Double vision

Apr 20, 2005 at 12:00 am

In Oakland County, a new breed of political action committee has emerged — and it’s focusing on school districts. Some see the groups, known as 20/20s, as a threat, a well-organized, cohesive, secretive and conservative political movement that works to erode the quality of public education. To their members and supporters, the 20/20s are grassroots campaigns of concerned parents and taxpayers of all stripes who only want the best for their schools. They claim to operate independently of each other in the name of fiscal responsibility and accountability by school administrators and board members.

The first 20/20 filed as a political action committee (PAC) in the Bloomfield Hills School District in February 2004. Rochester 20/20 followed suit in March of this year. By the end of May, 20/20 groups are expected to form in both Royal Oak and Farmington.

Interest continues to spread. Bob Sharp, executive director of Rochester 20/20, says he’s received inquiries from people expressing interest in forming their own 20/20 groups in Lapeer, Grosse Pointe and Traverse City.

Al Short, director of government affairs for the Michigan Education Association, says such PACs are “very rare” in this state. Although found in other states, Short says, PACs focusing on school board elections tend to form around issues of concern to moral conservatives, not financial matters.

“It’s happened in other states regarding sex education programs and schools that won’t teach creationism,” Short says. Regarding renovation of schools, he says, “that is really strange.”

The 20/20s, however, have concentrated on fiscal priorities, often with bitter divisions emerging within the two school districts where they’ve sprung up.

School board elections on May 3 will provide a barometer of their clout.

Representatives of both PACs say they’re strictly informal, and have no hard membership rosters, or even regularly scheduled meetings.

In Rochester and Bloomfield, they claim membership numbering in the hundreds.

The name 20/20 refers to perfect vision, says Bloomfield 20/20 co-founder and parent Joanne Warner.

“We think we have a school board and an administration that are running out of control by wasting money,” Warner, an attorney, says. “That’s a failure of leadership.”

Bloomfield 20/20 is supporting parent and former substitute teacher Jenny Greenwell for re-election, and parent and manufacturing business owner Creighton Forester for election to a four-year term. Should the pair succeed, 20/20’s candidates will have a 4-3 majority on the board. In that race, the two are up against newcomers Mary Ellen Miller, a parent and former advertising executive, and Martin Brook, a parent and labor attorney, who are supported by Bloomfield AWAKE, a political action committee formed in April to oppose 20/20.

Greiner, Rochester’s school board president, says he’s concerned about 20/20’s failure to provide specific goals.

“They have been very vague in their message and their agenda,” he says. “They provide many generalities and few details.”

Birth of a PAC

The story begins in the Bloomfield Hills School District.

Bloomfield 20/20 and its ballot committee, Bloomfield 20/20 for a Better Way, were formed as PACs last year to oppose a $122 million plan by the Bloomfield Hills School Board to combine the district’s two high schools, Andover and Lahser, on the same campus. The groups swung into action. Signs went up all over the district condemning what the group members dubbed the “mega-school” project as a costly sham. In all, Bloomfield 20/20 and Bloomfield 20/20 For a Better Way raised more than $100,000 for the campaign, using the Sterling Corporation, a Lansing public relations firm, as a consulting group. They also hired a Texas firm, Hill Research Consultants, to conduct an opinion poll among residents.

In the end, the “mega-school” plan was soundly rejected. Bloomfield school board members, after completing their own survey, dropped the idea after polls indicated 70 percent of residents opposed it.

In June, the three candidates endorsed by Bloomfield 20/20 — Greenwell, Carol Stencel and Mike Scadron — were elected to the school board. Since then, they have often been at odds with administrators and fellow board members.

Issues run the gamut. In September, there was a bid by Greenwell to implement a code of ethics to hold school administrators accountable for their financial dealings. When it wasn’t implemented immediately, the 20/20 school board members pressed Board President Cynthia von Oeyen to act. When she didn’t, they asked for her resignation. She refused. No ethics code has yet been developed, although an ethics committee is studying the idea.

Earlier in 2004, the Michigan Legislature enacted a law requiring school districts to move their election date from the traditional June date to either May or November.

