Saving our schools

Well, now we’re down to two candidates for mayor of Detroit. We’ve already heard a lot about them; we are bound to hear a lot more.

But today, let’s move on to what may be the really important election in the city this fall. Nobody denies that the mayoral choice is crucial, especially this year. But for the long haul, the school board election may matter much more.

The mayor can clean up the parks, build stadiums, arrest crack-sellers and (maybe) even screw in some streetlights. But if you don’t have schools people feel good about putting their children into, forget dreaming of a bright future.

Some years ago, when I was a young and innocent lad of 48 or so, I wrote that I saw some hopeful signs that people were moving back to the city. This caused Wayne State’s Kurt Metzger, known in the best local circles as The Great Demographer, to laugh at me. “Pretty much the only people moving in are the newlywed and the almost dead,” he said, chuckling.

Not, in other words, people with school-age kids. That’s the problem. Upper-crust folks in the city take their kids to private, or in some cases, “charter” schools. Don’t bother to write and tell me that the Detroit public schools are perfectly fine, etc. Write to U.S. Rep. John Conyers or Kwame Kilpatrick, who live in the city but send their children to private or charter schools, or the tens of thousands of African-American parents who’ve moved to Oakland County.

Either we fix the schools, or Detroit doesn’t have a prayer of being a real community again.

Detroiters overwhelmingly reject the idea of a non-elected “reform” school board, like the one that was imposed on them by Lansing a few years ago. That experiment didn’t seem to work very well. Frankly, I think it could have worked better if David Adamany, who was the reform CEO for a transitional year, had been forced at gunpoint to stay there a few more years.

He was crusty and difficult, as all of Wayne State learned while he was its president. But he was also brilliant, a financial whiz, scrupulously honest and cared very much about kids and the welfare of the schools.

His successor, Kenneth Burnley, struck me as a mainly self-serving character who did little in terms of long-term reform; test scores actually declined, according to a Detroit News study, under his watch.

But while the reform board was probably a disappointment, Detroiters need to acknowledge that the old school board was a deeply corrupt howling failure, infested with politicians of the worst sort who meddled in school business for all the wrong reasons, or took junkets — as did the morally disabled Lonnie Bates — to exotic places at the schools’ expense, for no justifiable reason.

Freman Hendrix has been, and will be, beaten up for his role in presiding over the reform board. What he did as its chairman deserves examination. But by and large, he and others who reluctantly supported the reform board and tried to make it work had the schools’, the kids’ and the city’s best interests in mind.

They knew it would be politically risky from the start, but acted out of principle. Remember, the Republicans who then controlled everything in Lansing were determined to take control of the schools anyway.

Last year, the voters decided to go back to a fully elected school board. That was no surprise; what was, given all the energy displayed protesting the reform board, is that so few people then showed much interest in running for the job. True, it doesn’t come with a fancy salary, a limousine or bodyguards.

You would think a lot of people would want the chance to help fix the city’s troubled schools. Yet in two of the seven districts, only one candidate has even qualified for the ballot, making their election automatic!

Nevertheless, voters in November will elect a new 11-person board, one each from seven geographical districts, plus four members elected by the entire city. Their most crucial first job will be to hire a superintendent.

They have a little time to do that; William Coleman, who was chief operating officer under Burnley, has a contract through the end of June.

Then what? Normally, a district posts the position; superintendents and deputy superintendents apply from around the country, finalists are selected and then the board makes a final choice.

That works in normal times. Yet these times are anything but normal, and the schools are beyond crisis. So I have a serious suggestion for whoever is on the new board. I think the man they should attempt to recruit for the job is right here, right now, and right under our noses.

That man is Dr. Curtis Ivery, who came to town to be chancellor of the Wayne County Community College District, and turned a scandal-driven laughingstock of education into something that people throughout Wayne County are proud of.

Men like Greg Pitoniak, the Downriver mayor of Taylor, have told me Ivery has restored the confidence of the business and political leadership in the school. I recently interviewed Ivery at length; he’s a self-made 56-year-old who’s been all about education all his life, mainly at the community-college level.

Yet he has sometimes taken on other tasks, as when a young newly elected governor asked him to become the first African-American cabinet official in history, running Arkansas’s biggest department, social services.

That man was Bill Clinton, and the two are friends to this day, though Ivery says that experience was enough to cure him of politics. Incidentally, I never asked the chancellor if he wanted to head Detroit Public Schools. I’m sure he would say no. I doubt that the thought has even crossed his mind.

Yet we ought to push him to tackle the job, because it’s the greatest challenge facing the entire area, and Ivery is a man who knows how to get it done. Everyone I’ve talked to, from faculty members to students to executives of other companies in the area, agrees on that.

When the community college has needed millages to survive, he successfully campaigned for them. When it needed new people or new buildings or new furniture, he went out and got them.

Burnley had awesomely nice cuff links and tailored shirts. Ivery is a moderately overweight workaholic whose idea of a great vacation is to hole up in a hotel room with a pair of long ... non-fiction biographies.

But he’s very smart, and loves kids. He and his wife, a retired teacher, established something called the Bookworm Club at WCCC to entice toddlers to fall in love with reading.

Can he “fix” Detroit Public Schools? I don’t know. I do remember being told that nobody could fix Wayne County Community College, either. Hiring somebody who has a proven record and knows the turf would seem exactly what we should do.

Thoughts, anyone?


Never Forget: Friday night, a band of Michigan folk are taking a bus to Oak Ridge, Tenn., to join people from across the nation protesting our continuing production of nuclear weapons. Sixty years ago, we became the first and only nation to incinerate human beings in a nuclear attack (we did this twice), and they want us to remember that — and to prevent it from happening again, anywhere. Want to know more? Call Sigrid Dale at 586-751-1199, or check out

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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