Schoolyard brawl

Technically, the attempted recall of three Hamtramck School Board members is about an alleged violation of the state’s open meetings act. The Wayne County Clerk certified the upcoming July 20 vote based on a complaint that a November 2002 board meeting was illegally closed to the public.

In reality, though, that dispute is merely the hook that critics of the targeted board members are hanging their effort on. The issues underlying this conflict are much broader and far more complex than a single questionable meeting.

On one side is a board majority that says it is being punished for instituting much-needed reforms in a district that has undergone drastic change in the past few decades. On the other side are district teachers and a citizens’ group that claim the board members facing recall have been heavy-handed, secretive and unethical.

“They don’t follow the guidelines set by the state, federal or local bylaws,” recall leader Jennifer Tiedt says of the targeted board members. “They represent personal agendas, as opposed to the public agenda that they were elected to uphold. They’re unaccountable, unethical and irresponsible.”

Controversy of this sort is not new in this city of 23,000. What was once a tight-knit Polish-American enclave has become increasingly diverse in recent decades, and as a result the political scene here has grown bitterly divisive.

“Twenty years ago, Hamtramck was primarily Polish,” says Board President Camille Colatosti, one of three board members facing recall. “Today, the majority of the public schoolchildren are of color. They are Arabic, African-American, Yemeni and Polish. The school board has been run by this same clique of Polish Americans for years. The community is no longer represented on the board.”

She says that under her leadership the board has instituted positive changes to combat the cultural disparity. The 2004-05 school year will be the first to recognize Muslim holidays, since the community has a large Islamic population. Halal foods — the Muslim equivalent to kosher, in which animals are raised and blessed by imams — will also be offered in schools this year.

Some school materials, she adds, will be translated into other languages.

There are other issues as well, says Colatosti, who is dean of Davenport University’s Warren campus.

The career educator, who has been on the board four years, and was voted its president in November, says that she and her allies on the board have been pushing to rectify the district’s troubled financial situation.

“The real issue here is change,” Colatosti says. “My colleagues and I are cleaning up the schools after years of mismanagement.”

The Colatosti faction — which includes Richard Hyska and Alan Shulgon — gained control after Shulgon’s wife Hedy won election to the board last November, giving the self-described reformers a 4-3 majority.

The new majority’s first order of business was to fire superintendent Paul Stamatakis in January. A probe conducted in 2002 by attorney George Ward, formerly the No. 2 man in the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, found that Stamatakis’ administration had spent $1 million in district funds without obtaining board approval.

Colatosti and her allies allege that the spending in question has helped contribute to a $2.8 million deficit in the district’s $35 million budget.

To determine if there was any other alleged mismanagement under Stamatakis’ watch, the Colatosti faction formed a bloc to win a 4-2 vote (with one abstention) asking the state to conduct a comprehensive financial review of the district. That audit is scheduled to begin this week.

It’s not surprising that the teachers’ union is supporting the recall. Layoffs are in the offing, and union members have been asked to forgo a 4 percent raise.

Bo Karpinsky, president of the Hamtramck Federation of Teachers, says his union isn’t going to give up their raise. A dicey proposition under any circumstance — especially with board members saying the district might have to lay off as many as 50 or 60 employees. Relinquishing a salary increase at this point is being ruled out in part because the union doesn’t believe the deficit numbers being claimed by the district, says Karpinsky.

Board member Joan Borushko is also suspicious of the district’s financial figures, saying that she and the two other board members forming the minority faction aren’t being provided accurate information about the district’s financial situation.

“We’ve had meetings where different numbers are reported,” claims Borushko. “We don’t know because they [the board majority] don’t involve us in anything. We’re no longer board members. We just attend the meetings.”

Allegations of improprieties such as doctored board minutes and illegal hiring of the interim superintendent — a colleague of Colatosti’s at Davenport University — are numerous. Tiedt’s group, the Committee to Save Our Children’s Future, submitted nine reasons to the Wayne County clerk explaining why they felt a recall is justified.

They also gathered more than 1,300 petition signatures for each of the three board members — almost 600 more than required — to force the recall.

The clerk lent credence to only one of the allegations, the open meetings violation, when certifying the recall petition.

“They’re all lies,” Colatosti says of the allegations.

The political fray takes place against an ominous backdrop. Three of Hamtramck’s seven schools have failed to meet the academic criteria established by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. All three are in the fifth phase — or year — of failure, which means they are eligible to be restructured. Restructuring can mean removal of school administrators, or even closure.

Hamtramck is certainly not alone in facing budget deficits. Districts across the state are facing tough financial times. But because of the age of its schools and the expense involved in keeping them up, Hamtramck is in a particularly tough predicament.

The district, says state board member John Austin, is “a poster child for aging buildings.” He adds that the state has not done a good job of providing funding to support infrastructure in its oldest districts.

Instead of concentrating solely on dealing with their district’s financial crisis, the embattled board members are fighting to retain their seats. Colatosti, Alan Shulgon and Hyska have been out raising money in an attempt to beat back the recall effort. Colatosti estimates that a “No Recall” campaign has raised $2,100 since the crusade to unseat them began in March.

At a recent fundraiser, held at the Urban Break Coffee House on Joseph Campau, about 20 supporters of the trio gathered to strategize, drink coffee, and talk about how to revive the district.

But even a Hamtramck coffee break is not so simple.

Recall supporters found out about the event and showed up to protest on the sidewalk outside. They picketed, shouting “Recall, yes!” as cars drove by. Some drivers honked their horns in a show of support.

Colatosti shook her head, as did Shulgon.

“What upsets me,” he says, “is that they [the teachers] are not willing to sacrifice for their own children. If they decide not to take the raise, we can save $700,000.”

Outside, Bo Karpinsky says virtually the same thing about the board, which he complains is unwilling to cooperate for the good of the district.

They don’t hear one another.

Khary Kimani Turner is a Metro Times staff writer. He can be reached at [email protected] or
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