the district’s financial decisions. It should require regular audits and accounting overview, in addition to having contract approval.
At the end of January, Sen. Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair Township, requested a detailed report through the state’s auditor general as to the status of DPS’ nearly $2 billion in facility bonds issued in 1994 and 2009. Given the poor conditions of many district buildings, that money hasn’t all gone to good use.
These are the kinds of questions lawmakers should be asking, and they must demand strict accountability if the bailout is passed.
Otherwise, in a few years, DPS will be back in the same situation: out of money and in need of state assistance.