Sarah Cwiek

Sarah Cwiek - Detroit Reporter/Producer

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Radio in October, 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit. Before her arrival at Michigan Radio, Sarah worked at WDET-FM as a reporter and producer.

Ways To Connect

Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio

The Detroit Public Schools held the first in a series of parent meetings about a radical plan to close some schools and turn others into charter schools.

Detroit schools’ Emergency Financial Manager, Robert Bobb, proposes closing six schools and making up to 45 others into charters.

18 of those schools will close this summer if no charter operator takes over. 27 others will have the opportunity to go charter, but would stay open as public schools if that doesn’t happen.

Bobb says that’s a better option than a state-mandated deficit-elimination plan, which would close 40 schools outright.

Most parents who attended the first meeting at Priest Elementary school in southwest Detroit expressed concern and even anger about Bobb’s plan. Many worry what it will mean for their neighborhood schools, student transportation, and special needs students.

Danielle Clark’s eleven-year-old daughter attends the Detroit Day School for the Deaf. Bobb’s plan calls for that school to close.

“This should not be an option, to close the only deaf school in Detroit. I drive 40 miles one way because this is my daughter’s culture and her environment and this is the place where she needs to be.”

District spokesman Steve Wasko says concerned parents will have a chance to make their case directly to Bobb in other meetings this month.

“We may learn something about a school…that it’s not a good candidate for closure or charter. In some cases we may learn that a school that we thought was a candidate for charter just simply has no interest from a charter. And if it’s on the list of 18, it would indeed close. If it’s on the larger list it would remain open.”

Bobb and the Detroit School Board will also hold two town meetings about the plan on April 12th and 13th.

Elaine Roach via Musicians of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra

Detroit Symphony Orchestra musicians say they’ll return to the stage for rehearsal on Thursday.

DSO officials have announced a tentative agreement that would end a bitter six-months-long players’ strike.

Detroit Symphony officials canceled the whole concert season in February, when it seemed like feuding Orchestra players and management just couldn’t agree on a new contract. The two sides had deadlocked for months over issues ranging from pay to musicians’ outside teaching obligations.

But under mounting political pressure and after a marathon weekend bargaining session, the two sides hammered out a tentative work agreement.

Musicians’ union President Gordon Stump wouldn’t talk specifics. An official ratification vote will wrap up on Friday.

Stump says musicians are happy the strike will end even though they’re “not crazy” about parts of the agreement.

“I’m sure the management wasn’t crazy about it either. But most of the things that we had a problem with are gone. In that sense, I think it was a resolution we could all live with.”

Stump says the strike was “a long, protracted struggle, and it’s going to take a long time to heal.”

The strike cost the Orchestra some musicians, including its whole percussion section.

Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio

Hundreds of labor union supporters rallied against attacks on collective bargaining rights in Detroit Monday.

The rally was one of dozens nationwide commemorating Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination.

King was killed during a 1968 trip to Memphis to support that city’s striking black sanitation workers. National labor leaders are highlighting this lesser-known part of King’s legacy as they fight new state laws that restrict unions’ collective bargaining rights.

Canton resident Natalie Mosher came to the downtown Detroit rally. She says Governor Snyder and state Republicans have gone too far.

"I’m here to support all working people. I was a former teacher and I think what is happening in Michigan today is just not acceptable.”

The Governor recently signed a bill granting Emergency Financial Managers broad powers, including the right to throw out union contracts.

Former Delphi worker Stacey Kemp drove from near Saginaw to attend the rally. Kemp says everyone should be concerned about the many new state laws that restrict workers’ right to collective bargaining.

“Whether they’re union or non-union, this is going to directly affect all middle and working-class people. If they’re allowed to get away with this, we might as well just kiss our grandchildren goodbye, and they’re going to live in a third-world country.”

The AFL-CIO and other organizers say the King-inspired rallies are part of a continued campaign to fight that law and similar measures in other states.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user tEdGuY49

Detroit is home to one of the world’s largest incinerators. That facility burns around 800,000 tons of trash every year.

The issue has sparked passionate conflict in Detroit for more than 20 years. And a recent public hearing—on whether to give the incinerator’s new owners tax credits—showed that conflict is just as intense as ever.

Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio

The city of Detroit and Bank of America have announced what both call “the start of a new partnership.” Bank of America says it will demolish 100 “vacant and low-value” homes in Detroit at their own expense. The bank says it will also donate 10 refurbished homes to the city’s Project 14. That’s an effort to lure Detroit police officers back to the city with housing incentives. Karla Henderson, Mayor Dave Bing’s Group Executive in charge of Project 14, says she and the Mayor will choose the 10 homes from the bank’s inventory, based on what participating officers are interested in.

Hanneorla / Flickr

Detroit Mayor Dave Bing says he wants a recount of Detroit’s 2010 census numbers. That data shows the city with its smallest population since 1910. Bing says he thinks census numbers that fix Detroit’s population at just under 714,000 are wrong.  Bing says a recount could turn up as many as 40,000 more residents. That would put the city above a key 750,000 person threshold.

Sarah Cwiek/Michigan Radio

The Detroit International Bridge Company, owners of the Ambassador Bridge, has settled a lawsuit with the owners of a bait shop.

Lafayette Bait and Tackle sits near where the Detroit International Bridge Company hopes to build a second span. The company purchased the land to remove what it saw as a final obstacle to their plans.

Both sides in the case agree fault lay primarily with the bait shop’s former landlord, a group called Commodities Export.

Detroit officials say a plan to lure police officers back to the city is being implemented and will likely expand.

The city rolled out what it calls Project 14last month, and briefed the Detroit City Council about it Monday.

The goal is to lure Detroit cops living in the suburbs back to the city with housing incentives in two neighborhoods.

www.sefmd.org

Students from 143 Detroit area schools competed in the Metro Detroit Science and Engineering Fair Wednesday.

Almost 1400 middle and high school students displayed their projects at Detroit’s Cobo Center. Students from Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb county schools showed off research projects in 13 categories, ranging from computer science to zoology.

Fair organizers say participation in the fair is trending upward, and participation from Detroit Public Schools students shot up dramatically this year.

Two top Obama administration officials want people to know that cracking down on Medicare fraud is a “Cabinet-level priority.”

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius talked about those efforts at a Wayne State University summit Tuesday. The two have been holding “Health Care Fraud Prevention Summits” across the country.

Sebelius says government agencies and law enforcement are now using new tools to root out that fraud.

The man in charge of the Detroit Public Schools’ finances has put forth a plan that would turn some of the district’s worst schools into charter schools. Robert Bobb presented his “Renaissance Plan 2012” to the Detroit Board of Education over the weekend. The plan calls for turning 41 of the district’s remaining 142 schools over to charter operators. District spokesman Steve Wasko says it would allow the district to move at least $75 million in expenses off its books.

“This is an alternative that would allow the Detroit Public Schools to shed all of the operating costs of the identified schools, to be borne by an outside management company or charter operator.”

Wasko says Bobb will identify those schools and open up the application process later this week.

Skeptics question whether the amount of money the plan saves would make up what the district would lose in state per-pupil funding. David Arsen, Professor of Educational Policy at Michigan State University, says it’s not quite clear how the plan would save so much money.

“If the 41 schools are converted to charters, DPS would avoid its current operations expenditures on those buildings. On the other hand, the district would also lose nearly all of the state funding it currently receives for educating the students in those schools.”

The State Department of Education would have to sign off too, because the proposal would change the deficit elimination plan the state ordered Bobb to implement. Bobb says his proposal would still advance the deficit elimination plan, while avoiding what he calls “draconian” measures, such as shutting down half the district’s remaining schools.

Photo courtesy of Hantz Farms

John Hantz wants to turn a blighted swath of Detroit into what he calls "the world’s largest urban farm." But the project, which has been in the works for nearly two years, has been slow to get off the ground. 

City officials just approved a deal to let Hantz Farms buy 20 city lots (about five acres) adjacent to their headquarters. The company plans to clean up the land and create some small orchards.

Roadblocks to city farming

  • Hantz Farms is not allowed to sell anything they grow there.
  • Large-scale farming requires re-zoning for agriculture, which brings the Michigan Right to Farm Act into play; that law is meant to protect farmers from people who complain about the sounds and smells of regular farming. Some people worry it would give Hantz Farms’ neighbors little recourse if there are problems.

Chrysler’s now-famous “Imported from Detroit” Super Bowl ad is getting recognition from city leaders.

