Dear Ms. Riley:
Thanks for the opportunity to answer some of your questions.
1. Do you have the time, and can you afford the cost?
When I was on the Board from 1989 until Governor Engler pushed us aside in March, 1999, I put an average of 20 hours a week into Board work. That’s about 1,000 hours a year. As a lawyer, if I had put that time into a side legal practice, I could have doubled my income. But, fortunately for the District, I got more personal gratification out of trying to make a difference, than from a money chase. Last Saturday, at a forum held by the Delta’s, Ms. Mary Blackmon, from the Regional Education Service Agency, congratulated us candidates, as undertaking a noble cause. I personally disagree. Most of us are just power and control freaks, and the notion that we are doing something noble often misleads us into causing more problems than we solve.
When you begin to feel that you are making a thankless sacrifice, it is easy to overstep and begin to exploit your office for personal benefit. You feel that the District owes you much more than $30 per meeting. So your first question is more important than you may have realized. Unethical conduct often begins from that feeling.
Yes, I am retired, and have enough income for a modest living. I will not, however, have much more than 20 hours a week to devote to Board work, if elected. I have several other voluntary commitments. I put about 500 hours each year into running a fund-raising seven-week garage sale for my church and church school at Christ the King Catholic Church. I am the Treasurer of a metropolitan group of faith-based congregations called M.O.S.E.S., to which I devote about 250 hours each year. I do nearly all of my own home repair and maintenance, not because I can’t afford to have someone else do it, but because it gives me a lot of satisfaction to do it myself. I am currently working with a neighborhood group, going door to door to obtain signatures on a petition to establish a Special Assessment District. I have written a manual on how best to organize block clubs, and make myself available to do workshops on that.
2. Do you have difficulty reading?
Not any longer, but I didn’t learn to read until the 5th grade. I was/am dyslexic, but in a small rural Kentucky school in the 40’s, no one knew anything about that. So, I got “D’s” and “F’s” through the 4th grade, but was still pushed ahead. Then, at the end of the day toward the end of the school year in 4th grade, while waiting for the second tier bus to come, my 4th grade teacher, Ms. Leach, began reading to us from Tom Sawyer. I became so enthralled with that story, that I buckled down and taught myself to read over that summer of 1945. In the 5th grade, I read each and all of the 126 books on the 5th grade bookshelf, and became a straight-A student from then on. I still read slowly, but in “over-learning” all that I read, I remember more of it than do most readers.
3. Have you ever been convicted of a felony?
No, not of any kind, nor at any time. Further, I have never been accused of any such conduct. Also, as an attorney, I have never been accused of any unethical conduct.
4. If elected, would you sign a pledge not to run for any other office, especially the State Legislature for ten years?
Yes, but I would go much farther than that. I would ask the State Legislature to pass a law to disable anyone elected to a school board from running for almost any other local or state office for ten years after they are elected. The only exceptions would be for the State Board of Education, or as a Trustee of the Intermediate School District, or as a Trustee for any of our State Universities and community colleges.
There is a large coterie of folks who hang around politics, and who try to hitch their wagon to rising stars. They tell board members what great promise they have for a career in politics, and many of these members succumb to this vision. It then motivates them to exploit their office to build a war chest for that next rung on the ladder. And that leads to micromanaging, to tying the hands of the Superintendent, and to the failure of another round of “reforms”.
5. How many of 7 key points made by Judge Rhodes regarding the new board do you agree with?
a. Commit themselves to excellence in academics and commit to hiring a permanent Superintendent with that same commitment.
This point is a real trick-bag, because “excellence in academics” means greatly different things to different people. For control freaks, it is a license to demand for example that a specific reading program be mandated in each classroom and school. And there are a lot of folks running for the Board who have such an agenda, and there are a lot of voters who think likewise. It is my take that every such mandate saps the will and energy of our teachers to do what’s best for their students, and to just play along with the mandate gamers. Just look like you are responding, when in fact, you are just tired of being told when, where and how to do your job by people who are grandstanding for their next step up the political ladder.
