Michigan AG Sues to Remove 7 of 11 Detroit School Board Members

The legal wrangling comes days after the school board regained authority over academic decisions in Detroit Public Schools.
by | August 10, 2012

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette filed a lawsuit late Thursday seeking to remove seven Detroit school board members from office and requesting an injunction to block the board from taking any future action, claiming enrollment in the Detroit Public Schools is now too low for board members to be elected by district.

But the request for an injunction may have come too late. As word of the lawsuit came via a news release, board members met to make decisions that would affect the operations of DPS for the first time in three years -- including approving a contract with an interim superintendent and transferring 15 schools back to DPS from the newly formed Education Achievement Authority of Michigan. They then voted to rename those schools.

Schuette's office charges that seven board members are illegally holding office because they were elected in separate districts, instead of as at-large members chosen by voters across the district, as required by state law.

DPS is projected to enroll about 49,000 students in the fall. The district has lost students and no longer fits the definition of a first-class school district, Schuette said. The other four board members are elected at-large, or citywide.

The Revised School Code that outlines how boards should operate, says a first-class school district is one with at least 100,000 students. But the state School Aid Act, which determines how schools are funded, defines it as one with 60,000 students the preceding year.

In the suit, filed in Wayne County Circuit Court, Schuette cited the state's Revised School Code law that says only a first-class school district may elect members by districts and claims DPS ceased to fit that definition in September 2008.

"For far too long, the children of Detroit have received a second-class education," Schuette said in a news release issued late Thursday. "It's time to improve their quality of education, and that starts at the top. My job as attorney general is to ensure state law is followed and that our children get the quality education they were promised by our Michigan Constitution."

LaMar Lemmons, the DPS school board president, said it was "convenient" that the state waited four years to sue.

"This is done deliberately to impede the citizens of this district from taking their rightful place with authority over this district," he said.

The board's first actions Thursday night included a vote to approve a contract with John Telford, the former DPS administrator who the board appointed in June to be interim superintendent. Telford will work for $1 per year.

The board also voted to change the names of the 15 schools it wants transferred back to DPS from the EAA reform district to include the words "Detroit" and "of Excellence and High Achievement." The board also revived the names of three schools that had been changed in the past few years -- Finney, Crockett and Barbara Jordan schools.

Earlier in the day, Schuette explained to the Free Press editorial board why he was contemplating suing the board.

"Have I talked to the governor, his office? Yes. Do I think that the Detroit Public Schools board has failed the students of the city of Detroit? Yes," Schuette said.

The legal wrangling comes after Wednesday's decision by the Board of Canvassers to place the emergency manager law on the Nov. 6 ballot for voters to decide whether to keep or toss it.

As a result of the measure being placed on the ballot, the powers of emergency managers who run four cities and three school districts were suspended, Schuette said.

Therefore, the school board regained authority over academic decisions in DPS. Meanwhile, Roy Roberts is no longer emergency manager, but was appointed emergency financial manager with diminished powers over the school system's finances as a result of the ballot issue.

But Roberts doesn't want to recognize the board's decisions.

His attorneys filed a request for an injunction Wednesday in Wayne County Circuit Court arguing that the school board should not be allowed to make decisions because it would cause irreparable harm to the district.

The case was assigned to Judge John Murphy and is tentatively scheduled to be heard at 10 a.m. Tuesday.

Telford, the board-appointed interim superintendent, said he does not intend to change the academic plan Roberts created.

"Not unless I find something egregious," Telford said.

George Washington, attorney for the school board, said DPS's problems are the state's fault because the state has controlled the district for 10 of the past 13 years -- through chief executive officers, emergency financial managers and emergency managers -- and now doesn't want to yield authority to Detroiters.

"I think it's clear that the attorney general and the governor and Roy Roberts don't like black people voting," he said.

The DPS school board is arguably the reason for the statewide debate and ballot measure over emergency managers.

After a 1999 state takeover of DPS, the school board ran the district from 2006 to 2009. The deficit ballooned to more than $300 million, and in March 2009 an emergency financial manager was appointed to run DPS.

Wayne County Circuit Judge Wendy Baxter ruled in December 2010 that the school board has academic powers under an emergency financial manager, but before the board could make any decisions a new emergency manager law was passed that removed its authority.

Though powerless, the board continued to meet even when no audience showed up. On Thursday, nearly 100 people showed up, including U.S. Rep. John Conyers, a Detroit Democrat.

(c)2012 the Detroit Free Press


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