Letter to Legislature, March 8, 1999

Ben Washburn

14600 Glastonbury

Detroit, Michigan  48223

Phone:  (313) 838-5049 (H)

             (313) 224-0913 (W)

             1-800-380-7736 (P)

              (313) 272-3043 (Fax)



Representative Bruce Patterson

42479 Redfern

Canton, Michigan  48187 

Dear Bruce: 

          I=ve been intending to trade thoughts with you about the impending school board confusion, and hope that this message opens the pipeline.   As a Speaker Pro Tempore, you are in the catbird=s seat on some of this question.   As the Representative from the 21st District, you also have to make the decision which best serves the people of your district.   I have no problem in laying all of the cards of which I am aware on the table and leaving it to you to make the best call.   As you are aware from past experience, it is hard to get accurate inside facts from the news media or any other trustworthy source.  As one insider, I hope I can illuminate some issues. 

          I=ve been on this Board for almost ten years, and have seen some of its possibilities and too many of its shortcomings.   I think that most of the faults can be fixed with appropriate legislation.  I do not have the same confidence in the alternative which has thus far been set forth.  It is simply cavalier to swap one dysfunctional and unaccountable board for another which may be even more insulated, more patronage prone, and less accountable.  Whichever way the Legislature goes, there are some critical conditions which must be established. 

          The Detroit Free Press has quoted me as proposing Atoo little, too late@.   Enclosed is a copy of my responses to the Detroit Free Press questionnaire last Spring and a copy of my campaign literature.  Except for implementation details, there is nothing in the School Board=s current initiative which was not set forth as an objective in these two documents.  What has changed, and dramatically, is the attention of the community and the willingness of the Board.   A lot of people who simply couldn=t be bothered a year ago, are now leaning in with keen interest and hopefully with a willingness to do something positive and specific. 

          If I was somewhat cynical about the possibilities of significant transformation a year ago, the Governor=s wake-up call has had a more positive impact than I would have ever imagined upon the sitting Board members.   I have taken full advantage of this situation to press the points which I have pressed for the past several years, and they are finally falling on ears which listen.  This suggests to me that the best bet lies in devising ways by which this pressure to do the right thing can be maintained day-to-day, year-in and year-out.  On this, I have some specific suggestions, whether they be applied to the current board or to a future board.   And these standards should really be applied to all school boards wherever they sit 

          Enclosed is the most recent draft of a work in progress, which we call: A Village Call to Action and Accountability.  In this, we set forth the proposed next step in our transformation plan, which essentially is: 

1.   To move final disciplinary decisions back to each school. That is a lot more complicated and fraught with more landmines than anyone seems to imagine. 

2.   To establish a firm fixed parental obligation to help at the school with the education of their children. 

3.      To undertake a blitz transformation of our 110 lowest performing schools.   For the first time in five years, we actually have some spare funds with which to undertake some reform initiatives. 

          Unlike the Mayor=s proposal, we are not calling for any new funds.   With progressive tax cuts already in place, we don=t believe that any more state aid can or will materialize.  When you read between all of the lines, the Mayor has simply placed the responsibility for success back on the Governor. 

          We are not big fans of the Governor, but as we see it, the great mass of people of this State are not willing to shell out big bucks to improve our school system, and the Governor legitimately represents those people.   If it=s going to be done, Detroiters must face-up to the fact that we must do it ourselves, and that we can, in fact, do it ourselves, if we follow through on a well-devised effort.   The Board sees this as its civic duty.         

          Contrast this to the Mayor=s response.   This Board has three very significant political advantages.  First, we don=t depend on this for our livelihood; we can call it the way that we see it.   (That may well mean that we will get voted-out at the next election in favor of people who make impossible promises, but that=s life in the fast lane.)   Second, we have no need to defend our shortcomings in providing snow and garbage removal, police protection, street lighting and paving, economic revival, etc.    Third, none of the currently sitting board members have served long enough to have established a compromising set of patronage commitments as has occurred in so many other districts around the country which have triggered State takeovers.   But if this district is turned over to the Mayor without severe and seamless sanctions against patronage, we can guarantee that that will become the hallmark and downfall of the new proposed Areforms@, support from well-intentioned but naïve people notwithstanding.          