I have confidence that the great majority of our teaching staff knows what they need to do, and if enabled to make their own collective decisions would do a much better job than any “top-down program” can achieve. And I am sure that their focus would be upon academic excellence, because that is why they are there. I am therefore advocating that we hire a Superintendent from within the District who has the blessing of our teaching ranks, and not necessarily someone from outside the District who has developed a sterling reputation somewhere else. We have had several of those, and none lived-up to expectations.
With regard to Alycia Meriweather, I would have to disclose a bias and recuse myself if elected from voting on that question. Alycia graduated from Renaissance High in 1991 with my oldest daughter, Kathryn. They then rented a house on South State Street in Ann Arbor, along with 3 other classmates, to attend the University of Michigan. We all attended Alycia’s wedding some 20 years ago. We thought highly of her then, and even more highly of her now.
I served on the old Board from November, 1989 until we were pushed off in March, 1999. From that experience, I can say that this new Board must make the very best decision that it can on the Superintendent, and they must give that person an iron-clad contract for at least 5 or 6 years. It can have a compensation escalator clause, so long as it is subject to DFT approval, year to year. But, the Board should not be able to terminate the contract except for extreme misconduct, such as, committing a felony which victimizes the District. Our schools and our teachers need stability and support for the long haul. There is no way that the Board can keep the Superintendent on a short leash, and still have him or her succeed. That’s mainly why Deborah McGriff jumped ship. It’s also why David Snead was terminated, because he had said “no” too many times to micromanaging board members.
b. Recognize that not all students are going to college and will need career education.
Back in the 90’s, when I was on the Board, we supported and tried to turn our 4 vocational schools into full-time independent high schools. But, that effort was quashed by the State takeover. Back then, we also reasoned that the only way that most inner-city students could ever afford to go to college was to first have an occupation that paid enough to finance such an effort. This is even more true today, as college costs have escalated.
I understand these dynamics. I went to a vocational agriculture high school in Kentucky. Out of the 58 kids in my first grade class, only 8 of us graduated. On my 16th birthday, November 30, 1951, for reasons too complicated to explain here, my father woke-up that morning in despair, and decided to kill my mother, my brother, me, and of course, himself. Fortunately, my mother had seen this coming, and had unloaded his pistols and hidden the bullets, so his intent fell flat. But, we all scattered that day, and I had to find my own way forward to get a college education. It took me 8 years to work my way through, but I was able to do it. But, back then, the State paid about 80% of the cost of going to a state college. These days, it is less than 20%. It is very, very difficult to work your way through anymore.
So, of course, I support this objective.
c. Understand that education “does not begin when the child walks into the school door and end when the child leaves the school door” – that there must be a continuing commitment to parental engagement in the educational process.
This point is another of my chief points, except that “a continuing commitment to engage” is not enough. Those are weasel words. There must be an actual engagement, and that takes a lot of work and a lot of guts.
The old Board in its fading six months, hatched a plan to address this crucial issue. We called it: A Call to Action. We had more than 20 public meetings about it to sound-out and draw-in community support. I was the author of much of that plan. I still have some printed copies of it. Unfortunately, I wrote it in Word Perfect, which cannot be uploaded to the WordPress platform on my website: plunkbenwashburnforschools.com. (Actually, I have gone back and reproduced that paper, and it is now on this site as of October 15, 2016, cited as the 1999 Reform Plan.)
It is very hard to talk about improving education, without becoming more a part of the problem, rather than a part of the solution. Much of the rhetoric has serious unintended consequences. When most of the dominant narrative expounds on parental choice and characterizes education as a Constitutional Right, it sends the unintended message that education is “society’s” problem and obligation. Our children “deserve” an excellent education. Education is just another consumer service. The free market will surely set things aright. Nothing much is expected from parents. After all, over the past thirty years, both parents have had to go to work, and often in more than one job. It is therefore unreasonable to expect anymore from parents. Hey, modern classroom management techniques can make everything OK. This is mostly all wrong, and the first duty of a Board member is to debunk this nonsense, and not to confirm it.
d. Play a special role in helping the district harness the resources of Detroit’s business, civic and religious communities.
This is not a “special” role. It is the main role of a Board, not just to visualize an ideal goal, but to realize the best that we can do with what we have, and with what we can actually garner.
e. Respect the Financial Review Commission, which some critics see as more emergency management.
