DPS board on closings, ‘It wasn’t us!’
By T. Kelly
The Michigan Citizen
DETROIT — Members of the elected Detroit Public School board convened a press conference Oct. 31 in front of the now shuttered Oakman Orthopedic School. They called misleading, media reports of the waste of bond money for school improvements including 110 buildings now demolished or empty.
A Free Press article failed to report all work done with the bond funds was done under the control of the state and not the elected board, President Lamar Lemmons said.
“Closing down the school, closes down the neighborhood,” Lemmons said. “And what we want to make perfectly clear is, it was not the board that caused this. It was under the emergency manager system. We are being blamed for what the state is doing through its emergency manager.”
He cited Oakman as an example of the frustrations the board meets in trying to save Detroit schools.
(Former) Emergency Manager Roy Roberts gave reasons to close Oakman, Lemmons said, but the reasons have proven false. Roberts has since been replaced by Jack Martin.
Roberts said the school was under-populated. Wayne State University Associate Professor of Curriculum Studies Tom Pedroni published an article explaining why it was not under-utilized. He cited state law requiring extra floor space to accommodate students with wheelchairs and walkers. However, EM Roberts used normal classroom floor space to erroneously conclude there should be 446 students in the facility, according to Pedroni. At the time of the school’s closing, it had only one empty classroom and a rising enrollment of over 300 students. The school sits in a neighborhood where over 30 new three and four-bedroom family homes have been recently constructed.
Roberts also said repairs to Oakman would cost $900,000 and the district did not have the money.
Dwight Stackhouse, a private building inspector, who toured the facility Oct. 25 on behalf of the board, reported the floor and boiler repairs cited by Roberts before closing would have cost less than half the EM’s estimate.
“The district over-exaggerated the cost of repairs,” Stackhouse said at the news conference. “Now since it has been vandalized, repairs are up to three million dollars.”
Lemmons said under the new Emergency Manager law, PA 436, section 19 permits the board to offer alternatives to emergency manager actions that include school closures.
“However, the EM won’t provide the information,” Lemmons said, so the board is unable to offer workable alternatives.
Board Vice President Hermann Davis said the board had successfully sued to obtain the district’s financial information, but that the board was awaiting training to use the district’s financial software program.
He noted the Free Press article made it appear the board was complicit.
There is a pattern the EM has for closing schools helping the neediest children, said Lemmons. First, it was the Catherine Ferguson Academy for Mothers, then the School for the Deaf and now the Oakman Orthopedic school — all closings the elected board fought unsuccessfully.
Board member Elena Herrada said the new EM policy permits demolition contractors to tear down buildings for the value they can get from the scrap, but the demolition and neglect leave nothing for the district and its taxpayers.
In addition, she noted the city is selling homes in historic Boston-Edison, for example, that need many of the elements from the 1928 era Oakman.
“Notice this has a slate roof,” Herrada said. “They will strip this down and use it on neighborhoods they favor.”
Stackhouse said the half-inch slate was valuable and at current rates would sell for $1200 a square, a 10 foot by 10 foot area.
Aliya Moore, president of the Oakman Parent Association, talked about the nurturing community the Oakman children enjoyed at the school, but now miss.
“The children do not want to be identified as special needs and won’t talk to their friends,” Moore said. Moore said the new schools are not barrier free. She said Nobel was not equipped for special needs. For example, two second graders that could not climb the stairs were sent to a first grade classroom. They have since been transferred to Henderson.
“Nothing this grand will ever be built again,” Dwight Stackhouse said of the Oakman building.
“The courtyard in the middle of the building is accessed through a lovely terrarium; the large, oversized rooms,” he said. “Right now it is extremely compromised. There is flooding in the heating room. Vandals have stripped the pipes and city water has flooded it. “
Lemmons said they are preparing to seek the end of emergency management in February, the 18-month deadline permitted in PA 436 for governments to resume democratic control. Gov. Rick Snyder has not returned democratic control in Pontiac or Flint and he plans to appoint a board over Benton Harbor when the EM leaves at the end of this year.