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A Poor Detroit Neighborhood and a School Run by People with Questionable Pasts

April 12, 2016, 10:22 AM

Detroit has plenty sad tales about its schools. Just late last month, 12 Detroit Public Schools principals and an administrator were charged in a kickback scheme involving a vendor that cost the district millions of dollars.

Chastity Pratt Dawsey of Bridge magazine tells of another sad tale.

She focuses on the impoverished Brightmoor neighborhood and a charter school for K-12 called Detroit Community Schools at 12675 Burt Rd on Detroit's west side. The school, she reports, has its shortcomings and is run by some people with highly questionable backgrounhds:

A couple years ago, Dawn Wilson-Clark was on a committee of residents who visited Detroit Community Schools  in a westside neighborhood known as Brightmoor. Their task was to review it for Excellent Schools Detroit, a nonprofit that grades the city’s schools.

What they entered was a charter school that opened in 1997 and has struggled pretty much since. Only two of its students have ever been deemed college-ready by ACT college entrance exam standards. Teachers tended to be inexperienced. Turnover was high and enrollment was dropping in a neighborhood suffering from extreme poverty, blight and depopulation. And then there were the administrators. Though teachers were paid modestly, some administrators received six-figure salaries and were uncertified by the state. More troubling, at least two had been central figures in scandals elsewhere involving misappropriation of public funds.

Wilson-Clark knew little about the backgrounds of the administrators when she visited Detroit Community Schools. She was, however, encouraged by indications of progress that the school’s superintendent pointed out, including an improved graduation rate at the high school. The charter was also recently designated as a state “reward” schools, in recognition of academic gains.

But Wilson-Clark, who lives in Brightmoor, said the school is not yet good enough for her family. Her four school-age children are spread out among a private suburban school, an elementary in the Detroit Public Schools system and a charter school ‒ all outside of Brightmoor. She drives 130 miles a week shuttling them between schools.

That’s because Brightmoor is an educational desert. With only five schools for children in kindergarten through eighth grade and a single high school to serve roughly 7,000 children, Brightmoor lacks the quality school options that residents say they need for their children.

She simply says:

“We need more schools, quality schools in Brightmoor. A quality school, with people who have a track record and qualified teachers and proof they have served this population.

Bridge also raises some question marks about the leaders of the school, including Sharon McPhail, the school's superintendent, and William F. Coleman III, the charter’s chief financial officer.

Pratt Dawsey writes:

The school is run by former Detroit City Council member Sharon McPhail, a lawyer by training.

McPhail was hired as the school’s superintendent in 2012. She is perhaps best known as a serial candidate for city office and as an adversary-turned-defender of former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. In 2003, as a city council member, she accused Kilpatrick or his backers of tampering with wires in her desk chair to give her an electrical shock. Five years later, as the city’s general counsel, she defended Kilpatrick against Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s efforts to remove him from office. McPhail has plenty of legal experience, but is neither a certified teacher nor certified school administrator, Michigan Department of Education records show.

There is, however, someone at the school with vast experience running an urban school: William F. Coleman III, the charter’s chief financial officer.

Coleman is the former CEO and superintendent for Detroit Public Schools. Former because Coleman was fired from DPS in 2007 after he admitted to recommending a friend to do work for a DPS contractor while the friend was under investigation in a school bribery scandal in Texas. That friend, Ruben Bohuchot, and a Dallas school vendor were later found guilty in Texas federal court of bribery and money laundering.

Coleman was also indicted in the Texas case but was allowed to plead guilty in 2008 to a reduced charge of attempting to influence a grand jury in return for testifying for the federal government, court records show. As a result, prosecutors also agreed to drop conspiracy, bribery, money laundering and obstruction of justice charges against Coleman in the kickback scheme, which the government valued at roughly $40 million.

According to the indictment, the men conspired to create  shell companies to accept bribes on school technology contracts for low-income schools in Dallas, where Coleman had served as deputy superintendent and chief operating officer at the Dallas Independent School District. After testifying, Coleman received probation, was ordered to pay a fine and perform community service.

Coleman did not respond to requests for comment on his current role as chief financial officer at the Detroit school.
McPhail, likewise, declined to be interviewed by Bridge. She did, however, respond to questions by email. She wrote that she is proud of the school’s progress and hailed Coleman’s experience, saying he has never done anything questionable at her school.

“His professional career has spanned decades,” she wrote. “He does great work here and also spends time with the kids, takes voluntary pay cuts and is always here for the students.”

As If that didn't raise enough questions, Bridge writes that the school’s dean is Sylvia James, a former Inkster District Court judge. In 2012, the Michigan Judicial Tenure Commission recommended James be removed from the bench for misusing court funds.

The Michigan Supreme Court, acting on the recommendation, removed James, finding  that she “made numerous misrepresentations of fact” to the Judicial Tenure Commission, employed her niece against court rules and misappropriated funds intended for the court’s Community Service Program, Bridge reports.  

Read more:  Bridge Magazine

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Potd_lobby_50 The lobby at the new Shinola Hotel in downtown Detroit.

By: Allan Lengel