The Detroit City Council honored the Chrysler Group with a testimonial resolution Tuesday.

Councilman Andre Spivey, who sponsored the resolution, says the “phenomenal” ad was about much more than a car.

“I don’t think Chrysler intended it to be what it turned out to be. But I think it inspired many people in Detroit to say hey, this is our city. We have a good city. We have our challenges, yes…but I think we can come back. And I think it gave us a little spark of energy to go on and see what else we can do.”

Chrysler Group President Olivier Francois accepted the award on the company’s behalf. Francois says Chrysler meant the ad as a tribute to Detroit, but didn’t think it would have so much resonance.

“For sure, the Super Bowl commercial has been promoting a lot beyond the car itself and beyond the company. It did I think a great job for the city."

The commercial’s “Imported from Detroit” catchphrase has become so popular Chrysler is putting it on t-shirts and other merchandise.

Francois says some proceeds from those sales will go to four still-to-be-named Detroit charities.

City of Hamtramck website

This Tuesday is Fat Tuesday, the last day before the 40 days of sacrifice that come with the Christian season of Lent. But in Metro Detroit and other communities with large Polish populations, the day is better known as “Paczki Day.” Sandy Bakic has spent her whole life making the fried, doughy pastries at the Martha Washington Bakery in Hamtramck. That small enclave is the historic center of Detroit’s Polish community. Bakic says the day has become a festival for everyone in Hamtramck, regardless of race or religion. “It’s going to be festive. It’s gonna be a happy time. There’s paczki parties all over town. There’s paczki eating contests still going on. The Paczki Cup is in our window on display right now.” Bakic says she and other employees have been making the sweet treats since midnight Monday. The bakery will stay open all night to serve paczki-seekers from all over southeast Michigan. Hamtramck also celebrates with a Paczki Day parade, lots of free entertainment, and a generally party-like atmosphere.

The Michigan State Police have asked the Wayne County Prosecutors office to issue an arrest warrant in the Aiyana Jones case. A Detroit Police officer killed seven-year-old Aiyana Jones last May, as a police team raided her family’s home looking for a murder suspect. It’s unclear whether the warrant involves that officer, or what the charge would be.

Sarah Hulett / Michigan Radio

In Detroit, the school district is grappling with a $327 million dollar budget deficit. That’s led the district’s state-appointed Emergency Financial Manager, Robert Bobb, to put forth a deficit elimination plan that would close half the district’s schools.  

Bobb himself calls the deficit elimination plan “draconian.” In January, Bobb gave it to the state of Michigan, warning it was the only way for the Detroit Public Schools to in his words “cut its way out” of its deficit.

The State Department of Education says that’s exactly what Bobb should do.

“We’re working through some very difficult and challenging budget situations.”

That was Bobb’s cautious take on the subject last week. He backed away somewhat from one of the plan’s most staggering provisions—60 kids in some classrooms. But he says class sizes will go up as the district closes about half its schools. The plan also calls for replacing individual school principals with “regional” ones, and cutting all general bus service.

Word of the huge cuts is just trickling down to everyone. Maddie Wright found out when she attended a workshop at the Marcus Garvey Academy on Detroit’s east side. Wright, who’s raising a grandson in the seventh grade, says she doesn’t like the idea of less individual attention for kids—especially in subjects like math, where she struggles to help with homework.

“The way he’s doing it…I don’t know anything. So the only somebody who can help him is some of those younger teachers, that’s been there. Because I can’t.”

Bobb has proposed another alternative. That’s to put the Detroit Public Schools through a bankruptcy process similar to what General Motors did. It would allow the system leave much of its debt behind, and emerge with a new balance sheet.

Detroit State Representative David Nathan, a Democrat, says he’s all right with the bankruptcy option.  But he says state officials have told him that even talking about it will hurt the state’s bond rating.

“We should allow the district to do that. And we should not sacrifice the kids of the city of Detroit to save a bond rating for the state. Those are MY children in that school district.”

But the state’s Education Department nixed that option. State Republicans are also pushing legislation that gives state-appointed financial managers broad powers, including the right to throw out union contracts. Democrat Nathan says he’s working on a compromise bill that would avoid both bankruptcy and the worst cuts.

