8 of 10 old Detroit school board members running for new district have legal, financial issues

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.

Eight of the 10 members of the old Detroit Public Schools board who are running for seats on the newly formed public  school board have had legal or financial problems. The findings are a result of an unprecedented joint investigation by Fox 2, the Detroit Free Press, Bridge magazine and Detroit Public Radio.

The candidates' problems include bankruptcy, foreclosures, forfeitures, evictions, unpaid bills and unpaid income taxes.

One member had his social worker license suspended. And other said in a lawsuit that she suffers from "periodic memory loss, cognitive problems and a significant learning disability."

The check of public records did not find any legal or financial problems for DPS members Annie Carter or Ida Short, who are also seeking seats on the new Detroit Public Schools Community District board.

The findings come on the heels of the news consortium's report last week that 36 of the 63 candidates for the new school board had had financial problems.

The news organizations worked together in an unprecedented effort to investigate the candidates. The project is designed to help voters learn about the large number of candidates running in an election like no other. For starters, the candidates are running for a school board created mere months ago as part of the state bailout of the Detroit Public Schools.

Candidates were required to get in the race in July, and there was no primary election to narrow the field of candidates for the seven seats on the board of the newly-formed Detroit Public Schools Community District. The reporters sent each of the 63 candidates a brief questionnaire, inviting them to list their top priorities, to outline their qualifications for the board and to include any positive or negative information they thought voters should know.

Many of the candidates responded to the questionnaire, but none of them mentioned their financial or legal difficulties. The reporters performed extensive background checks on the candidates, using more than a dozen public records, including court, property and voting records. The reporters then contacted each of the candidates to discuss problems they found. The findings were compiled in a searchable database that allows users to search by candidates by name and to use filters to compile lists of candidates who responded to the questionnaire, who filed for bankruptcy, who lost a property to foreclosure or forfeiture, or who have been evicted or successfully sued for unpaid debts.

>>To see the Detroit School Board Database CLICK HERE

Experts say the members of the old Detroit Public Schools (DPS) board should not shoulder the blame for most of the district's problems, because they had only limited powers under the state-imposed emergency managers Gov. Rick Snyder chose to run the district.

DPS was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy when state lawmakers approved a $617 million rescue plan earlier this year. But many local and state officials said $700 million was needed to retire the old district's debt and give a newly-formed Detroit Public Schools Community District a chance to succeed.

Some of the DPS board members running for the new board say their past financial problems will not keep them from steering the new district to success.

"We set only policy and procedure," said Herman Davis, president of the DPS board. "Don't get back to thinking that we're going to get back to trying to micromanage the district. I'm going to be one of the people that says 'Let's not do that.' "

"Other people will balance the budget and they will bring those issues to us to review," Davis added. "We will say 'Yea' or 'Nay' on those issues."

Not all of the board members are running together. Several of them have formed slates consisting of DPS board members and candidates who did not serve on the board. The slates promote themselves and their policies on advertising that is distributed door-to-door, by mail and in commercials.

With only seven seats on the new board, there is no chance that all 10 of the former DPS board members will reunite to run the new district.

There is a chance, however, that some board members could bring old rivalries with them if they are elected.
Davis, for example, accuses DPS board member LaMar Lemmons of orchestrating a coup to try and wrest the presidency from him.

Lemmons, who is running for a seat on the new board, says board members chose him fair and square.

"I'm presently the president of the board," Lemmons said, referring to the old DPS board.

Here is a breakdown of the DPS board members who have had legal or financial problems:

David Murray, who legally changed his name to "Reverend David Murray," has experienced financial, professional and person setbacks over the past 20 years. In 1990, the state suspended Murray's social worker license for four years for providing false information on his application.

Murray gave an address for his company that was actually a Detroit Police mini-station. He lost a home to foreclosure in 2002. Creditors won default judgments against him in 2001, 2003 and 2006. In 2008, the state removed six children from Murray's care for neglect.

Murray denies neglecting them. He blames state cutbacks that reduced aid for troubled kids like the ones he adopted. Three of the boys he adopted are now in prison. Murray did not return messages seeking comment on the suspension of his social worker license or his financial problems.

Tawanna Simpson was sued for non-payment of rent four times. Default judgments were entered in two of the cases, one case was dismissed and the other led to a settlement, but is still open. Green for All, a national community activist organization, lists Simpson as a fellow and describes her as a "social activist, community leader, dancer and civic entrepreneur" and says she holds positions with several other civic and political entities. In one of the lawsuits filed against Simpson, her lawyer said she did not have to file taxes because her income was so low.

In 2008, her lawyer said Simpson's only income was $42 dollars a month in child support. The lawyer said that's why she did not have to pay rent or utilities for her federally-subsidized Section 8 apartment. The lawyer also said Simpson suffered a serious head injury in 2004 that "triggers periodic memory loss, other cognitive problems and a significant learning disability." Simpson did not return calls seeking comment. Davis, who said he is running with Simpson and another board member, said: "I've been on the board for now 15 years, and from all of the people that I've served with, she's able to meet that same bench point."

LaMar Lemmons lost a landlord-tenant case in 2005, but said he has never been evicted. He said the real culprit is a relative who didn't pay the rent on an apartment Lemmons helped him get. Lemmons sued another landlord in 2011 for tossing him out of a place he was using as an office. Mediators awarded Lemmons $3,500, but he wanted more. A judge eventually ruled against Lemmons. The case went to the Michigan Court of Appeals, and the landlord was awarded $8,600. Lemmons acknowledged that he owed the money, but said he has no plans to pay it.

Herman Davis lost four properties between 2004 and 2006, owing lenders more than $177,000. He also filed for bankruptcy. "When the bubble bust, I lost about three-quarters of a million dollars," Davis said. "Things happen. And I know banks were the ones at fault, because they allowed all this predatory lending to occur. And that's what made the bubble bust."

Juvette Hawkins-Williams lost a property to foreclosure and filed for bankruptcy in 2010. She attributed her financial troubles on teen mothers who failed to comply with state assistance guidelines. She said that once they were deemed ineligible, the state refused to reimburse her for the child care services she provided to the young mothers.

Wanda Redmond has IRS liens on her home for more than $86,000 in unpaid income taxes. She said her accountant is negotiating a settlement with the IRS.

Elena Herrada had a default judgment for $2,300 entered against her in 2009. She said the case stemmed from a dispute with a retailer over what she considered an unfair interest rate.

Patricia Singleton filed for bankruptcy in 1995. She attributed her financial problems to a divorce.

Contact M.L. Elrick at 248-552-5261 or ml.elrick@foxtv.com.

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