EM Roberts ignores new duties
DPS elected board finds small crack in PA 436
By T. Kelly
The Michigan Citizen
DETROIT—Section 19 of the new Emergency Manager (EM) law, Public Act 436, promises a whole new set of lawsuits such as have plagued the courts and enriched attorneys since the state first targeted struggling cities with emergency management.
Section 19 requires the EM to submit a plan of action to the elected board for the closing of any school or sale or transfer of any asset valued at $50,000 or more, Detroit Public Schools (DPS) Board President Lamar Lemmons said.
Under the new EM law, the board must have 10 days to review the EM’s plan and an additional seven days to develop an alternative plan. That plan is to be sent before the LEFALB (Local Emergency Financial Assistance Loan Board) which is composed of the Governor, members of his cabinet and the State Treasurer.
However, the EM won’t allow the board to hold additional meetings. The elected board cannot meet in committees or outside of its scheduled monthly meeting. EM Roberts is also not providing any financial or other information, board members say.
Roberts’ Chief Communications Officer Michelle Zdrodowski did not respond to a phone call or email for this story.
“Overreach,” is what Lemmons calls EM Roy Roberts’ ban on any board meetings but the regular board meeting.
“He doesn’t have the authority to order elected officials around,” Lemmons said at the board’s April 11 meeting held at Gompers Elementary School.
EM stops meeting
Roberts blocked board members from meeting at their Committee of the Whole meeting scheduled for 5 p.m. that day, although Gompers school personnel were prepared and ready to host the meeting. The staff told board members they had instructions from the EM not to let anyone in the building until 6 p.m., the time set for the regular board meeting.
“He’s attempting to eliminate the Committee of the Whole,” Lemmons said. “We do our work through the committee structure.”
As the board convened its meeting, Roberts was holding a press conference on the eastside of Detroit to announce four school closings. Only two elected board members were invited to Roberts’ event, Annie Carter and Juvette Hawkins-Williams, who some consider sympathetic to the EM.
Carter arrived late at the board meeting, but left before it ended when she was the lone ‘no’ vote on resolutions aimed at making transparent information Roberts will not release.
Roberts announced the Duke Ellington Elementary-Middle School program will move to the building that currently houses the William J. Beckham Academy program and the school will be called Edward Duke Ellington at Beckham Elementary-Middle School.
Wilkins Elementary-Middle School will close and all students will be reassigned to A.L. Holmes Elementary-Middle School.
Oakman Elementary-Orthopedic School will close. Most Oakman students, special education and general education alike, will be reassigned to Noble Elementary-Middle School. A smaller group of students who are considered physically or otherwise health impaired will be relocated to Henderson Academy.
Northwestern High School will cease as an academic program and the Detroit Collegiate Preparatory High School program will relocate from the east wing of Northwestern into the main academic part of the facility. The new program will be called Detroit Collegiate Preparatory High School at Northwestern.
The board passed 16 resolutions attempting to secure financial information from Roberts and use of facilities to allow them to prepare alternative plans to Roberts’ school closing list. The board said it is handicapped without access to financial data or the ability to meet more than once a month.
EM blocks data
Board members are legally bound — unlike Roberts — to obey the Open Meetings Act. To meet in compliance with the law, they must know when and where they can meet so they can announce the schedule to the public. Without knowing ahead of time those details — which they need Roberts to grant them — they cannot fulfill their legal duties.
“The law says we cannot meet behind closed doors, [yet] we have only seven to ten days to review,” member Ida Short said, commenting on the restrictions Roberts is imposing.
“If we can only meet once a month and he didn’t submit closings to us, we can’t respond to what he didn’t present us anyway,” Board Member Herman Davis said.
Under Section 19 PA 436, the board can — if they meet as needed and if they have the information — “determine the necessity of proposed school closings and … present an alternative with substantially the same financial result.”
EM stops FOIA
Davis said he filed a Freedom of Information Act request to get information from Roberts about the district finances, but the Roberts administration wants $1,500 for the information. Davis said that, as a board member, he believes he is entitled to financial data and public information.
“I was told it would take 80 hours [for them to gather the information],” Davis said.
That issue has been litigated before. In 2007, Detroit Certified Public Accountant Greg Frazier and Call Em Out founder Agnes Hitchcock sued DPS for access to the district’s financial information. At that time the district also asked for thousands of dollars for processing the FOIA request, claiming it took large amounts of time to produce the records. Frazier produced witnesses knowledgeable of the software system, People Soft, to reveal the time and cost claims as false; that records could be easily, quickly and inexpensively produced. The court granted Frazier the FOIA request.
“As public officials, it is our responsibility to have this information to share with you,” said Board Member Elena Herrada. “It is our responsibility to defend the schools you built.”
Parents from Oakman, many accompanied by their physically challenged children, told the board how the closing of their school will impair their children’s education.
Board members pledged their help to the Oakman parents.
However, Lemmons noted, “the only way to offer an alternative is to understand the itemized way [Roberts] is spending money now. There are a myriad of things we don’t know. We need the itemized information.”