          Detroit is a city in which 70% of the people fall below the poverty line.   That=s totally the obverse of  Canton and the rest of your District.   An appointed Blue Ribbon School Board might  be well received in Canton.   But the social distances and antipathies are far greater in the City of Detroit.   The clash in class values was the main impetus for taking disciplinary discretion away from the local schools in the 1970s.   It will be the main impediment to bringing it back and in elevating the level of parental involvement at each school.         

          The success of real school reform depends upon establishing respect across the whole spectrum.   The Mayor does not command that kind of respect.   Blue Ribbon Boards will never command that kind of respect, and will simply become the axis of social conflict and political dissonance, none of which bodes well for real school improvement.   The folks who have disrupted the Senate are the same folks who have disrupted school board proceedings and local school operations, and they will not simply fade away.   They are the same people who now seek to recall the Mayor (Hello!).   You either have them with you or they will dog your way at every step.   But they do at least have a fair measure of respect for a Board which has been elected by the people.          

          To be effective, we also need a Board, which is squeaky clean in the eyes of our employees and parents.   Also enclosed is a copy of our currently proposed procurement policy, which includes a hard-nosed and detailed code of ethics, with real teeth.   Add to this my proposal for a State-authorized Accountability Board, a copy of which is also enclosed, and which makes a violation of the Code of Ethics grounds for removal of a board member for cause, and you have the makings of a real reform board.  We need to elevate the accountability of all stakeholders, day-after-day, and year-after- year, and this needs to begin with the Board itself.         

          How does all of this impact your district?   I think that the success of the Detroit public schools affects the residents of Wayne County more than the rest of the state.  In October, the County takes over responsibility for juvenile delinquency treatment and preclusion.   There is no more effective way to do this than to assure that kids do well in school.   In addition, there are several other school districts in Wayne County which need the same reinforcement that Detroit needs.  These do not include Plymouth-Canton, but it does include Inkster, Melvindale, River Rouge, Lincoln Park, Taylor, Romulus, Allen Park, and Southgate,          

          You will note that we have taken the basic concept set forth in your 1997 Parental Responsibility Ordinance and expanded its reach to create and enable at each local school a disciplinary authority which has direct power to engage the district court in an appropriate case.   This expansion is based upon the fact that our current law holds a parent accountable for supporting the education of their children.  Helping in this manner is NOT a voluntary act.  A parent can not be regarded and applauded as a volunteer until they have first discharged their basic obligation to provide their fair share of what it takes to properly educate their children.   And they may be properly regarded as neglecting their duty when they fail to hold-up their end of the work that needs to be done.           

          You may have to chew on this concept for a while; it lies at the bottom of what we mean when we talk about calling for a revolution in basic values.   As we see it, the measure of what is a fair share depends directly upon the environment in which a child is being raised.   It may well take more effort in an impoverished area than in a more affluent one, simply because the circumstances are more challenging.  This is the direct opposite of the currently popular expectations of impoverished parents, that is, that you can=t expect too much from people who have limited resources.   In fact, the less you expect of students or any other person, the less they will accomplish.   Low expectations invariably yield poor results.         

          I hope that this letter demonstrates that this Board is indeed serious about improving our schools.  We know what needs to be done.  We are ready and willing to do it, and to do it under intense and rigorous scrutiny.   Contrast this with what the Mayor has to offer.   And if it still has to be the Mayor, make sure that you raise the bar, set uncompromising standards, and build-in day-to-day, year-to-year accountability that=s at least equal to what we are proposing here.         

          With regard to what the Board is presently proposing, here are the highlights:         

          Firstly:  We invite the Governor to appoint a monitor to undertake the day-to-day management and reform of nearly all support operations, including budget and finance, personnel, purchasing and supply, food service, transportation, security, information processing, and building maintenance.   The sitting Board has no vested interest in these operations and has had no significant control over what happens in them.    We invited New Detroit to come in and help, and New Detroit advises that the staff resisted their recommendations.   Staff have had a fair chance, and they have blown it.   We clearly recognize that the State pays for 88% of these operating costs, and has a very legitimate interest in seeing that they are performed cost-effectively.   If the Governor=s appointee can straighten them out, then alleluia and amen.   He will need the authority to treat all positions down to the level of director as at-will.   Please note that this is a fixed invitation from the legitimately elected school board, not a take-over.   That is an important difference to a lot of our stakeholders. 