Elaine Roach via Musicians of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra

Striking musicians with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra say that after five months on the picket line, they’re willing to come back to work without a contract. The musicians say they’ll go back on stage “immediately and unconditionally” if Orchestra management agrees to binding arbitration. The musicians propose that its union and Orchestra management each pick one arbitrator. The two people selected would then pick a third arbitrator to hear the case.

An attorney for the Detroit suburb of Allen Park says he’s “confident” the city won’t have to eliminate its fire department.

Allen Park faces a budget deficit of around $660,000. Last week, its City Council voted to lay off all the city’s firefighters.

But an attorney who works for the city says he thinks that can be avoided.

Todd Flood says “he’s confident” the city and the firefighters’ union can strike a deal involving union concessions.

Flood says other city workers would have to make similar sacrifices.

Allen Park is a downriver Detroit suburb of about 25,000 people. The move to cut its whole fire department has sparked outrage at city government.

The Allen Park city administrator cited the uproar when he resigned on Sunday.

U.S. Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld a murder conviction in the case Michigan v. Bryant. The case involved a Detroit man who identified his shooter as the victim lay dying, and whether or not that evidence could be considered in court. A Wayne County jury convicted Richard Bryant of murder based on the victim's statement. But the Michigan Supreme Court overturned that conviction, saying Bryant was denied his constitutional right to confront his accuser. Now, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the initial conviction.

Carlos Lowry / Flickr

Detroit city leaders are bracing for what most see as the inevitable passage of a state law giving more powers to Emergency Financial Managers.

Detroit’s Lansing lobbyist, Ken Cole, briefed the City Council about the package of bills Wednesday, as the State House voted to approve them.

Ken Cole told the Council he thinks the legislation is meant to work in tandem with Governor Snyder’s proposed budget.

Cole described that budget’s impact on Detroit as “bludgeoning.” Among other cuts, it would lose $178 million in state revenue sharing.

But Cole says the Council shouldn't focus on not stopping the EMF legislation.  He says there’s little hope of that in the Republican-dominated state legislature. 

“Because in the words of the former late state senator David Holmes of Detroit, ain’t no substitute for votes. You either got ‘em or you don’t. Make no mistake, wedon't.”

Detroit City Councilman Ken Cockrel Jr. agrees that some political gamesmanship is in play when it comes to emergency financial managers.

“I think part of what is going on here, part of the approach of the Snyder administration is to try to leverage cities to do what they need to do to fix themselves financially. Or face the risk of somebody coming in and doing it for you.”

Cockrel and Cole say Detroit officials should focus on amending aspects of the legislation they really don’t like.

That includes a provision that would let firms, as well as individuals, act as emergency financial managers. Cockrel says that would be “crazy.”

Joe Ross / Flickr

Detroit Mayor Dave Bing says he’s moved the city in the right direction.

But in his State of the City speech, Bing also warned that Governor Snyder’s proposed budget would jeopardize that progress. Snyder attended Tuesday night’s speech at Detroit’s Orchestra Hall.

Detroit Public Schools officials are touting new numbers that show the district’s graduation rate is rising.   Those statistics show a 62% graduation rate in 2010. That’s up from about 58% rate in 2007, when the district began using a new method to count graduates.

User mrd00dman / Flickr

The state Department of Education has ordered the Detroit Public Schools to implement a drastic deficit elimination plan.

The plan includes closing half the district’s remaining schools within two years, and increasing some class sizes to 60 students by next school year. It would also create "regional" prinicpals rather than school principals, and cut transportation services for most students.

Detroit Public Library

People losing their local Borders bookstore may turn to their local library for books and DVD’s. But that may put an even bigger strain on Michigan’s already-struggling libraries.

Libraries face a tough paradox.  People tend to use them more when the economy is bad. But a bad economy also means they get fewer resources to work with.

Sarah Hulett / Michigan Radio

Detroit Public Schools Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb defended his tenure in Lansing Wednesday.

Meanwhile, controversy over his plan to outsource more than 800 school maintenance jobs is growing.

Union leaders opposing the privatization move question why Bobb is pushing the process along so quickly during the school year.They also raise questions about possible ties between Bobb and a Sodexo executive. Both men belong to the same fraternity. Edward McNeill, with Council 25 of the Michigan Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees, says the deal “makes you wonder what’s going on.”

“And we’re certainly gonna move to have this investigated by the Governor’s office, the attorney general’s office, legislative folks in Lansing, as well as the Detroit School Board.”

