Dysfunction junction 

In the end, the Detroit school board did the right thing last week, but getting there proved to be an education in how clueless this group can be.

Detroit Public Schools is part of a groundbreaking effort to provide widespread, mobile, continual wireless access in southeast Michigan. If successful, the effort will make this area a national leader in the race to go wireless.

But school board members' misunderstandings of their own actions and mistrust of the district's administration, as demonstrated at last week's board meeting, could have either killed the deal or deprived the district of its financial benefits.

Here's what News Hits knows:

In May, the Board of Education voted to authorize the administration — in this case, Superintendent William Coleman and General Council Jean-Vierre Adams — to finalize a contract for the provision of wireless services as part of the district's role with the Community Telecommunications Network.

The CTN is a consortium formed by Detroit Public Schools, Detroit Public Television, Wayne County Regional Educational Service Agency, Oakland County Education and Macomb Intermediate School District. The consortium was created to share educational television channels that were allocated in the 1970s by the Federal Communications Commission.

At the time, the channels were so high in the broadcast spectrum that they only allowed "line of sight" broadcasting, says Patrick Gossman, Wayne State's deputy information officer who also works as an administrator for the consortium. Schools used the channels for educational programming.

But technology improvements have made the consortium's parts of the spectrum valuable. They can't be purchased, since they are considered public access airwaves, but they can be leased.

"Now they're considered beachfront property instead of swamp land," Gossman says.

The consortium has been negotiating with a subsidiary of Sprint to lease parts of the spectrum for wireless Internet services. Gossman wouldn't disclose terms, but the six consortium members would share income from the contract. Detroit school board members have said this could be worth several hundred thousand dollars to the cash-strapped district.

Gossman appeared before the Detroit school board last week because the Sprint subsidiary wanted a "reaffirmation" of the May vote. At that time, the board authorized its administration to finalize the contract as part of the consortium.

"It was one of the final things that was required to make folks comfortable in moving ahead," Gossman says. "Any operator is going to want absolute positive assurances that they have access to the spectrum before they start investing hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure."

But the board balked, spending a half-hour arguing about whether they should reaffirm the contract, and then voting to nix the deal. After hearing from Coleman and Adams that they actually had fully authorized the contract process six months earlier, the board rescinded the vote taken minutes earlier and finally voted to reaffirm what they did in May.

When our head stopped spinning, we were left to wonder: Why didn't Coleman and Adams explain the reaffirmation vote to board members in advance of the public meeting or at least at the beginning of discussions when it was clear they didn't understand? Why couldn't board members understand their previous actions? Why doesn't the board simply act to set policy and let their administrators implement it? Is there too much mistrust between the board and the administration for that to happen?

In the end, the board reaffirmed the deal and negotiations will progress. But the debate sends a sad message about the way this board and this administration work together.

NewsHits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]

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