Name: Ben Washburn
Address: 14600 Glastonbury, Detroit, MI 48223
Phone: (313) 838-5049 Home Listed; (313) 330-7700 (Cell which I only use when not at home.
Occupation: Retired lawyer, but nowhere your usual lawyer!
Educational Background: University of Michigan, BA in History and Sociology, 1961. Wayne State Law School, Juris Doctor, 1966.
For a more complete answer, check my attached resume. I started at the bottom and over 12 years, worked my own way through college.
- Briefly tell us what makes an effective school board member and how your background, experience and skills make you an effective school board member in the Detroit Public Schools Community District.
I’ve spent some 60 years of my work and voluntary life building and changing at least 40 different organizations successfully for the better. No other candidate can touch that experience. In whatever organization I have been engaged, I have quickly become a gyroscopic stabilizer, informal leader, and source of reliable nitty-gritty information. I am definitely not an out-front prima donna, who causes more problems than he fixes. I came from squalid beginnings, did not learn to read until I was at the end of the 4th grade, because I was dyslexic, and eventually worked my own way through college. It took me 8 years to get my first degree, and 4 more for my law degree. What most privileged kids can do by age 23, took me until age 30.
- Tell us why you are running for the board of the Detroit Public Schools Community District.
I have previously been elected to an unfinished term and 3 full terms on the DPS Board, from November, 1989 until Governor Engler shoved us aside in March, 1999 to become “advisors”. That last term did not end until December 31, 2002, but the take-over group had no use for our advice. As a result, I have more insight into what makes for a good board than 90% of those now running. I am hoping to have some impact upon changing the “dominant narrative” that is leading popular opinion these days on what ails us. Most of it is dead wrong.
- What is your vision for the Detroit Public Schools Community District, and what measurable goals do you think the district should set in order to achieve that vision?
I do not think that a school board has some magical powers to set and achieve any such specific goals. We need to select a capable Superintendent who is adept at encouraging, soliciting, and engaging folks all down the ranks to buy-in to an improvement plan for each local school, into which they have had a significant role in hatching. Any candidate who bites on this question with anything specific, is buying-into the notion that you as a board member can demand top-down improvements. That is a sure-fire recipe for resentment and failure down the ranks.
- Did you attend the orientation for board candidates conducted by Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather and Judge Stephen Rhodes? The sessions conducted by Citizen Detroit? Michigan Association of School Boards training programs? Other programs? How do you think that you should best prepare yourself to be an effective school board member?
I attended all of the above, except for “other programs”. These first-named programs were good starters, but were totally inadequate to get anyone to change the established past ways of doing things on the Board. From 1989 until 1999, I put-in at least 20 hours each week on board business. That adds-up to more than 10,000 hours, which is what Malcolm Gladwell identifies in his best seller book: Outliers, as what it takes to become an expert.
- What information do you have about the district? What does this information tell you about what needs to happen in the district?
I have lots of information, but I am not sure that it tells me much about what needs to happen. I have the Coalition’s report. I have the Transition Teams Report and Recommendations, June 17, 2016. I have the approved 2016-17 budget. I am as much concerned about issues which are not addressed in these reports as to those which are. I am particularly concerned about the “spin doctors” who created these reports. For some of my doubts, go to my web-site.
- What outcomes for the district matter most for you? How do you think you should be held accountable for these outcomes as a board member?
Look, I’ll be 81 this November. I have little to personally gain or lose from running for this Board. The public has very little leverage on me. My resume should convincingly demonstrate that I have always been an avid workaholic change-agent, and that you can reliably bet that I will not change my spots on that. The things that matter the most to me is to greatly lower the turn-over rate in students and staff at each of our schools. It is to greatly increase the mutual respect between parents, teachers, students and their classmates. It is to engage the elder extended families of our students and the largely alienated young parents of most of our students. If we get a large improvement in these relationships, I will bet that we will get a concomitant improvement in attendance, and even in test scores.
- Given that one of the board’s first responsibilities will be to hire a superintendent, what would you consider to be the characteristics of an effective superintendent? How would you describe the ideal relationship between the school board and the superintendent? How would you evaluate the effectiveness of a superintendent?