Bobb issued a written response to what he called the unions’ “untrue claims” earlier this week.Bobb says the outsourcing will save the district more than $75 million over five years, and improve employee performance.

I didn’t really watch the Super Bowl last night. I only flipped it on toward the very end to see what had happened. I also logged onto my Facebook page about the same time, and was floored to see my newsfeed exploding with updates, nearly all variations on one theme: “Imported from Detroit.”

I was curious to know what this was all about, and fortunately some helpful people had already posted links to the Chrysler 200 ad featuring Eminem. It begins with the familiar stark images of Detroit—the bleak industrial landscape, the vacant and decaying buildings. Then a growling, defiant voice: “I’ve gotta question for you. What does this city know about luxury?”

“What does a town that’s been to hell and back know about the finer things in life?”

The response is an unfolding visual narrative that was a surprisingly moving tribute to Detroit’s aesthetic and cultural beauty. Underlying it all is a frank admission that the city has been to hell, and it may still be somewhere near hell-ish. But like Diego Rivera’s gorgeous murals that depict Detroit in its industrial heyday, the ad also finds beauty in Detroit’s hardscrabble nature. It issues a defiant challenge to recognize that beauty, but offers no apologies to those who won’t.

Detroit Mayor Dave Bing has rolled out a new incentives program for Detroit police officers.

“Project 14” aims to pull some officers living in the suburbs into city neighborhoods. The phrase refers to a Detroit police code that means things are “back to normal.”

Bing hopes to restore something like normality to Detroit neighborhoods by making more Detroit cops city residents. Fewer than half are right now.

The project’s pilot phase will give officers chance to get a tax-foreclosed home for up to a thousand dollars. They’ll also be eligible for federal funds to fix them up.

Detroit Police Chief Ralph Godbee calls moving to the city a “highly personal decision” for officers. But he thinks many will consider it.

“I’ve fielded a number of calls to my office wondering what the incentives were. So now that they’ve been laid out I think we’re going to see a lot of officers take advantage of it.”

Project 14 will initially offer 200 homes in two relatively stable Detroit neighborhoods.

Bing says the program also complements his Detroit Works Project, which aims to strengthen the city’s more viable communities.

A new study from the Pew Charitable Trusts shows that Detroit spends a larger chunk of its budget on the City Council than other major cities.

Detroitspends just over 1% of its current general fund budget on Council expenses. The national median is just under 0.5%.

The study also looked at whether cities have Council term limits, or serve full- or part-time. Detroit has a full-time Council.

Thomas Ginsberg is the Project Manager of Pew’s Philadelphia-based research initiative. He says the research didn’t “find much correlation” between that status and costs.

“Most of the Councils that call themselves part-time…in fact the members work much more than part-time. So we found that’s not a particularly useful term. That’s a commentary more about the term than the numbers.”

But Detroit City Council President Charles Pugh calls portions of the study “totally inaccurate.”

Pugh says Detroit’s Council budget also includes some administrative offices, like the city planning commission. He also points out that Detroit Council members’ have lower salaries than most of their counterparts in other cities.

Hooker DeJong Architects and Engineers

Henry Ford Health Systems and two non-profit partners will team up to offer more long-term care options to Detroit’s senior citizens.

 

Henry Ford, Presbyterian Villages of Michigan, and United Methodist Retirement Communities are involved in the $35 million project on the city’s east side.

 

The complex will include affordable senior housing, assisted living units, and a Center for Senior Independence.

 

Egyptians in Michigan are voicing their support for anti-government protestors in that country.

Members of the newly-formed American Egyptian Muslim Society issued a statement of support Monday for continued demonstrations against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

The group says it affirms the “non-violent” portions of the movement for “political and social reform” in Egypt.

Shereef Akeel, an Egyptian-American civil rights lawyer, says the protesters come from all segments of Egyptian society.

“We’re witnessing a collaborative effort by a people of different religions, different persuasions, different economic classes…poor, rich…different worshippers from different denominations, all in the streets together.”

Akeel says he never dreamed the Egyptian protests would turn into a possible revolution.

He says it’s understandable the U.S. would be concerned about a potential “vacuum of power” if Mubarak is overthrown. But he maintains the diversity of the demonstrators shows it’s possible the country has a moderate, secular future.

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