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With primaries over, Detroit school board candidates look to November

The newly elected Detroit school board voted unanimously in 2017 to fight school closures in court.
The newly elected Detroit school board voted unanimously in 2017 to fight school closures in court.
Erin Einhorn

As yard signs from Tuesday’s primary elections come down, Detroiters are preparing for another election that could have a significant impact on students in the city.

A school board election in November will give Detroit voters their first chance to weigh in on the changes that have come to the Detroit Public Schools Community District since the local elected board regained power from the state last year. The race could have profound implications for the long-term sustainability of Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s efforts to turn around the struggling district, which so far has enjoyed consistent support from the board.

Nonetheless, the race is shaping up to be quieter than in 2016, when 63 candidates, many of them virtually unknown, threw their hats in the ring for the seven school board seats. This time, nine candidates, including incumbent Deborah Hunter-Harvill, are running for two seats. Another incumbent, LaMar Lemmons, dropped out of the race this week despite submitting the paperwork needed to run.

The winners will join a board that has worked to stabilize the state’s largest school district after decades of financial woes, declining enrollment, and leadership changes as the state installed emergency managers to run the district who were not accountable to local parents or voters.

At the center of the turnaround effort is Vitti, who was hired by the new board in 2017 for his record of improving test scores in urban schools, and who has largely kept their support for his plan to rebuild the district’s most basic services, from its curriculum to its special education services to its decision to reinstate mandatory recess.

The district’s progress under the current board progress has yielded a cautious sense of hope among some district veterans and observers.

Sheila Cockrel, head of Citizen Detroit, a nonprofit that plans to hold a forum with the school board candidates, said the two open positions are “very significant,” in part because they could alter the board’s relationship with Vitti.

“The board has been able to fashion a majority that does an extraordinarily good job of being the check and balance, providing the kind of oversight and the kind of partner to the superintendent that makes it possible to see a strategy to really rebuild the district,” she said.

Even with a strategy in sight, there is a long way to go for Michigan’s largest school district.

Test scores in the district remain the lowest in the nation, and it could be years before recent changes translate into academic improvements. Staff morale is at a troubling low. The district’s crumbling buildings need $500 million in repairs, a figure that could double if nothing is done in five years, but it doesn’t have the money or a way to raise new funds without help from Lansing or private philanthropies.

Lemmons, one of the board’s most frequent critics of Vitti’s administration, said he is leaving to start an organization focused on increasing the number of black-run businesses that contract with the district, something he can’t do while sitting on the board.

“I needed to give someone else the opportunity to serve and to focus on some other things I want to do that are in conflict” with serving on the board, he said on Wednesday.

Lemmons’ wife, Georgia Lemmons, is one of two board members currently serving a six-year term, while the remaining three members will be up for reelection in 2020. The law that reconstituted the school district in 2016 created the staggered terms to reduce turnover on the board.

Lemmons’ sister, Deborah Lemmons, is among the candidates vying for his vacant seat.

LaMar Lemmons said he was confident that should his sister win the “Lemmons caucus” will continue to fight for “parity for African-Americans and all Detroit students.”

Scroll down for a list of candidates in alphabetical order by last name.

Terrell George works at the Motor City Casino. He is head football and basketball coach at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy in the district.

Natalya Henderson, an undergraduate at Western Michigan University, became interested in education policy as a student activist in 2016, when she helped stage student walkouts to protest low teacher pay.

Incumbent Deborah Hunter-Harvill, a former superintendent of the Redford School District, now runs of an education consulting firm

Deborah Lemmons, a Detroit resident, is listed as self-employed on her Facebook page.

Reverend David Murray (his legal name) is a retired social worker and a minister at the Church of God in Christ in Detroit. Murray faced scrutiny for his personal life during his 16-year tenure on the old Detroit Public Schools board, which began in 1999.

Britney Sharp is a professional photographer who helps run Lions Dream, a mentorship program. She taught for seven years with Math Corps, a tutoring and mentorship program for Detroit public school students.

Shannon Smith works for JPMorgan Chase & Co, helping to manage a $150 million grant fund that aims to boost economic growth in Detroit.

Corletta Vaughn is the founding pastor of Go Tell It Ministry Worldwide, a church in Detroit.

UPDATE: Shawn Blanchard, a motivational speaker and author who specializes in youth mentorship, is no longer running for school board.

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