          Secondly:  We propose exempting the Capital Improvement Program from the Monitor=s management for three compelling reasons:         

1.     Unlike school operating funds, all of these funds are raised locally.  A very large and adamant segment of our voters oppose and strongly resent any outside control over these funds. 

2.      Unlike our operating funds, the State already has strong and detailed oversight over the expenditure of these funds.  It can stop the program dead in its tracks whenever it wants.   It already has plenty of leverage, short of running the program.   Further, the Monitor is invited to manage the selection of district personnel who will conduct the program.  He or she will have up-close and inside insight on what is happening day-to-day. 

3.  If you read the details of our proposed and about-to-be- adopted Code of Ethics, a Board member who accepts more than $200 collectively and cumulatively from persons affiliated with a vendor during a 4-year cycle, which includes the CIP, must disclose that fact and refrain from voting on a contract with that vendor.  If a Board member violates that policy, he or she is subject to removal from office by a vote of eight members of the Board.  Under my proposal for an Accountability Board, he or she is also subject to removal for cause by the Mayor.  In addition, a vendor who colludes to subvert this provision is subject to debarment from any further contracts with the district.  This policy has the reach of an octopus and the teeth of a crocodile.    It has been devised to put an end to a lot of past abuses once and for all.  There is no particular reason why the Legislature should not build it into the School Code, so that it can not be retracted.

Incidentally, if the Code of Ethics seems to be a bit convoluted, you must understand that case law holds that individuals can not be prohibited from expressing their constitutional rights to free speech by making political contributions.  But that does not mean that public officers can not be held accountable for accepting excessive contributions which have no obvious purpose than to buy their vote.  How many contributions over $200 would you expect that a vendor=s principals and employees would make to a board member, if it means that that board member is disqualified from voting in favor of their contract? 

(Actually, I personally favor turning the CIP over to the Mayor or a separate authority.   The program is a total political liability.  There is no way that you can cure 65 years of neglect with $1.5 Billion over a 15-year period when it takes $5 Billion to do the job, while doubling property taxes, and still please anyone.   Because, we=re overcrowded, most work has to be done while school is in session, and that creates hazards and disruptions.  The constant dissention will always be a drag on real reform efforts in the classroom.   I say, let someone else bear the brunt of that frustration.)   

          Thirdly, we propose that Dr. Eddie Green continue to serve as the District=s Chief Academic Officer to continue and to perfect the initiatives already undertaken to reform what actually happens in our classrooms.   He is trusted by the Board.  He is trusted by the people in the trenches.  He is a people person.   He has a clear vision of what Site-Based Management is all about.   He was in charge of the first Site-Based Management pilot program in 1985. He was the only area superintendent who actually practiced the concept.   He can maintain the continuity of the reform efforts already underway, and can enhance these better than any outsider who is likely to become available.   He supports the vision, which the Board has set forth in its paper: A Village Call to Action and Accountability.    We are asking that the rights of principals as established by State law and labor contract be set-aside, and that principals also serve at-will.   We do not believe that Dr. Green is a person who would abuse this power, but that he is a person who would use it effectively to assure that Site-Based Management is a resounding success and not an abject failure. 

          Fourthly,  I propose that the presently elected Board be left in place, subject to removal by the Mayor for any of some fifteen specified causes.   Details are attached. 

          I believe that this proposal is imminently sensible and is the best concrete proposal for school improvement, which anyone has yet brought to the table.   Rather than Atoo little, too late@, I think that it is exactly what the doctor ordered.   Is it shot through with a potential for conflict?   Maybe, but nowhere near the level of conflict that is implicit in the other proposals which have been set forth.   It most probably depends upon who the Governor would appoint and how competent and how well-versed that person is in the dynamics of radical social change.   This is not simply an administrative and institutional challenge, but one of how best to proceed with a basic shift in the entire mind-set of a community and a State.         

          Real systemic change calls for much more than simply calling the community together to brainstorm and come-up with a new plan, which is all that the Mayor proposes to do, after he is handed the system.   As any competent sociologist will confirm, that is a sure-fire process for half-baked and warmed-over programs which simply maintain the status-quo or pass the buck.         

          So there you have it.         


INCLS:                                             Ben Washburn

     A Village Call to Action          Board Member

          and Accountability.               District Four

      Proposal for an

Accountability Board.

Proposed Procurement

          Policy & Code of Ethics.

July 98 Answers to Free Press.

Copy of campaign literature.

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