Gov. Snyder’s education district has failed its transparency test

The EAA’s black hole

Last December, regents for Eastern Michigan University put the Education Achievement Authority on notice, saying that a number of severe problems had to be addressed in the coming year for the controversial school district to remain in existence.

Conceived by the Snyder administration as an experimental approach to educating students in the state's lowest-performing schools, the EAA has been a profound failure since it first began operating 12 Detroit schools as well as overseeing three charters in the fall of 2012.

Unlike every other district in the state, the EAA was created through a little-used state law that allows two units of government to create a new, separate entity through something called an inter-local agreement.

In the case of the EAA, EMU's Board of Regents and the emergency manager overseeing Detroit Public Schools joined forces to create the EAA. The regents are all gubernatorial appointees, as is the emergency manager.

In voting to remain a part of the inter-local agreement last December, the Board of Regents, amid a raucous protest by students and critics of the EAA, told the EAA it had one year to clean up its act by making substantial progress in a number of areas. Among EMU's demands was the requirement that the EAA provide "complete transparency of all activity, including prompt and appropriate responses to requests made under the Freedom of Information Act."

When evaluating the EAA's compliance with that demand, the Board of Regents might want to pay particular attention to the case of Joshua Tolbert v. Michigan Education Achievement Authority. Instead of transparency, the case provides a startling example of the EAA going to great efforts to block access to crucial information that should have been readily available to the public.

Tolbert, who has a doctorate in education, is researching the push-out of special education students from metro Detroit schools.

As part of that effort, Tolbert filed a FOIA request on Feb. 20 seeking information related to a company called Futures Education of Michigan, which was hired by the EAA to essentially run the new district's special-education program.

First, the EAA failed to provide any formal response to the request, a violation of the law. That transgression was compounded when the district, despite repeated promises to produce documents, again violated the law by refusing to turn over any information related to Tolbert's request.

After two months of getting the runaround from the EAA, Tolbert turned to the ACLU of Michigan for help. The group filed a lawsuit on his behalf on April 23.

According to the lawsuit, Tolbert and the ACLU are seeking to determine the validity of "anecdotal evidence ... that children with disabilities attend Detroit Public Schools at a higher rate than other schools because they are being turned away from various charter schools, EAA schools, and districts adjacent to Detroit."

Was the EAA pushing out the higher-cost, lower-performing special education students? Inquiring minds wanted to know.

Information involving Futures was critical. The company was hired by the EAA in May 2012 — three months before the district opened its doors — to deliver a special-education startup and implementation plan as part of its operation of a special-education plan that would have Futures "provide hiring and oversight of all leadership and support staff."

The job was worth millions to Futures, which incorporated only weeks prior to getting the contract.

Futures, by the way, is no longer on the EAA payroll.

The reason why is clouded with mystery, partly because the EAA has refused to make public an audit of Futures and the services it provided to the district. In rejecting FOIA requests for the audit results, the EAA claims that the evaluation of Futures — a company that was paid millions in tax dollars — constitutes confidential communications between the district and its legal counsel and is thus covered by "attorney-client privilege."

The ACLU is challenging that claim.

Eventually, several hundred documents were turned over — but many of the key reports and other records Futures was contractually required to provide the district still have not been produced. Lawyers for the district have claimed that key documents and records that Futures was required to provide the district simply can't be found. One EAA lawyer referred to the district as a "black hole" in terms of some key documents.

The EAA's current administration blames the district's record-keeping issues on previous chancellor John Covington, who abruptly resigned amid a flurry of controversy over credit card expenses.

But Covington was long gone by October, when current chancellor Veronica Conforme and one of the attorneys representing the district were compelled to appear before Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Lita M. Pope. Pope wanted them to explain why they shouldn't be held in contempt for the district's failure to produce documents, including any evaluations by the EAA of the work Futures was supposed to perform.

Conforme and her lawyer escaped that sanction. However, the chancellor is still fighting to keep secret what exactly what went wrong with what was clearly a trouble-filled deal with Futures.

So much for the "complete transparency" demanded by EMU's Board of Regents.

Curt Guyette is an investigative reporter for the ACLU of Michigan. He can be reached at 313-578-6834 or [email protected].

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