I personally would hold myself, if elected, and my colleagues to a much higher standard than is ever likely to be called for by the Financial Review Commission. This is not because I respect the FRC, but it is because that is what is needed if we are actually to succeed in greatly improving our academic outcomes.
f. Work with Mayor Mike Duggan to continue to advocate for a Detroit Education Commission, a vital body that the Legislature, blinded by political pressure and special interest dollars, refused to see.
On this point, Judge Rhodes and I diverge greatly.
Firstly, I have read Jane Mayer’s expose of Dark Money, not just once, but three times, in order to engrave in my mind the extent to which Dark Money governs the dominant narrative on many issues, including global warming science, economic and trade policies, environmental protection, and education. I voted for Bernie, but Bernie only got about 20% of the total votes cast in the primaries. I know how to count. At least 80% of the voters in this country and state are clueless about the impact of Dark Money, and I don’t see any way that this will change in the next four or ten years. Meanwhile, we will have the best Legislature that Dark Money can buy. Sure, it would be great to pass laws which stifle Dark Money. Or it would be great if the mass of voters would chip-in a $100 each to the re-election campaigns of all of our legislators. But, none of that has a ghost of a chance of happening. It is, therefore, a waste of time to wage war against this state of affairs, when waging such wars just dissuades folks from doing what they can for themselves, because they are given to believe by a lot of authoritative community leaders that some other more painless relief is just around the corner.
Secondly, at the bottom line, the proposed Detroit Education Commission is just another top-down initiative, following some dozen other top-down failures. It’s all about maintaining an institutional status quo. Well, that’s the usual institutional response to change. Sure, it may help “stabilize” those existing institutions, but I think that these institutions have already reached an economic stasis. I can understand why Mayor Duggan would support this proposal; he would be politically foolish to ignore it, unless he was able to come-up with a better and more compelling response.
Thirdly, I would be happy to work with the Mayor on doing things which actually build up layer upon layer of neighborhood unity and mutual self-help, including in and around their schools. But, every Mayor I have ever seen was wary of building-up neighborhood organizations that could come back and bite them.
f. Be willing to learn.
I am willing to learn, but I am even more willing to teach folks about the probable harsher future that we collectively face. As I read the odds, our future will be harsher, rather than brighter by a 4 to 1 ratio. I do not bury my head in the sand. In fact, I anchor a Northwest Detroit Men’s Bookclub, and we regularly plow into serious non-fiction reads on all that ails our nation and society. Our wives also have an older club, which focuses on popular fiction. They call our group the “Gloom and Doom Club”. There’s 90 guys on the email list; about 35 take an active part in the readings. Maybe, you would like to come out sometime and get the feel of our group. At one level, bookclubs are a small part of the solution.
I read, and I think about things a lot more than the typical person, at least according to Nobel Prize winner, Daniel Kahneman in his book: Thinking: Fast and Slow.
I have recently been reading Mohamed El Erain’s persuasive analysis of world economics: The Only Game In Town. His thesis is that we cannot keep on relying upon the Fed’s manipulation of money supply and interest rate controls to maintain our consumer economy. People are running-up higher and higher levels of debt, and somewhere in the fairly near future, this will end because it is economically untenable to keep on doing this. This is what happened in the late 1920’s, which led to the Great Depression.
The Michigan School Aid Trust Fund depends mainly upon a 2% sales tax. When sales stagnate and plummet, so too will that Trust Fund from which the State Foundation Grant is taken. We need to be prepared to withstand or at least diminish the impact of such a high likelihood.
Therefore, I hope that you too are willing to learn, and not just become a parrot for popular institutional thought-control. It is usually fairly easy to get a hold of me. Contrary to my writing, I am fairly mild-mannered face-to-face. Some friends say that I gentle people to death. And, of course, I expound upon most of the points that I have made in this response on my website. I also will be posting this response on my website.
With best regards,
Detroit, MI 48223
(313) 838-5049 (Home land line which has been listed since 1971).
(313) 330-7700 (Cell, which I only use when away from home (when I remember to take it with me.)