Depressing DPS news of the day: November school board elections may just be symbolic

In November Detroiters will head to the polls to weigh in on a number of things, including who should sit on the board of the new Detroit Public Schools Community District — a vote that has been hyped as a final return to local control. 

Since March 2009, when Robert Bobb was appointed Emergency Financial Manager of the district, the roll of the elected-school board has been whittled down. Today the individuals who were elected by the public to run the district have virtually no power. November is supposed to change that. 

Or at least that's how things were explained in June when Gov. Rick Snyder signed off on the House's package of Detroit Public Schools-related bills. While the district would not be fully free of state oversight — a Financial Review Commission (FRC) was included in the bills to oversee all spending by the school board — the general gist was public accountability was on its way back. This summer 70 people signed up to run for the school board, in November we were supposed to vote, in January these elected individuals would take the reigns. Let's celebrate the return of democracy! 

Well, not so fast. According to the Detroit Free Press a recent memo released by Ron Rose, the director of the FRC, calls into question who is actually going to be running the show. 

Last month Rose submitted a memo indicating that the FRC is not just in charge of finances for the districts but academics as well. 

"[The statute that created the FRC] recognizes that fiscal stability consists not only (of) a broad combination of accounting and financial practices, but also policies, procedures, operating decisions, administrative and academic matters that impact financial outcomes," Roses's memo explained. 

Current Transition Manager Emergency Manager Judge Steven Rhodes, who says he is all about returning power to the local school board (despite his initial reticence to acknowledge/meet with the current board), has pushed back against Rose's memo, asking the director to retract the statement. 

"Arguably, every single decision we make has a financial impact," Rhodes too the Free Press. "If that’s going to be the view of the FRC, that doesn’t leave very much for me, or very much for the elected school board beginning Jan. 1."

Rose has yet to do so, though he maintains the FRC has no intentions of dictating academics.

If this causes some pause it should. It should also sound pretty damn familiar.

When Bobb was brought on as the district's Emergency Financial Manager, his role was supposed to be just about finances. In fact the original December 2008 press release announcing the district's financial emergency — and future appointment of a manager — noted that the DPS board and superintendent would continue to manage educational matters. 

When Jennifer Granholm appointed Bobb to the position in January she noted, "As the district's emergency financial manager, Bobb will assume all financial authority in DPS, which includes balancing the district's budget, managing spending, and establishing strong and reliable financial systems that support sound academic decisions for the students of Detroit." While the word "academic" is definitely in there, the idea was still that Bobb would just be about the finances and academic decision could be left up to the elected officials. 

Slowly, as we now know, this morphed into something completely different, with Bobb famously stating in July 2009: "If a penny touches any of the issues involving the Detroit Public Schools system, then I am engaged and involved." (The following month he approved a 15-mos, $39,859,925.00 contract with test publisher Houghton-Mifflin for "managed instruction" — the biggest textbook contract in US history). 

While a Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Wendy Baxter ruled in December 2010 in favor of the elected school board, who argued that curriculum was in their purview not Bobb's — by this point their hold on the district was waning.

The following month Governor Snyder came into office and signed off on Public Act 4, an act that turned those Emergency Financial Managers in Emergency Managers (aka those who have control over academics and curriculum as well as finances).

This may seem like old history, but it's noteworthy, especially when considering the future of DPS DCPSD and what local control will actually look like.