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Getting qualified school board candidates is next big step for Detroit schools overhaul

Jun 27, 2016

The latest re-invention of public schools in Detroit is underway with the state trying yet again to overhaul the district facing huge financial and academic difficulties.

But it’s still too early to declare victory.

This new plan out of Lansing is without the support of legislative Democrats, the Detroit delegation and Mayor Mike Duggan. But it does return the Detroit public schools back to the control of a locally elected school board. This is coming after many state appointed emergency managers over seven years have tried but failed to turn around the district.

This latest state plan is a taxpayer-funded bailout of the district but, remember, a lot of that debt was racked up while the district was being run by the state.

So, now what’s meant to happen is the old district will basically only be in existence to pay off millions and millions of dollars of debt. Using this state money from the bailout, a new Detroit Community Schools district will be created. And, as Governor Snyder says, this district will be responsible to the city’s voters:

“The next step, a very critical one, is to get a new school board elected,” he says. The board will hire a superintendent, and set policies that will help determine whether the new district will succeed where the previous one has not.

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The makeup of this new board will be essential to the future district’s success, and roiling over leadership on the still-existing Detroit school board speaks to the importance of a cadre of responsible, mature members to guide the new district. And what might happen otherwise.

With that in mind, don’t expect the southeast Michigan business community and its movers and shakers in and outside the city to take a watch-and-see approach as the July 26th deadline to file for school board elections approaches.

Board shenanigans (hiring limousines to get to meetings, for example) have long been part of the justification for state intervention in the district dating back 17 years. Starting under Republican Governor John Engler, who muscled through a controversial plan to place the district under the control of a so-called “reform board” that was later scrapped by Detroit voters. Engler was also the governor who said charter schools should be part of the answer to solve the district’s academic issues.

Those policy decisions and political choices have ramifications that are still playing out to this day, and this newest version of reform will have repercussions that will extend out by generations.

But getting good school board candidates is not always easy. And, not just in Detroit. The Michigan Association of School Boards says no one runs for about 10 percent of board seats. When that happens, it’s up to the rest of the school board members to fill the vacancies and name their compatriots.

Now that might seem like a good deal for those school board members, but that takes time and effort that could be spent on developing education policy. And, it robs the boards of diversity and community buy-in to board decisions.

It’s a big enough problem that the school board association commissioned an EPIC-MRA poll to ask the public about the often-thankless job of board service. It found people think school boards are too political, or the volunteer job takes up too much time. And, 22 percent of respondents said they’re just apathetic. School board elections and millage votes are typically low-turnout affairs, too.

It appears no one asked people whether that apathy extends to not complaining when they don’t like a board decision, or how their tax dollars are being used.

The reality is democracy belongs to those who show up.