State Ousts Elected School Board in Detroit

Published May 1, 1999

Delivering on legislative proposals made in his January State of the State Address, Republican Michigan Governor John Engler on March 26 signed into law a school reform bill that removes authority for schools in the City of Detroit from the eleven-member elected school board and turns control over to the city’s mayor, Democrat Dennis W. Archer.

Engler signed the measure only a day after it was approved by the Michigan legislature, following weeks of contentious debate on a fast-track bill made possible by the Republican takeover of the Michigan House last November.

“When we look at what we need to do for the twenty-first century, we need the state’s largest school system to be a lot better,” said Engler, adding that he expected to see improvements by the fall.

Archer wasted no time in using his new powers. He will reconsider and possibly rescind contracts approved at the last meeting of the elected board. Board members were told to vacate their offices and turn in their keys, cellular phones, and credit cards by March 31. Archer appointed current General Superintendent Eddie Greene as the district’s acting chief executive officer; a permanent CEO will be chosen by a unanimous vote of the new seven-member board, six of whom are appointed by Archer and one by Engler.

“The reform board will soon be in place and everybody needs to understand that it’s a new day for the Detroit Public Schools,” said Anthony Neely, the mayor’s press secretary.

On March 31, the seven members of Archer’s new board were sworn in:

  • Freman Hendrix, deputy mayor of Detroit and Archer’s former co-campaign manager;
  • Bill Beckham, who led an effort to reform the city’s schools as president of New Detroit, Inc., a multicultural coalition of 100 area civic, corporate, and community leaders;
  • Glenda Price, president of Marygrove College, who has previously held top administrative positions in the health care field;
  • Marvis Coffield, former assistant director for youth programs with Operation Get Down, a nonprofit social services agency;
  • Pam Aguirre, CEO and chairman of Mexican Industries, one of the nations largest minority-owned auto suppliers;
  • Frank Fountain, vice president of government affairs for Daimler-Chrysler and a member of New Detroit, Inc.
  • Arthur Ellis, State Superintendent of Schools, appointed to the board by Governor Engler.

In selecting a team to turn around the performance of an educational system with 182,000 students, 20,000 employees, a $1.8 billion budget, and almost 300 buildings, Archer said he wanted people who could get beyond politics and bureaucracy and act promptly. He stressed that the board, not the Mayor’s Office, would run the schools, and that he was not going to be “looking over their shoulder and micro-managing their actions.” Once appointed by the board, the CEO will run the schools and have the authority to sign contracts and implement major reforms without needing step-by-step approval from the board. (See accompanying article, “Detroit Takeover Gives CEO Extraordinary Powers.”)

Reaction to the mayor’s appointments was generally positive, according to a report by Detroit Free Press reporter Darci McConnell. David Littmann, chief economist for Comerica Bank, told McConnell he was impressed by the appointment of board members from business and higher education “because those are the ones who are the most demanding of quality and literacy in the output of the K-12 education system.”

Speaking to students at Cooley High School a few days after gaining his new authority over the city’s schools, Archer made it clear they could help make school reform work by speaking up about students who vandalize schools or bring weapons to school. Ironically, a 17-year-old Cooley High student was arrested for carrying a BB gun just before Archer arrived.

The school reform plan effectively gives the new board five years to turn the system around. Voters then will decide whether to keep the reform board. Opponents of the takeover already want to get rid of the appointed board and are planning to challenge the new law in court. A Detroit Free Press poll conducted in February showed that 54 percent of Detroit residents favored the takeover legislation, with only 32 percent opposed.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.