The other side of racism 

Few had heard of Marvis Cofield before Dennis Archer appointed him to the school reform board. The newspapers had no idea how to spell his name, rendering it "Coffield" at first. (I assume, without knowing, we now have the right spelling.)

Similarly, some accounts said he had a degree in sociology; others, in education. His age (45?) varied, and it was unclear what he did for a living. He had been a "former assistant director for youth programs" of Operation Get Down, and sometime substitute teacher. Though he was said to now operate a "community outreach center," it actually seems to be a martial arts studio. Compared to his fellow board members – corporate executives, high political operatives, and education professionals – he was notable mainly for modesty of achievement. He did not seem a threat to outshine the rest.

However, Cofield seems to have done just that. Thanks to an act of racism, the martial arts man may have karate-chopped the only chance meaningful school reform had.

Here’s what happened. Michigan’s Legislature took control of the schools from the elected board of education in March and ordered the mayor to appoint a reform board, which was charged with finding and hiring – quickly – first a temporary, then a permanent all-powerful CEO to run the schools.

This was done because for years the school district, the eighth largest in the nation, has been a steadily worsening national embarrassment. Seventy percent of the students drop out; of those left, up to 95 percent are unable to pass state proficiency tests.

What the new board was charged with was, first, finding a temporary boss who, within 90 days after appointment, would come up with a detailed improvement plan. That person has to give the Legislature, taxpayers and the board a timetable for various goals and benchmarks for measuring success.

Not to mention little things like negotiating new contracts with the various unions, figuring out how to get textbooks on the desks and toilet paper in the school restrooms, and beginning to patch up some of the old buildings and starting to build new ones. Whoever has that job first is meant to be there only for a brief time – 90 days, officially, but in reality probably six months. While he or she is cleaning house and kicking you-know-what, the board is to be looking for a permanent CEO to run the schools over the long haul, hopefully for the five years the reformers have before a new election.

Everything largely depends, however, on filling that first job. Though various names were floated, only one candidate was seriously considered: former Wayne State University President David Adamany. He is a fiscal whiz who in the early 1980s made the hard decisions that saved Wayne from bankruptcy, then developed a plan to build the school into a top-flight research university.

Adamany also was ideal in that, now voluntarily retired from the Wayne presidency, he has no wider ambitions, political or otherwise. To give the schools any real chance, any short-term shock doctor will need to make hard decisions that are apt to make the person making them unpopular. Six of the seven board members agreed Adamany was the man. Slowly, reluctantly, he was talked into it. But the legislation required the choice to be unanimous, and Marvis Cofield vetoed it. He refused to be moved by the arguments of four other African Americans on the board. Why? Because Adamany is not black.

Imagine if a white official were to oppose the appointment of any black official to any state job on the grounds that most citizens are white. Incidentally, there seems to be broad agreement that the long-term CEO should be African American.

But what should matter most now is getting the emergency surgery done. Now what? Word is Cofield wants Eddie Green, the holdover superintendent, a timeserver from the old days. Few things could be more hopeless.

Even if he were a far-seeing, organizational marvel, Green is no more likely to be able to make the hard calls than Bob Stempel at General Motors. He is of the system; decisions are needed that may hurt people he has known for decades. Plus, Detroit politicians are bound to dislike some of what this will mean. Standing up to them will be difficult – possibly an impossible task for any African American who wants a long-term career here. Yet an outsider would need far more than 90 days to find all the trap doors.

Now, precious time has been lost. Every day makes it less likely that any meaningful reform can happen this year. The construction boom means projects have to be scheduled far in advance, and further delay almost guarantees little or no physical improvement in the aged and crumbling schools before next fall.

The Legislature needs immediately to change the unanimous consent requirement, and Cofield needs to renounce racism or be sent back to his storefront judo joint. Sitting in a suburban restaurant after this all became public, I overheard: "First, the blacks destroyed the Detroit schools, and now they won’t even let anyone fix them."

Yes, that is nasty and unfair. But those inclined to believe that poison got a nice dose of reinforcement last week. Thank you, Marvis. You managed to take the focus off the race that matters, the one to save Detroit’s children.

More by Jack Lessenberry

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