Since 1990, this district has gone through a dozen different “leaders”. The best “outside” leader was Deborah McGriff, who brought a lot of reform charisma to the task. But, she was also still an outsider, and she determined early-on that she could not succeed while in the hands of an activist and micro-managing Board. Our best “insider” was Dr. Eddie Green, who had established his reputation as a regional deputy superintendent, but he got pushed aside by Governor Engler’s intrusion. It appears that, Alycia Meriweather, by her 20 years of insider dedication to the district, and her always upbeat orientation to the task at hand, that she is greatly admired by teachers down the ranks, and that factor, I think is the one essential ingredient that no “outsider” can bring to the challenge. I am concerned that she has little experience in dealing with the heart-rending task of deciding budget priorities, but I also think that transparency and candor about those priorities is key to a successful turn-around of the district. With that, she is probably our best bet.
But, I should also disclose that Alycia graduated with my oldest daughter, Kathryn, from Renaissance High in 1991, and that they shared a house on S. State Street, along with 3 other members of their coterie, at the University of Michigan. We all attended Alycia’s wedding some 20 years ago. We thought highly of her then. And we think even more highly of her now.
Once the Board decides on the next superintendent, it must be ready to stick with her or him through thick and thin. Some folks are overly concerned that the Financial Review Commission can overrule a board decision to fire the superintendent. But, that implies that the Board must keep the superintendent on a short leash. Nothing could be more detrimental to our overall long-term success.
Also, John Porter, our Superintendent back in 1990-92, had it right. He was open to taking calls from and meeting with any Board member anytime and about anything, but he also insisted upon sending a memo to all Board members, as to the character of each of those intercessions. That is an absolute must, if we are to preserve the integrity of the Board and the district. There can be no secret meetings and deals.
I was the chair during the 1990’s of the Superintendent’s Evaluation Committee. I can say with no hesitation that Board members must be very careful about the questions that they ask, because someone in central administration is usually responsible for collecting the answers to those questions, and that person’s “top-down” authority is strengthened every time you ask a question. At the bottom line, it usually means that in order to generate a system-wide report, that folks at each local school must take time away from teaching in order to collect information and answer those questions. I believe that Board members must instead get out in the schools, and get the best first-hand impression that they can as to how the superintendent is actually doing, and not depend upon central staff reports.
- If a parent came to you with a specific complaint about a building, administrator or teacher, how would you handle the complaint? What would you say to a parent who says that they have tried to resolve their concern and are now ready to withdraw their student(s) from the DPSCD?
Firstly, I would check to see whether or not the Board has already adopted a policy which covers the issue. If so, I would call the superintendent and ask why the policy is not being followed. If not, then I would consider whether it is advisable to draft a new policy.
But, I would not expect the superintendent to specifically intervene in this particular case. That would be overstepping the proper role of a school board member.
Secondly, I would urge the parent to think long and hard as to what is best for their child and for their child’s school. Effective education requires a parent who is constructively supportive of their child’s school. Education is not just another consumer service. A parent must make a good choice right up-front and stick with it positively. It does little good to be vocally critical of your child’s teachers and school. Your child carries that mindset to school, and just becomes one more intractable problem.
- What experience do you have with complex budgets? How will you determine if a budget is good or bad for the district?
Understanding the Federal, State, City and County budgets was a key part of my jobs from 1967 until 2009.
It was my understanding of the City and County budgets that led the Detroit – Wayne County Justice Coordinating Council to adopt a basic policy in 1973 of using all available Federal Safe Streets funds to “get more and more out of less and less”. We were ten years ahead of everyone else in recognizing this need.
It was my analysis of the City and County budgets in 1980 that led Governor Milliken to support the State pick-up of a big part of City and County justice system costs, conditioned, however, upon placing the question of eliminating the old County Board of Commissioners and adopting a County Charter to separate the executive and legislative functions.
For my 25 years as Wayne County Commission Counsel, my advice was sought at every step of adopting the budget. There are 15 elected Commissioners; I was often referenced, because of my obvious influence during deliberations on decisions, as the 16th commissioner.