Bloomfield 20/20’s board members then pushed to have the school board elections held in November. The board majority, as did most other school districts in the state, opted for May.

“The May election is stealth because it’s an off-voting date, it’s not in November,” Greenwell says. “Since nobody knows the election’s happening, they won’t come. The school district wants to control the election.”

Bloomfield Schools Superintendent Steven Gaynor disagrees. By placing the vote in May, he says, the district is depoliticizing it, and making it cheaper and easier for voters to make choices unencumbered by other races at the state and federal level.

In January, Bloomfield 20/20 challenged Gaynor on a 3.9 percent raise that increased his salary from $175,000 to $181,825. Bloomfield 20/20 board members say Gaynor was already overpaid, and didn’t deserve the raise because the district’s finances have been poorly managed.

“I think that’s poor leadership for him to ask for a raise when a lot of people thought he should have been shown the door after that mega-school disaster,” Warner says.

The latest controversy involving Bloomfield 20/20 is the renewal of what administrators have dubbed a “hold harmless” millage, which will be on the ballot May 3. One mill is equal to $1 per $1,000 of taxable real estate value. At issue is the continuance of an 11.7-mill tax on residential properties, and 20 mills on commercial and business properties in the district. Those taxes provide 48 percent of Bloomfield’s operating budget.

All four candidates, including those backed by 20/20, say they support the millage renewal. Bloomfield 20/20 leaders, however, refuse to endorse it. Overall, the group is unhappy with Gaynor’s past handling of district finances, including management of the 1.5-mill “sinking fund” property tax voters approved last June. The levy provides $51 million for renovations and improvements to the district’s 18 buildings over the next 10 years.

And although Greenwell supports the renewal, she shares 20/20’s concerns. “Steve Gaynor was just too greedy with the sinking fund and people are furious,” she says, adding that not enough has been done to repair schools in the district.

Gaynor contests this. “Have we sat idle since passage of the sinking fund?” he asks. “No, we’ve completed over $1.5 million of renovations and improvements, with another $8 million scheduled for this summer.”

Who are they?

Members of Bloomfield 20/20 say they’re a group with a wide range of members — religious, non-religious, conservative and liberal. They steadfastly deny they have a hard-right political agenda.

“Put 30 20/20 people in a room, and you’ll get 30 different opinions,” Greenwell says.

Or, as George Derderian, the other co-founder of Bloomfield 20/20 says, “We’re a group of parents who are just concerned about the way the school district is going.”

On the other hand, Suzy von Ende, co-founder of Bloomfield AWAKE, expresses alarm over the attacks on the administration.

“It’s disturbing to have political action committees involved at the school district level,” she says. “Because of the negative campaigning, they are doing harm to the school district. We are not apologists of the school board, but we are supporters of the school district. This has been a very bad year-and-a-half for the school district.”

Kathy King, president of the Bloomfield Hills Education Association, which represents 500 teachers in the district, is likewise concerned. “It’s a scary, scary trend that these political action committees are growing to run school districts,” she says.

“I feel they’re a very negative force in the school district,” says Mari Barnett, president of the Bloomfield Parent Teacher Organization. “I’m constantly scratching my head as to why they want to be so destructive.”

Royal Oak School Board incumbent Frank Tyndell has communicated with Bloomfield 20/20 members, and says he hopes to use them as a model to establish a similar group with the same name in his district.

Tyndell refuses to offer specifics about particular issues Royal Oak 20/20 will be taking on. All he says is that “each group has its own personality, but, at the end of the day, we’re tired of the administration controlling the school boards.”

Kevin McLogan, who’s running for a third term in Royal Oak, says he’s concerned about the prospect of such a group in his community. “How can there be an activist group that doesn’t have any issues?” he says. “We need to know what their agenda is — and they haven’t answered that yet.”

It remains to be seen how the 20/20 groups’ visions will affect the landscape of the communities where they have arrived, and where they plan to set up in the longer term. But one thing is for sure: There are more fights on the horizon.

Joseph Kirschke is a Metro Times staff writer. You can reach him at [email protected] or