Letter to Editor re Our 1999 Reform Plan

Letter to the Editor: 

          I have been on the Board of Education for almost ten years, and have seen a lot of reform effort, conflict, and frustration come and go.  I am grateful that most people have considered my opinion to be reasoned and insightful.   Please consider these comments in the same light.         

          There are no easy answers to our problems, but that just means that we all have to work much harder.  Neither money nor high-handed intervention will solve our problems, but will only make them worse, however well-intentioned.   Schools are professional organizations, not chain-gangs, and successful management calls for collaboration, not meat-axe supervision.  Trading one dysfunctional governing board for another will not improve matters, except for a privileged few.   We must instead fix our eyes on what it takes to get us all where we need to be.          

          I wear at least two hats in this matter (and there is no conflict between them), first as a school board member and transformer, but also as a policy advisor to the Wayne County Commission.  In October, the County will take- over from the State full responsibility for juvenile delinquency treatment and prevention.   There is no better way to prevent delinquency and crime than for students to succeed in school.   The County has a vested interest in seeing a real solution to our educational riddles, and it has a new and big leadership role to play (in which the State has shown very little true interest over the last fifty years).  If the economic and social well-being of the City is at stake, so too is that of the whole County.         

          About 2000 years ago and at about this time of year, a teacher known as Jesus of Nazareth was nailed to a cross for asking the privileged to set aside their contempt for the poor and powerless.   It is discouraging to see that that lesson has still gone unheeded in the current controversy.  It is even more ironic that the anniversary of that event has become the target date to wrap-up the take-over.   As I read it, the current effort is driven mostly by a fear of and contempt for the underprivileged.   It is mainly an effort to give the power elite an iron and stable grip on the future politics and economics of the City.            

          How is that done?   Look to the nuts and bolts of political campaigning.   Campaigns are won and lost based upon one-on-one contact; you must have something that motivates supporters to do that door-to-door and poll work.   Most polling places are in schools; people listen when a principal or teacher urges them to vote one way or another. Many will work on a campaign when it means a privileged spot for their children or grandchildren on school admissions.          

          Jobs, promotions, trading favors, and privileges are the glue that would give the power elite an iron grip on not just the mayor=s office, but also upon the City Council, County Commission, judicial, and State legislative offices.  Right now, nervous politicians are testing the wind and trying to line-up on the winning side.   On the up-side, stable politics makes for a stable and friendly investment climate.   On the down-side, the power elite would have to make sure that school organizations are kept weak and ineffective, because strong school organizations pose a very high-risk springboard for an opposition movement to the powers-that-be.   That=s the rub, because exceptionally strong school organizations are exactly what are needed to turn our educational system around.         

          When you have a problem, it is best to address it face-on.  When the problem is school board accountability, then set firm concrete standards of conduct for board members, and provide a means in addition to recall to prune-out those who fail to meet the standard.   When transformation is clearly needed, that bar should be set at a very high level.  ASting@ operations should be used  weed-out the weak of spirit.  Only a squeaky-clean board can command the respect that=s needed to provide the civic leadership to really transform our schools.   

          We must raise the accountability of every stakeholder in the public schools, including the City and County, principals, staff, parents, students, employers, churches, community organizations, and each and every member of the village.  And that change must start with the School Board itself!   But it is not done by creating a board which is insulated from the people and which is placed above the law (immune from liability for its actions).  That will just turn our schools into a war zone for control of the Mayor=s office.  Enclosed is my answer to the problem: an accountability board appointed by the Mayor, and confirmed by the City Council, with the power to remove and replace an elected school board member for falling short on any one of fifteen specified measures of performance.  The appointee would have to stand for election at the very next chance.         

          This is hardly a new concept.  The Governor is authorized right now to remove local officials from office for cause.   You don=t really have to swap one dysfunctional board for another; you don=t have to suffer a dysfunctional board; and you don=t have to cut the Mayor and Governor out of the picture.   Not even the most avid defenders of the people=s right to elect could oppose the surgical removal of those who abuse and neglect their oath of office.           

          Real transformation depends upon cultivating a mutual respect among all stakeholders, which is the point that Jesus tried to make so long ago, and which Africa-centered advocates currently try to make.  All Detroiters must clearly understand and appreciate that the financial support for the Detroit Public Schools comes from State-wide taxes, and that the State has a very legitimate interest in seeing that its funds are wisely expended for the benefit of all.   That said, the people of this State also have a vested interest in seeing that the solution chosen is indeed in the best interests of the whole State and not just that of a privileged set of investors.         

          Editorial opinion suggests that a school board is no different than a business sector board of directors.   To paraphrase another message:  Kick the undeserving out the door, and reserve the schools for those who know on which side their bread is buttered.   I really don=t think that those who write these opinions are really aware of their bottom-line implications.   There are more than 3,000 school board members in this State who would rise to take issue with them.  

          Education is not just a business.   School boards have a fundamental responsibility to advocate for the poor and the powerless, and to bridge and mend the social gaps in our society.   But we also need tough love.  We need to express a very specific and concrete set of expectations of what it means to be a good parent, a teacher, an employer, a student, the Mayor, a County Commissioner, or the Governor.   Contrary to popular perception, this School Board is not a collection of power-happy sissies spread in disarray. It will not stand idly aside and be abused by people who have other agendas.         

          There is sound historical reason for establishing school boards as independent from other governmental units.  Education is too important to be mixed with and subordinated to the politics of other endless civic interests.   It already has more than its share of conflicts without further complication.         

          That said, I do appreciate the fact that the Governor=s initiative has fixed and focused public attention upon our schools.   We have often despaired that we could ever marshal such intensive attention, but we have not backed-down from the opportunity, now that it has been presented.   Those who have normally opposed us, the loyal opposition, are now leaning-in with a willingness to help us.   We, the whole village, have an opportunity right now to make a real dent in meeting this challenge, but it too will soon vanish if, together, we fail to seize it right now.         

          As a School Board, we have set forth a vision and a challenge of what we need to do together.  It does not take more money than we already have; but it does call for a massive and collective resolve to uplift ourselves in some very specific ways.  It calls for a revolutionary, but reasoned, shift in our attitudes and specific expectations about parents, employers, students, and all other members of the village, including the Board.   We have set this picture forth in our Village Call to Action.  Mother never said life would be easy. 

          The nay-sayers retort that our Village Call to Action is far too specific, that it micro-manages.  I say that you don=t get real change unless you express some very specific, concrete, and clearly measurable expectations for each member of the village.   And it must also be clear that there is no other feasible option.  There are many, many  things which are best left for local school decision, but there are also some things which call for a district-wide consistency and back-up, and these can not be achieved when each local school acts independently and alone.  This is not an administrative issue.  It is a community leadership issue, and that is why we have school boards.   Get a copy and wrap your mind and heart around it.                  

                                                          Most sincerely, 

INCL:                                                Ben Washburn, District Four

– Proposal for an Accountability Board     

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