When we (the School Board) were shoved aside in 1999 by Governor Engler, I had been chair of the Fiscal Integrity Committee, and we had a balanced budget and a $93 Million Rainy Day cushion. That did not happen by chance. I understand budgets, and know exactly what a Board must do to keep the district on course.
It is critical to right-size and maintain a balanced budget, and also maintain at least a 6% (now $30 Million) Rainy Day Fund. Deficit spending only ends-up in starts and stops which demoralizes district employees. You need to cut-back in the first place to only what you can afford, and then to maintain an even kilter. Because of past neglect, the district is now in a deeper hole than anyone seems to acknowledge. This is the #1 challenge to the new board.
- How are schools funded in Michigan? What is the current per pupil funding for schools in Detroit? What challenges does this create for schools? How will you work to advocate for public schools in your community and the state? What do you see as a school board member’s role in building relationships with state legislators, community leaders, and parents?
Since 1994, most funds in the State Educational Trust come from a state-wide sales tax of 2%. Only 3% of the Trust comes from the Lottery. Each of the 435 school districts in the State get a per-pupil Foundation Grant, which varies from district to district based mainly upon whatever local taxing level that existed back in in 1994. Detroit is in the middle of the pack; we currently get $7,552 per student. We get another $3,780 per pupil from federal and other grants, which are mainly directed at a broad array of special needs students, including pre-K. 68% of our students qualify for a free lunch under federal guidelines, and so we have a universal free lunch program.
Contrary to most current commentators, I do not think that Proposition A was a bad thing. I, and the HOPE Team were very instrumental in obtaining that State-wide change in school funding. In 1993, Detroit was within 2 mills of hitting the constitutional cap on the property tax funding of our schools. Without Proposition A, we today would be looking at about $4,000 in revenue for each student. Proposition A has kept us in the State mid-range for the past 25 years, and that is a very good thing. I am not in favor of asking for a reform of Proposition A, because in the intense push-and-shove of today’s school funding politics, I think that we would come-out worse-off rather than better off. All school districts have been hurting for at least 10 years; we only have 7% of the votes on any decision to change the State-wide formula. Even without any influence of racism, which is bound to have some effect, if that can of worms is ever opened, I do not think that we will come out ahead of where we are now.
Many school districts in the mid-pack do OK on that amount, so far as test scores go. But all have suffered from the “ legislative freeze” on increases over the past ten years, because their current Foundation Grant is 20% less than ten years ago, when adjusted for inflation:
2007/08 school year 2016/17 school year
Detroit: $7,557 $7,552
Garden City $7,795 $7,631
Plymouth/Canton $7,500 $7,511
Grosse Pointe $10,326 $9,924
Dearborn Heights $7,204 $7,511
Redford $7,219 $7,511
Southfield $11,391 $11,031
Farmington $10,500 $10,105
Berkeley $8,110 $8,029
Bloomfield Hills $12,387 $12,064
Charter Schools $7,500 $7,511
Contrary to public expectations, the bigger the district, the less efficient it becomes, mainly because in order to satisfy public demands for tighter accountability, too many decisions end-up being made by central staff executives who are three levels removed from the end users.
At the church I attend, Christ the King Catholic Church, we still run one of the four K-8 Catholic schools left in the City. For the past 20 years, I have served on the church Stewardship Commission, which among other things oversees the church and school budgets. The average operating cost per child is $5,600 per year, about which $2,000 comes from tuition payments. Yes, that is just half of the funds that we have to deploy for the Detroit Public Schools. But, we have dedicated and engaged parents from the get-go, and we have dedicated staff who work year-after-year for what are just beginning salaries in the public school districts. And we have few, if any, special needs students. My point here is, however, that small size is often more efficient and effective than mega-schools. And our church school is recognized by the Skillman Foundation as a good school. There are important things to be learned from this example.
The most important thing that school board members can do to advocate for our schools at the State level, is to do more to engage many more folks right here within the City in making our schools better. I do not believe in encouraging more tutors. That simply undercuts what we must expect from parents and their essential supportive role in educating their own children.
