School district takeovers leave communities voiceless

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Lashanda Mayberry's children attended a charter school, one of the few schools left in Highland Park, Mich. From right are Tazeon, 15; Myaira, 11; and Keon, 13, with Mayberry's nephew Armani, 7.

Fourth of seven parts.

In at least 20 states, lawmakers have stripped locally elected school board members of their power in impoverished, mostly minority communities, leaving parents without a voice - or a vote - in their children's education, according to a News21 state-by-state analysis of school takeovers.

More than 5.6 million people live in places where state officials took over entire districts or individual schools in the past six years, according to News21 data collected from state government agencies. About 43 percent are African American and around 20 percent are Hispanic. On average 29.2 percent of people in those areas are living below the poverty level. The U.S. average is 15.5 percent.

Typically in a school takeover - sometimes referred to as "intervention" - a state will assume broad authority over a district, dramatically reducing and sometimes eliminating the power of a local school board, elected by community constituents.

"One of the big downsides of takeovers is that communities feel and, in some cases, are substantially disenfranchised," said Kristi Bowman, an associate dean at Michigan State University's college of law who studies these takeovers. "If we need the community to be a partner with the school district and then we effectively tell the community, ''Hold on, we're taking away all of your elected representatives,' that could be really difficult."

In New Jersey - which, in 1987, became the first state to take over a school district - Camden is among several urban districts that have come under state control. The state hired Camden's superintendent, while the mayor appoints school board members - a practice that predates the state takeover of the district in 2013.

A judge last week dismissed a lawsuit from Camden residents seeking the right to elect school board members, questioning the rationale for electing a board that has been stripped of its power by the state.

In Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia School District is governed by a five-member School Reform Commission, with three members appointed by the governor and two by the city's mayor. The Chester Upland district is also under state control. Camden, Philadelphia, and Chester Upland have large minority populations.

But examples of the move can be found across the nation. One is Highland Park, a small city within Detroit's boundaries that was once called the "City of Trees." The school district was once considered one of the top 10 in Michigan, according to a report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 1962.

Today, most of Highland Park's trees are gone. Overgrown, empty lots and burned-out houses outnumber occupied homes on some blocks. And parents say Highland Park's once-proud school district has collapsed, hastened by four years under state control.

In 2012, the district was in "financial free fall," according to a news release quoting then-state Superintendent Mike Flanagan. A state financial review found that the small district suffered from declining enrollment and an $11 million deficit. The only solution to save the Highland Park School District was to take control of the system entirely, state officials concluded.

Republican Gov. Rick Snyder appointed an emergency manager to run the district under the state's Public Act 4. The manager was given all the powers of the local governing board.

Highland Park is one of three school districts in Michigan under state control. The others are Detroit itself and Muskegon Heights. These cities are more than 75 percent black, according to census data. Including city takeovers, half of Michigan's African American population has been under an emergency manager at some point in the past six years.

"I think one of the things emergency management does, if it doesn't destroy democracy, it definitely suppresses democracy," said David Bullock, pastor of Greater St. Matthew Baptist Church in Highland Park. "It suffocates the civic impulse. Why would I be engaged in a process where there's no accountability for the person who runs the school? The school board has no power."

Ask most longtime residents and chances are their parents worked for one of the Big Three automobile companies, like the Chrysler Corp., founded in Highland Park in 1925. By 1950, the city's population was 46,393. But then factory jobs declined. Chrysler moved. And people left, while vacant lots and empty, crumbling houses appeared. Today, census data show it's down to 10,951 people.

School enrollment also dropped. From 2005 to 2010, Highland Park lost 72 percent of its students, going from 3,438 children to just 974 - 970 of whom were black.

Under emergency managers, Highland Park's school district continued to decline as more schools closed and students left. Joyce Parker, the district's second emergency manager, split the district into two. The old district remains only to pay off debt, while a new district, the Highland Park Public School Academy System is run by a charter school management company.

George Washington Carver Academy is one of Highland Park's remaining schools. That's where Lashanda Mayberry's children go. Her 13-year-old son, Keon, who is about to start seventh grade, only reads at a fourth- or fifth-grade level. Despite his struggles, he made the school's honor roll. Mayberry worries that the school ignores critical problems.

"How did you put him on the honor roll if he can't read? I feel like there's so much going on that is far above my head; I think that they're doing whatever they want to do," she said. "We don't really have a say, we don't know what's going on, and we're just down here. They're playing the fiddles."

In Drew, Miss. - a predominantly black community of fewer than 2,000 people - residents say the school district represented the Delta town's identity. But legislation drafted 120 miles away in Jackson marked the end of the Drew School District.

In 2011, when the Mississippi Department of Education took over Drew's schools, the town's 540 students used just two buildings. In a proclamation triggering the takeover, the governor declared Drew's schools in "an extreme emergency situation." State officials found that poor academic performance and a dire financial situation jeopardized "the safety, security, and educational interests" of the district's children.

People in Drew don't deny the district needed help. But the takeover left community members without a say in school operations with a state-appointed conservator at the helm.

In 2009, Gloria Dickerson, an adamant crusader for reconstructing her community, founded We2gether Creating Change, a nonprofit that works with the area's children. She said she initially wasn't opposed to the state's actions, but wasn't sure whether a state-appointed conservator would improve anything.

"The conservator came and said, ''This is what we're going to do,' " Dickerson said. "Those decisions were made outside of the community. The community did not have anything to do with those decisions."

Most of those affected in Drew are African American children. The city is 81 percent black and the poverty rate is 48.7 percent. In 1965, Dickerson and six of her siblings became the first black students to integrate with white students in Drew. "When they totally integrated in 1970, they threw out the Freedom of Choice Plan, then most of the white kids and the support for the public school was gone," she said.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina wiped out the already failing New Orleans public school system. By then, the state-run Recovery School District, led by former Philadelphia Superintendent Paul Vallas, had taken control of five of the city's poorly performing schools from their locally elected leaders.

Ashana Bigard, a parent and product of the New Orleans school system, said there had been a noticeable disinvestment in the predominantly black school district. She was ready for schools that reflected the community's voice, priorities and diverse cultures.

But the rebuilding that took place in the aftermath of the storm has shifted decision-making power almost entirely out of the hands of New Orleans' locally elected school board. With schools closed and parents and students displaced, lawmakers revisited the state's takeover policy, enacting legislation that broadened the state's definition of "failing schools," a criterion for takeovers.

Not only have more than half of the city's public schools been taken over by the state, but almost all of the schools - including those still under the jurisdiction of the locally elected Orleans Parish School Board - have been handed over to charter operators.

In many of New Orleans' predominantly black and hardest hit neighborhoods, such as the Lower Ninth Ward, few of the public schools reopened after Katrina. Today, the Lower Ninth Ward has one charter school with two campuses that serve elementary, middle and high school students.

Staff writer Maddie Hanna and Natalie Griffin of News21 contributed to this article.