Detroit, Education — February 13, 2014 at 12:31 pm

Power outages in Detroit schools on Count Day and fired EMU lecturers raise questions and eyebrows


Sometimes conspiracy theorists are right

Two things happened this week that are raising questions in the education community. The first is the “coincidental” power outages that occurred in Detroit schools the day before the all-important Count Day yesterday. The outages resulted in with Detroit Public Schools being closed on the day when they count kids to determine how many attend their school and, as a result, how much money they will receive from the state.

When the power went out on Tuesday afternoon, 3 of the 15 Education Achievement Authority schools closed and more than 30 DPS schools were closed. Yesterday, the EAA had all of its schools open for Count Day but DPS still had 8 schools which had no power.

It may seem weird that these schools would be without power while the communities around them have power, at least it did to me. I spoke with Russ Bellant, the now-retired Director of Detroit’s Skilled Trades Apprenticeship program. Bellant worked closely with the department that supplies energy to the city buildings. He explained to me that, in the city of Detroit, power to residential and commercial customers is supplied by DTE Energy and power to city owned buildings is supplied by the Department of Public Lighting. It’s an odd arrangement, to be sure, especially since the DPL actually purchases its electricity from DTE.

According to Bellant, former Detroit Mayor Bing, who sat on the DTE Energy Board of Directors for 20 years until 2005, spent an enormous amount of time trying kill off the DPL and transition that business to DTE. During his tenure, Bellant told me, Bing fired most of the people who maintained the DPL infrastructure which has resulted in a system that is in extremely bad shape. In June of last year, Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr announced that the city would be “getting out of the power business” and began transitioning city facilities over to energy purchased directly from DTE. He did this, in part, because he said the DPL had “drained the city of $150 million a year over the last five years”. This is not surprising, Bellant told me. A contract signed in 2011 while Bing was mayor and retroactive to 2010 specified that the DPL would purchase electricity from DTE at a rate 50% higher than the commercial rate. In other words, businesses getting power from DTE paid two-thirds what the city was paying.

The explanation for the power outages at the schools this week was that it was due to DPL’s crumbling infrastructure, something that Bing helped to create. But, oddly, there are no reports of any other city facilities being without power. Only the schools. And right before and during the day that determines how much money they will get to run the schools. And while 8 DPS schools were closed on Count Day, the EAA schools were fine; they’ll get a full count. DPS, on the other hand, which has been taking steps to maximize attendance on this one day, will now have to plead with the state to be allowed to do it on another day.

A conspiracy theorist would ask why DPS schools were targeted. Was it help diminish their already scarce funding? And why were the schools in Governor Snyder’s failed education experiment — the EAA — spared?

Another thing that happened this week was that nearly all of the full-time lecturers in Eastern Michigan University’s education department were fired. EMU has an inter-local agreement that puts them in partnership with the EAA. Education department faculty members were not consulted about this arrangement and, as they learned more about the horrible conditions and teaching approaches in practice in the EAA schools, they began an effort to get the university’s Board of Regents to end their partnership. Not surprisingly, this has caused considerable friction on campus.

The firing of the lecturers is has not been explained but many point to the tension between the faculty and university administration. At an EAA forum in Ann Arbor this week, EMU faculty member Steve Camron who has been a vocal critic of the EAA was asked if there was a connection between faculty protests and the firing of the lecturers. Camron attributed it to the administration attempting to “pit faculty against the lecturers” in order to stop their dissent against EMU’s involvement with the EAA.

Are these two events involving the EAA coincidences? Perhaps. But we know full well that there are powerful people in this state who want the EAA experiment to be seen as successful. For some — those with financial ties to the software used to run the schools and those who provide contracted services — the EAA is a pathway to enriching themselves. For others, it’s a way to destroy teachers unions. For still others, it’s a way to dismantle public education and hand the education of our state’s most vulnerable children over to for-profit charters who will fill their coffers with Michigan taxpayer dollars while educating kids on the cheap with unqualified teachers, an untested educational model based on children sitting in front of a computer all day every day, and without the nuisance of dealing with unions, oversight, or accountability.

These powerful people have it in their power to cause problems for their opponents. The conspiracy theorist in me screams that these two events are clear examples of that.

And sometimes conspiracy theorists are right.