If you want to help, then come-in and do household chores for the parent, and give them time to work with their children on their homework. Do something that strengthens those bonds, rather than weakens them! Few of our young parents attend a church, but many members of their older extended family do so. I think that board members need to be out in the churches on Sundays and Wednesdays, zeroing-in on and engaging members who have nieces and nephews in our schools, and getting them to do some simple things which have big long-term payoffs.
I think that cultivating tighter relations with out-state legislators for the next three years is a wasteful use of time and effort. Yes, I voted for Bernie, but only 20% of the overall voting population supported him. When I face 5:1 odds, I throw-in the towel and face-up to what’s happened to the American middle class over the past 35 years. Firstly, in order to maintain their standard of living, the wife went to work as well. Then, they each worked more and more hours during the salad years of the Clintons. Then, they borrowed heavily against their home equity in the early 2000’s. And now they are racking-up more and more student and credit card debt. The bulk of the middle class are at the far end of their tether, and whether or not they have a “liberal” bent, they are not going to shell out any more for taxes when it means a further painful cut in their family standard of living.
The median family income in Michigan in 2000 was $44,667, which would be $59,554 in 2012 dollars. But the actual median income in 2012 was just $46,859, which means that there was a 21% decrease in real buying power since 2000. Pie-in-the-sky fantasizing only encourages folks to sit on their hands and do nothing, when the only way by which we are going to make a go of this challenge is to get all hands on deck and do what’s needed right here and right now to help ourselves.
I support very little of what the currently elected Board of the Old District has been doing or advocating. The most of it just takes attention away from what really needs to be done, or is simply grandstanding and useless, with regard to making any serious headway on improving our schools.
For Example: The Current Board sez: That we should sue the State for a violation of the Headlee Amendment because Emergency Managers have mandated that we do certain things without added compensation. Our Supreme Court has held again and again that State Action only applies to certain mandates of the Legislature. It does not apply to the administrative actions of the Executive Branch, nor to those of the Judicial Branch. And there is absolutely no chance that the currently highly conservative Supreme Court of this State would ever rule otherwise.
The Current Board sez: The State owes “us” more than $2 Billion, and we should sue them about this. Well, this claim comes from that “deal” which then Governor Engler made back in 1999, with then Mayor Dennis Archer, to maintain State Revenue Sharing for the City at a certain level. Well, as the law goes, a Governor does not have the authority to bind any future Legislature on any such “agreements”. Legally, these are strictly political alliances, and any future Legislature can overrule them, which they did! Was this a dirty deal? Sure. But, we have no legal basis to object. Archer was simply clueless to agree. I see no good reason to go back all of these years later and try to defend his action. Archer was a lawyer and a former member of our Supreme Court. He had to know that he had no legally enforceable grounds for a political agreement.
With regard to the recent ALCU federal complaint, about literacy, I can only say that I support it, but without any serious expectation that it will carve out any new ground. Even if it should gain traction, it will be more than ten years before any serious relief could ensue. In the meantime, we are still confronted with the issue of what best to do with the meagre resources available?
- What are your views on transparency of information? How will you communicate with your constituents?
I have already established a website on which I expound about any and all of the challenges which we collectively face. I plan to continue that site into the future in order to maintain close contact with my constituents. This is by far the most low-cost and effective means to do this.
I think that questions of board policy and district finances need to be made as available and to be as transparent as possible. But most folks are unable to make heads or tails out of the information which is generally provided on-line as “transparent”.
I also think that nearly all purchasing files need to be made available for inspection at no cost to parents and their advocates. I favor charging contract competitors, who have something to gain, on the other hand, for the costs of making these records available.
- Given years of parents “voting with their feet” and leaving DPS, how will you build confidence in DPSCD, engage parents, support school based parental involvement, and encourage and strengthen school communities?
In the Transition Team Report and Recommendations to the new district, the Communications Task Force recommends plowing a lot of effort and dollars into a massive communications outreach program, to attract enrollment. I do not support that spin-doctor recommendation. I think that we instead must focus our real efforts upon more concrete and positive voluntary efforts. I think that the Charter school challenge has finally crested, and that the DPSCD has stabilized. We need to make hay with that situation, and let word-of-mouth communications suffice.
