When former Gov. John Engler mandated a state takeover of the troubled Detroit school district in 1999, the state passed legislation allowing the school reform board to function until 2004. Many Detroit residents and state Democrats opposed the change, which took control away from a popularly elected school board and placed it in the hands of appointed officials from Lansing. Under the current law, Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick appoints six of seven board members, and the state superintendent or his designee serves as the seventh member, who has veto power over the other board members’ votes.
Even if the six mayoral appointees were not tethered to a state watchman, there is small chance that the board would be making Detroit-centered decisions. During its four-year existence, the school reform board has been composed of automotive executives and the mayor’s political pals, many of whom do not live in Detroit and whose children do not attend Detroit public schools. Though the state took over the board as a result of rampant corruption and failure to improve the district, many Detroit residents lack faith in and feel detached from the board.
Control over the school district should be returned to Detroiters as soon as possible, as city residents have the right to vote for the officials who are supposed to represent them. To that end, state Sen. Martha Scott (D-Highland Park) introduced Senate Bill 157. The bill would have allowed Detroit to vote this August on whether to return to an elected school board, rather than in November of 2004.
The bill, which passed with the majority of Republicans in the Legislature on board, met an unexpected death on the governor’s desk last week. Gov. Jennifer Granholm said repeatedly during last year’s campaign that she supported returning to an elected school board in Detroit, so her stance on the bill surprised and frustrated many who supported it. A spokesperson for the governor listed cost and concerns about voter turnout as the primary reasons for not supporting the legislation.
The cost of holding a special election this August is estimated at $1.3 million. The state is indeed benefiting from Granholm’s budget-conscious policies, but that stern balance-the-books quality should be tempered with an examination of all the factors involved. Giving Detroiters an opportunity to vote earlier would have been more than a gesture of goodwill; it would have given the city a voice and a chance to make changes a year in advance.
Some critics of an August vote argue that Detroiters would be reluctant to vote to change the status quo, so that an early election would be irrelevant. It is true that Detroit may vote to keep the current board. It is important to point out, however, that educated guesses about election results cannot serve as a substitute for Detroit’s own voice in an election.
Many Detroiters have lost faith in their state government as a result of policies that seem to be motivated as much by antagonism toward Detroit as legitimate concern for its well-being. These types of policies divide the state by region, class and race. For this reason, it is unfortunate that Granholm, whose “One Michigan Campaign” in the 2002 election was intended to ameliorate these concerns, chose to simplify the issue and silence Detroit for another year.