63 Candidates, 7 Seats: What’s at Stake for Detroit?

Written by: Amy Auletto

Primary Source:  Green & Write, November 1, 2016

On November 8, Detroit voters will choose from 63 candidates to elect a new 7-seat Detroit Public Schools Community District Board of Education. This election cycle marks a major turning point for the district. On July 1, 2016, Detroit Public Schools split into two districts – Detroit Public Schools (DPS) and Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD). DPS currently only exists to pay down the district’s debt and collect taxes, while DPSCD focuses on the administration of education in the district. One feature of this split was the creation of a new school board. The former 11-seat DPS school board will be replaced this January with a new group of 7 elected officials, all serving 4-year terms.

A number of local media outlets have been covering the local election, mainly focused on the dubious backgrounds of a number of Detroit’s candidates. The Detroit Free Press, Fox 2 Detroit, Bridge Magazine, and WDET Detroit Public Radio worked together to investigate DPSCD Board of Education Candidates and found that many candidates have a history of financial problems: 12 have filed for bankruptcy, 13 have lost properties or liens due to unpaid taxes and mortgages, and 28 have been sued for unpaid bills. One candidate, a teacher’s aide, has even been ticketed twice for soliciting prostitution. The Detroit Free Press has created an interactive database to help voters keep track and learn about the 63 candidates as they make their decisions. Ten incumbents are up for re-election and most of the other candidates running have no prior experience in office.


Few Candidates, Low Turnout, and Uninformed Voters

DPSCD’s large pool of candidates certainly isn’t the norm. Nationally, an average of only 1.72 candidates ran per open school board seat in 2015, down from 1.89 in 2014. In fact, it is too often the case that seats are uncontested or that no one runs at all for school board positions. There have been a number of recent stories (see here and here) about school board elections where not a single person voted, not even the candidate running for the seat.

Photo courtesy of Erik (HASH) Hersman.

Photo courtesy of Erik (HASH) Hersman.

While this year’s presidential election has certainly drawn significant public interest and seemingly endless media attention, this may not translate into significant interest in local races. Americans are often critiqued for being uninformed voters, and in one poll, 83% of respondents agreed with this statement. While research has shown that holding school board elections in November with other key races does increase voter turnout, there is speculation that due to such extreme dislike for the presidential candidates this year, many people may refuse to vote at all.

The Future of DPSCD

For a district that has been fraught with corruption and financial hardship, the transition to DPSCD and a new school board is critical to the future of Detroit’s schools. With 63 candidates running for the new board, I fear that it will be difficult for voters to truly make an informed decision. At the very least, it is imperative that voters consider candidates’ financial histories and experiences in education.

I encourage all of our readers, whether voting in Detroit or elsewhere, to take some time to learn about the individuals running for local school board seats. In Michigan, there are a number of large districts with open seats this year, including Lansing School District, Ann Arbor Public Schools, Utica Community Schools, and Dearborn Public Schools. It is absolutely imperative for our democracy that voters are engaged and informed. We can’t let just a handful of individuals or special interest groups set the agenda.

How much do you know about your local school board candidates? Click here to view your ballot and here to learn more about your local candidates.

Contact Amy: aulettoa@msu.edu

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Amy Auletto
Amy Auletto is a doctoral student in Educational Policy. She is interested in the impact that equitable funding and access to effective teachers have on the educational outcomes of disadvantaged student populations. Prior to beginning her studies at Michigan State University, she taught middle school math in Detroit. Amy earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology, master of Social Work, and MA in educational studies from the University of Michigan.