- What are the factors on which you will make your decisions as a school board member? What criteria will you use to make hiring decisions and procurement decisions to ensure transparency and eliminate conflicts of interest?
The board makes very few hiring decisions other than establish a general policy. Although the Board “approves” the superintendent’s list of hires, the Board does not have much power to reject those recommendations. The main purpose of this “approval” is to assure that these decisions are made subject to some degree of public scrutiny.
Procurement is both a different animal, and is a lot more complicated than the casual observer would assume. Back in 1980, I personally worked for 18 months, along with the State Purchasing Director’s Association, and the American Bar Association, on a $5 Milliion project to develop a national Model Procurement Code. This code has now been implemented in 20 of our 50 states, but not yet in Michigan.
I have previously proposed adoption of this Code to the School Board, which the Board of 1999 was ready to adopt. But Governor Engler intervened and pushed us aside, before that could be done.
I again proposed this Code to the new Board in 2005 as part of the Governor’s Transition Team. Again, it was ignored, to the detriment of the district.
In 2011, Emergency Manager Roy Roberts initiated a comprehensive procurement policy, which includes many of the features found in the Model Procurement Code, but still leaves a lot of “weasel words” in play, and also depends upon allusions to compliance to state and federal laws, which very few of the 1,000 or so employees who have some role in procurement, will ever actually access and know about. Also, there was then no comprehensive and independent audit group in place to assure compliance with the written policies. Without actual compliance provisions, this kind of “policy” can be nothing more than whitewash.
I think that we are better advised to adopt a strong version of the Model Code, which is already in wide use elsewhere, and in which other state courts have already upheld. Any time you strike-out with your own unique policy, you invite a lot of expensive law suits, which will cost the district many dollars to defend. For the excruciating details, please refer to my website. Yes, it is 72 pages in length, because it is so easy for folks to get around most simply written policies. The purchase of more than $50 Million in goods and services for our school district provides opportunists with hundreds of opportunities to skim and scam the District, and seriously damage its overall reputation. For the full version of this proposed Code, please refer elsewhere to my website.
- The governor has given DPSCD a three-year reprieve in closing the district’s low performing schools; what policies would you recommend to improve student achievement? How should administrator and teacher performance be measured? What are the challenges inherent in evaluating administrators and teachers?
There is a very large gap between establishing a Board policy, and it having any effect down the line upon student achievement.
This question buys-into the notion that improvement must be commanded from the top-down. You measure each individual teacher as a lonesome functionary. How well did his or her students score on the standardized test, etc., even though his or her classroom had a 50% turnover rate during the year?
That approach is a proven loser in a complicated reform effort.
I assert: that a good school requires a group of teachers, parents and students who respect one another, and who collaborate intensively with one another over the long haul. The more that you stray from this ideal, the more you fail to make true progress.
This means evaluating the total group, and not any particular individual. It is then up to the group to decide when some member can no longer be tolerated, because they are unable to carry their fair weight in the total group effort. Otherwise, it is up to the group to find ways in which each and every member can make a significant contribution to the common effort. I think that our teachers are fully capable of working such matters out in the best interests of our children.
- The dropout rate in DPS is unacceptable. What policies would you like to see adopted in DPSCD to address student retention? Student discipline?
When I was the Deputy Director of the Detroit – Wayne County Justice Coordinating Council, I did research into various psychological and sociological theories and explanations of delinquency, which includes dropping-out of school. The one theory which jibes with all of the possibilities is a sociological theory called “bonding theory”. It simply, yet complexly, explains why so many youth are adrift for a time, and have no serious connections (bonds and ties) with any adult or institution. But, 95% of them eventually grow out of it, and become responsible adults. Unfortunately, they will also have tied their hands behind their back by then.
That’s why our mega-high-schools are in themselves a big part of the problem, because they provide adolescents with little or not bonding opportunities. The only reason that we have these mega-schools is to have athletic teams which compete at the “A” level. It is not because they are the best answer for the mass of students.
