DETROIT (WJBK) - NOTE: This story is a collaboration among reporters Jennifer Dixon, Kristi Tanner, John Wisely and Ann Zaniewski of the Detroit Free Press; M.L. Elrick and Patricia Montemurri of Fox 2 Detroit; Chastity Pratt Dawsey of Bridge Magazine and Sascha Raiyn of WDET Detroit Public Radio.
Free Press web producer Jamie Smith used information compiled by the reporters to create the online database that accompanies this story.
Each candidate was given six weeks to respond to a questionnaire and asked to submit a résumé and a current photograph. Not all candidates responded to those requests. Some refused to be interviewed.
More than half of the candidates competing to lead the financially fragile Detroit public school district have filed for bankruptcy, or have had a foreclosure or an eviction, or have lost a lawsuit over unpaid bills, a local media partnership investigation shows.
The stakes for the Detroit Public Schools Community District are high. Leaders statewide will be watching the Nov. 8 election closely because, just five months ago, the Legislature approved a historic $617-million financial restructuring plan for the district, which was on the verge of running out of money. The election comes as Detroit emerges from the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. Many leaders insist that a strong public school system is imperative to the city's future.
Voters will face an exhausting list of 63 candidates when they go to the polls, and other than small forums, they have had little opportunity to meet the candidates. The election is unlike any other the city has seen. It was called four months ago, there was no primary and only the top seven finishers will win seats on the board.
To help Detroiters cast informed votes, the Detroit Free Press, Fox 2 Detroit, Bridge Magazine and WDET Detroit Public Radio formed an unprecedented partnership and spent two months investigating the candidates. The reporters reviewed hundreds of pages of court documents, property records, voting histories, tax liens and other public records. They asked the candidates to send in résumés and list their priorities and qualifications. The questionnaire also invited candidates to list missteps the public should know. Not a single candidate disclosed a shortcoming. But the reporters uncovered many.
Among their findings:
- 12 candidates filed for bankruptcy.
- 13 candidates lost properties for failing to pay taxes or mortgages, or are facing liens for unpaid income taxes.
- 28 candidates were sued for unpaid bills and defaulted or agreed to make payments.
None of the candidates appears to have a criminal record. However, one of them, Ryan Townsend, was twice ticketed for soliciting prostitution. He works as a teachers aide at the Trix Performance Academy, a Detroit charter school.
The candidates’ financial problems could impact the board’s effectiveness, said John Chamberlin, professor emeritus of political science and public policy at the University of Michigan.
“You want people who are capable of understanding pretty big numbers, and understanding what the trade-offs are, what’s a good risk and what’s not,” Chamberlin said. “On the whole, the ability to fight your way through a budget is an important skill. Making decisions about the budget is extremely important, and you want people who are up to the job.”
Chamberlin added that money problems aren’t automatically disqualifying for candidates, noting that divorce, illness, a tanking economy or a declining neighborhood can all impact a family budget.
“People who are well-off financially when the economy tanks get through without trouble,” he said. “But people living close to the line are closer to getting into trouble.”
Whoever is elected will have his or her work cut out for them, but the board’s powers will also be limited. The new board will hire the new superintendent and have policy-making authority, but it cannot fire the superintendent on its own. It will be overseen by the Detroit Financial Review Commission, which also monitors the city’s finances. It must sign off on the board’s proposed budget and the appointment of key administrators.
By law, three straight years of deficit-free budgets could prompt a return to true local control for the district, something Detroiters have demanded after years of state oversight.
The question for voters is who is best prepared to provide leadership. And whether it matters that many candidates vying to run the financially struggling district have had financial calamities of their own.
In all, 36 of the 63 candidates vying for seven at-large seats on the board have had either a bankruptcy, a foreclosure or lien for unpaid taxes, or been sued for unpaid debts. More than a dozen of them have experienced more than one type of financial setback.
Candidates Valerie Elaine Massey and Valencia Robin Grier lost the largest number of properties among the 13 candidates with foreclosures or liens.
Massey is a city employee who works in general services. She, her now ex-husband or the company she runs lost a total of seven properties for failing to pay taxes or keep up with mortgage payments, according to the Wayne County Register of Deeds records.
Massey acknowledged the loss of six of the seven properties, including the family home that was lost in 2010 with $45,657 owed on the mortgage. She said she did not sign the mortgage on a home lost in 1999. Her name, however, is on the mortgage, and the property was $25,000 in arrears at the time of the foreclosure. Her name is on the foreclosure document, as well.
Massey said a combination of divorce and pay cuts cost her both her home and the rental properties, which she said her ex-husband was managing.
Grier, a retired elementary school teacher, and her husband lost seven properties for failing to pay their property taxes.
In an e-mailed response to questions, Grier said the situation was “me and my husband’s business.”
The retired Detroit Public Schools teacher and mother of five DPS graduates said: “Though I have had many financial burdens as a result of the many cuts we teachers continue to have, it does not stop me from being a candidate.”
The most common problem candidates had was paying their bills, including rent. Some were even evicted.
Wanda Redmond and Renae Micou stand out among the 28 board candidates who were sued for unpaid bills and defaulted or agreed to make payments.
Landlords in Harper Woods and Detroit have sued Micou more than 30 times since 2002. Some cases ended with default judgments, others were settled, some were dismissed and at least one ended with a judgment for eviction. Micou submitted a résumé that states that she is a preschool administrator. She blamed the large number of lawsuits on an aggressive landlord who sued whenever the rent was late.
