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Judge okays separate and unequal schools

Split decision promises more DPS court action

By T. Kelly
The Michigan Citizen

DETROIT — Third Circuit Court Judge John A. Murphy rendered a split decision following a hearing Aug. 14 ruling that Emergency Manager Roy Roberts will retain responsibility for DPS finances, the EAA (Educational Achievement Authority) can continue and the elected board will control academics.

“The judge did a Solomon decision,” said Attorney Tom Bleakley, representing elected board President Lamar Lemmons, during an interview following the hearing. “When a judge doesn’t want to rile any feathers, he splits the baby.”

Of the many contentious issues arising from EM Roberts’ actions, students and parents have targeted the EAA for direct action.

Labeled a Jim Crow district, separate and unequal, the EAA is a statewide district but only affects Detroit students. The EAA is a district for “failing” schools. Mostly African American students will attend.

To create the district, Roberts and the State Board of Education used a $1.5 million foundation grant and directed DPS resources, including 15 school buildings and contents totaling hundreds of millions of dollars in assets, to the EAA. DPS parents and students have objected; Detroit taxpayers continue to pay improvements through recent long term bond issues.

Activist Helen Moore and the overflow crowd of parents, teachers and citizens attending the hearing in Murphy’s court were visibly upset.

“Boycott the EAA,” Moore said. “If we don’t send the students, they (the EAA) fail.”

Moore reflected the spirit of determination evident when Detroit’s elected Board of Education met Aug. 9. It was the first meeting since the appointment of Roberts, a year ago, who had total power over school under Pubic Act 4 (PA4) and refused to recognize the DPS school board. At the meeting, the board took decisive action to reverse the policies of Roberts, a retired General Motors executive.

The board terminated contracts with Teach for America, the interlocal agreement with Eastern Michigan University that created the EAA and the Educational Achievement System (EAS), reclaimed the 15 schools taken by the EAA and renamed each with its historic name plus the designation, “Detroit School of Excellence and High Achievement,” and restored special education classes to DPS. It also hired an interim superintendent, John Telford.

“We are the only ones in charge now,” said Board President Lamar Lemmons to cheers from the 100-plus attending parents and citizens.

All of that was undone with Murphy’s ruling.

Roberts, who was accompanied to court at taxpayer expense by three lawyers, two security guards and his public relations person, sought an injunction to permit him to retain sole control of DPS. The request stems from the Board of Canvassers certification of 226,000 petition signatures seeking the overthrow of PA4. Voters will decide a Nov. 6 ballot proposal whether to discard or keep PA4. With certification came suspension of PA4. The legal question was whether the earlier Public Act 72 (PA72) would be reinstated since PA 4 repealed PA 72.

Attorney John Pirich argued Roberts’ case.

The board filed a subsequent motion to be returned to “their rightful place,” according to Attorney George Washington.

Murphy ruled Roberts’ status reverts to PA72, the Financial Emergency Manager act, which restricts the power of EMs to financial matters. PA4, passed in 2011, granted total authority to emergency managers, including the power to terminate contracts, sell assets and dismiss public officials.

In 2010, Judge Wendy Baxter ruled that Robert Bobb, then emergency manager — and who, like Roberts, had no educational qualifications — had usurped the elected board’s authority under PA72, doing “irreparable harm” to DPS students.

Blakely told Murphy that letting Roberts function under PA4 “returns the schools to a situation the court has deemed caused irreparable harm” and, Washington noted, “(Roberts) is from GM. He doesn’t know anything about those (academic) things.”

In stating the school board’s case, Washington described Roberts’ continued rudeness and inability to cooperate with the elected board. Washington described how just last week, his request to get copies of the lawsuit filed against the board members was denied by Roberts staff.

Until voters decide the issue Nov. 6, Murphy said he hoped the DPS board and Roberts can work things out, but noting that there is no “bright line between finances and academics” and the “devil is in the details,” Murphy said he will resolve any conflicts that arise from now until the election.

One conflict likely to bring the parties back before Murphy is the question of Teach for America.

“These are folk who have never stood in a classroom, never had teacher training,” Washington told the judge. “In New Orleans, one half quit before the first semester was over.”

Elected board members want certified teachers to take the place of the 75 Teach for America students — college graduates who get a portion of their student loans forgiven in exchange for their two-year service in inner city classrooms.

More court action awaits the board. Roberts will join Attorney General Bill Schuette in the quest to unseat those board members elected from districts. Their argument is that with the DPS enrollment at 60,000, the district no longer qualifies to have representation from districts, only at-large seats are valid, and the state wants to undo the 2011 election. Only at-large board members would continue to retain their seats if Schuette and Roberts win in court.

Contact T. Kelly at tkelly@michigancitizen.com

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