Exclusion and expulsion seems to be the only viable answer to disruptive conduct at a mega-school. Nothing else seems to work, and nothing else will work in that frenetic context.
Bottom line: We need smaller and more specialized high schools, like the Communications and Media Arts High School, where the enrollment is stable, and where kids can readily bond with some of their teachers and many of their classmates. These bonds underlie and undergird most learning.
- The district’s students have diverse needs and interests. How would you support varied pathways to achievement: art, music, writing, drama, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), computer literacy, bilingual education, sports, special needs? How will you address diverse outcomes for the student population: career training, vocational training linked directly to apprenticeships, life skills, and college prep?
As I just said above, we need many different smaller specialty high schools, located in places which are accessible from most parts of the City.
- Educators, administrators, and support staff have sacrificed during this past period of state control and shrinking school budgets. What policies would you recommend to ensure the district will be able to attract and retain highly qualified and committed personnel? What role do you see for labor unions and associations and other stake-holder groups in this process?
Going back to my answer to question #10, I think that we need to do a definitive study of the extent to which district personnel have made economic sacrifices over the past 35 years which are greater than those which have been suffered by the massive middle class of this country. Again, I voted for Bernie, but even if we were able to obtain a fair share of the economic growth of our economy over the past 35 years, it would still be less than an average of a 1% improvement per year. Let’s get a fair assessment of this sacrifice in that context. Have teachers slipped relative to other high stress occupations, such as, police officers, parole officers, social workers, and mental health workers? I’m not at all sure that they have. The fact is that everyone has slipped, and some more than others.
If we can give them the daily face-to-face respect which they deserve, I do not believe that we will have a serious problem in finding able and committed teachers. As I said before, teachers at the Christ the King Catholic School only earn what a starting teacher in the public schools makes. But they are still committed, because they are respected for what they do. But, to provide that respect, we will need to totally turn around the dominant narrative in today’s news which finds fault with teachers, and denigrates their efforts.
I think that the most viable institutions in this City for making such a change are its churches and its pastors, and that is where I would place my emphasis.
I also think that we still need strong, but well informed, unions. In Europe, strong unions have made a big difference in combating the kinds of wealth concentration that have occurred in the United States over the past 35 years. When the public is forever calling for more and more “accountability”, this unleashes the top-down jerks and opportunists. This is not a new phenomenon. When the Public Employees Relations Act was passed in 1965, teachers immediately went on strike under the leadership of Mary Ellen Riordan, because even back then, jerks were in charge of the administration. And the DFT has been intransigent ever since for very good reason. If we really expect to engage our teachers in taking back the district, then we are going to have to be candid and forthright with our unions, and then, hopefully, they will be just as candid and forthright with the rest of us.
- Who will you seek advice from in weighing and making key decisions?
I will always consult with the key stakeholders, or their seeming leaders. I already know a lot, but I certainly am not all-knowing.
- Describe your past experience in conflict resolution and consensus building.
As I said back at the beginning, I have always been a gyroscopic stabilizer in whatever organization I am in. Back in late 1998, with the takeover drums beating, I drafted a proposal for going forward, which included a lot of the points which I have just been making. It was called a “Call to Action”, and was supported by 8 of the then 11 board members. We held several public forums on it, and it was well received. Unfortunately, Mayor Archer was then caught between a rock and a hard place with respect to the City budget, and absolutely needed the Governor’s support on State Revenue Sharing. Engler’s price was the take-over of the Board. And that was mainly because Engler had met with the Board that October in his Detroit Office, and had been “called out” as an unrepentant racist by one of the Board members. No one else interceded to cushion the affront, and Engler was no one to take prisoners. In my mind, these 17 years of Emergency Management all began with that unfortunate insult.
- What does quality education for the 21st Century look like to you?
These days, there is more disinformation on the internet than solid stuff. So, I am less concerned that kids learn all of the supposed ins-and-outs of searching the internet, than I am about whether they are able to stand on their own two feet and think about what they are going to do next. There is no effective way to escape the very basics, reading, writing and estimating. If you get that right, the rest will eventually fall into place, with enough effort. So, we need first to get that right, and not worry about too much about the popular bells and whistles, if we can not afford them.