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Resisting the EM

Week 26 of the occupation

By Shea Howell
Special to the Michigan Citizen

As Rick Snyder campaigns for his second term, people are bombarded with images of the “can do” governor. One image we won’t see is Gov. Snyder meeting with the Detroit elected Board of Education. If the governor had his way, the elected board would pack up and get out of town. That is because the Detroit elected school board has been persistent in its resistance to the emergency manager and to the destruction of democracy.

Unlike the Detroit City Council, where some elected members cozied up to the new manager, hoping to win favors, the elected school board has remained united in opposition to the EM. As the EM has closed schools and slashed programs, the elected board has provided the only public forum for discussion of these issues.

The Detroit Public Schools system was the test case for Emergency Manager legislation. It was the first state takeover of a locally elected school board and has continued for more than a decade. This takeover gives us a picture of the use of emergency management to turn public resources into private gain. It demonstrates the contempt for democracy and for the city of Detroit that fuels this legislation.

The state takeover of DPS began in 1999, shortly after the citizens of Detroit voted a massive $150 billion construction bond. The construction industry, with close ties to Republican Gov. John Engler, saw the potential for windfall profits. Thus Engler appointed the first emergency manager.

At the time DPS had a surplus of $93 million. The academic level of the district was solid and improving. Test scores were at the mid point in the state and rising, out performing neighboring Ferndale for example. DPS was introducing new ideas in education, with theme-based high schools, language immersion programs and special efforts for students with disabilities. All of this progress and innovation was stopped with the state takeover.

A decade later, in 2009 Robert Bobb left the job of emergency manager with a $327 million deficit and chaotic schools. His replacement, Roy Roberts, hasn’t done any better, providing a so-called deficit reduction through borrowing.

At every step along this torturous path, the Detroit elected board of education, concerned parents, child advocates, students and teachers have resisted being emergency managed. In the last period, the Detroit school board, calling itself the school board in exile, has been especially united and active in organizing public resistance and launching court challenges. In some ways, it was their success in wresting academic control away from appointed managers under the earlier version of this legislation that led to the Republican effort to make clear that elected officials have no power to do anything under emergency management.

Now Gov. Snyder and Attorney General Bill Schuette are going after the elected school board superintendent, John Telford.  The elected board appointed Dr. Telford as superintendent of DPS. He receives one dollar a year for his efforts. He has proven to be a tireless public advocate for children and their right to an education.

In the murky time following the public rejection of all emergency manager legislation, the elected school board extended Dr. Telford’s contract. With the new Public Act 436, the emergency manger fired him. Telford sued and lost in court.

Not content with the win in court, the governor and attorney general are now suing Dr. Telford personally for nearly $36,000 in court costs. Telford, a retiree on a fixed income who was represented pro bono in the court case, can hardly afford these costs. The message from the governor is clear — I will punish those who disagree with me.

For his part Dr. Telford says, “They may be able to punish me, but they can’t silence me. They can’t make me quit.”

In the sweep of history, it is people like Dr. Telford, who represent the best in us and who deserve our support.

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