“It was just one of those times in life,” she said. “I was a single mom. I was just trying to juggle my bills with raising my three kids.”
Micou said she was also going to school. She acknowledged that her financial history may raise questions about her ability to oversee the district’s budget, but said she is confident other board members would hold her accountable.
“It doesn’t look the best, but the love and the dedication I have” will serve the district well, she said.
Redmond is a former school board member and is married to local activist Malik Shabazz. She was sued twice for unpaid debts and lost a home for unpaid taxes, records show. Redmond also battled the IRS, which placed multiple liens on her property for more than $86,000 in unpaid federal income taxes. She did not respond to requests for comment.
Former school board president Herman Davis had the most bankruptcies among the 12 candidates who filed for bankruptcy. Davis, a retired banker, filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2004 and Chapter 13 in 2005. Lenders also foreclosed on four of his properties for failure to pay mortgages, and he lost another property for failing to pay property taxes. Davis said he invested in real estate and hit hard times when the housing bubble burst.
“There was nothing you could do but swallow it and keep on stepping,” Davis said.
Jennifer Smith, director of government relations for the Michigan Association of School Boards, said it will be up to voters to decide whether candidates’ financial history disqualifies them from serving on the school board.
But there are some qualities that are critical in the aftermath of the restructuring, she said.
“Voters should look for candidates that will take the job seriously and have concrete ideas on how to assist the turnaround of the district, but that also understand their role as a board member,” she said in an e-mail.
Challenging job ahead
The $617-million restructuring plan passed by the state Legislature in June split the Detroit Public Schools into two entities as of July 1. The former Detroit Public Schools now exists solely for tax-collection purposes to pay off debt over the next decade. Its former, powerless 11-person board, was dissolved.
The new district, called the Detroit Public Schools Community District, will have seven school board members who will take office in January. The board will attempt to steady a district that has been in turmoil for years under state control.
Enrollment has fallen by more than two-thirds since 2000, as Detroit’s population has declined and students have fled to charter schools and suburban districts. More than 100 schools have closed since 2005.
The state has controlled DPS for all but three years since 1999. State-appointed emergency managers have run the district since 2009. It was also under state control from 1999 until 2005.
Earlier this year, teachers held sick-outs, closing school for several days, to call attention to poor building conditions and low wages.
David Arsen, an economist, professor and education researcher at Michigan State University, said the new board needs members who listen to parents and educators and work collaboratively with municipal leaders. Financial acumen is important, but not everything, he said.
“You can get the best business managers from across the state, and they would have a heck of a time managing this district with the things the board cannot control, such as if there’s an undisciplined expansion of charter schools all over the city,” Arsen said. “There will have to be learning by doing, there will have to be goodwill, there will have to be an appeal to higher values and moving forward.”
Ticket tied to prostitution
One candidate had trouble paying his bills, but that’s not all. Townsend, a teachers aide at Trix Performance Academy, a Detroit K-8 charter school in the state's Education Achievement Authority district, was ticketed twice for soliciting prostitution.
In 2005 and 2011, Townsend received tickets for a charge called “offer to engage the services of another for an act of prostitution.” The 2005 case was dismissed when the officer failed to show up for court. Townsend pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct to resolve the 2011 case.
He responded to requests for comment with an e-mail that said: “While some of the legal issues in question are valid, there are some that have no basis in reality. Some of the legal issues were a result of youth and financial instability. Other legal issues were the result of profiling and harassment and therefore, I cannot address them nor give them credence.
“Ultimately, any issue that is now being called into question is in no way a reflection of my maturation, nor do these issues negate my dedication and commitment to the children and families of the city of Detroit, and my mission to ensure that every child in my city has access to an excellent education.”
Reporters reviewed public records to detail the financial background of all 63 candidates. Some candidates said divorce, illness, income loss and other factors contributed to their financial problems. The records show that at, some point in their lives, the following candidates encountered financial issues.
Filed bankruptcy: Betty Jean Alexander, Phyllis Berry, Gwendolyn Britt, Herman Davis, Ronald Diebel, Norma Galvan, Juvette Hawkins-Williams, Andrew Jackson, Jr., Markita Meeks, Kathy Montgomery, Angelique Nicole Peterson-Mayberry and Patricia Singleton
Lost property to foreclosure or had federal tax lien: Vonetta D. Clark, Herman Davis, Valencia Robin Grier, Juvette Hawkins-Williams, Deborah Hunter-Harvill, Andrew Jackson Jr., Miriam Keyes, Valerie Elaine Massey, Markita Meeks, Steven Miller, Kathy Montgomery, Wanda Redmond and Keith Linnaeus Whitney
Were sued for unpaid rent or other debts: Betty Jean Alexander, Rita McFadden Carpenter, Vonetta D. Clark, Herman Davis, Carol Pratt Farver, Victor B. Gibson, Valencia Robin Grier, Juvette Hawkins-Williams, Elena Herrada, Deborah Hunter-Harvill, Miriam Keyes, LaMar Lemmons, Ryan Charles Mack, Valerie Elaine Massey, Markita Meeks, Renae Micou, Steven Miller, Reverend David Murray, Angelique Nicole Peterson-Mayberry, Willetta Ann Ramey, Wanda Redmond, Victor D. Robinson, Tawanna Simpson, Mary Brenda T. (Thorton) Smith, Ryan Townsend, Ingrid Walton, Tonya Renay Wells and Anthony Zander