DPS — a mess of conflict

Board in exile

click to enlarge DPS — a mess of conflict
Curt Guyette

An interesting bit of political theater occurred without getting much attention in the mainstream media last week.

It began with some members of the DPS Board of Education hanging a banner from their sixth floor offices in the Fisher Building on West Grand Boulevard. The banner showed a clenched fist with a shackle around its wrist beneath the words “No EM.”

Inside, the elected officials who’ve referred to themselves as the “board in exile,” refused to deal with building security, and waited for the cops to come and make them take it down.The police, to their credit, played it low-key.

The office itself is symbolic — a 15 by 30-foot former storage room still piled high with boxes of supplies in one corner.

Along with the short-lived act up, there was some other business going on. It had to to with the pending implementation of the new emergency manager law, which was set to officially kick in the next day. With that change in mind, the “board in exile” made its maneuvers, attempting to keep open the chance that they will be able to can the manager 18 months from now — if the law is still in place.

Let us explain.

One of the key things that makes PA 436 different from its predecessor — which voters rejected during a referendum held last November — is that it gives municipalities and school districts under the control of an emergency manager a new way out.

In terms of the school district, that means a supermajority of the board and the superintendent must both say they want the EM to go if there is a desire to regain local control of the district come October 2014.

With that in mind, members of the self-described “board in exile” — which continues to meet despite having had its salaries cut off by the EM — attempted to renew its contract with John Telford to be the superintendent in charge of academics for the district.

Let us back up a bit.

Although the media has been focusing much attention on the city of Detroit’s finances and the appointment of an emergency manager, the school district has been dealing with the issue for years now and, it’s argued, is at least part of the reason that the new law was enacted.

That’s because the board challenged the authority of emergency financial managers to have any authority of issues related to curriculum. The contention was that an emergency financial manager could only control matters directly related to the district’s finances. They went to court arguing that, and won.

After that decision, the state came back with a new law that greatly expanded the powers of appointees, changing their designation from emergency financial managers to emergency managers with far more extensive power.

Voters rejected that law (PA 4) last November, but the Republican-controlled Legislature passed a new EM law during a lame-duck session in December, and Snyder quickly signed it into law.

That new act, PA 436, took effect Thursday, March 28.

Which is why, the day before that, the board — which, at that moment, still had the power to say who it wanted as superintendent — submitted a contract extending the term of Telford until December 2014.

The following day, school district EM Roy Roberts — utilizing the expanded powers granted under the new law, promptly fired Telford and installed Karen Ridgeway as superintendent over academics.

Which means that, even if a supermajority of the board wants Roberts out after 18 months, Ridgeway would have to go along with opting to fire the person who gave her the job.

Or, as Telford put it, any superintendent appointed by an emergency manager would have to be willing to “bite the hand that feeds it.”

Roberts trumpeted the change in a letter to district staff, saying that it’s a good thing there’s now just one person with absolute control over all aspects of the district. OK, he wasn’t quite that blunt, but he came close.

“I do not take the authority that Public Act 436 has granted me lightly,” wrote Roberts, a former General Motors executive. “I know that with this authority comes great responsibility; responsibility to all of you as employees, to our 50,000 students and their parents and the citizens of Detroit. On the academic side, we have a strong academic plan in place … and we must have the stability that has been lacking for far too long to successfully reach our goals.”

How good a job has Roberts really been doing? That’s a hotly disputed issue right now. The slackers here at the Hits have to confess that we haven’t given the DPS situation the attention it truly deserves recently. Look for more reporting on the issue in the near future.

News Hits is written by Curt Guyette. Contact the column at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]

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