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Detroit’s December school board meeting: What you may have missed

A school hallway with a welcome sign hanging up on the wall

Staff holiday bonuses and a name change at the Detroit Public School Community District’s only all-boys school, were on this month’s school board agenda.

Nic Antaya for Chalkbeat

Administrators in the Detroit school district will head into the winter break with a holiday bonus.

The school board on Tuesday approved a one-time bonus of $2,000 for principals, assistant principals and nonunion administrators, totaling over $2 million. The Detroit Public Schools Community District had previously negotiated bonuses with its unionized employees.

The $2,000 payment to nonunion employees had to wait until the district could determine its financial status following a fall student headcount for per-pupil funding, the district said in a report ahead of the meeting. The employees will receive their bonuses by Dec. 13.

“Detroit has some of the greatest principals, assistant principals, nonunion administrators and personnel, and they are to be celebrated,” said board Vice President Deborah Hunter-Harvill. Tuesday’s meeting was the last for Hunter-Harvill, who lost her re-election bid in November.

In addition to the bonus, the district approved a series of job terminations as well as policies to combat harassment and discrimination.

Here’s a look at other key developments out of the meeting:

Board defers vote on name change for district’s lone all-male school

The board opted to delay a decision on reopening the name change process at Frederick Douglass Academy For Young Men. 

In recent years, district officials and community members have attempted to revisit naming decisions that were made when the district was overseen by state-appointed emergency managers, sometimes without community input. 

The efforts have resulted in the board approving new or modified names at Detroit Collegiate Preparatory Academy at Northwestern (now Northwestern High School), Benjamin Carson High School of Science and Medicine (renamed Crockett Midtown High School of Science and Medicine) and East English Village Preparatory Academy (which added the phrase “at Finney”).

But for Frederick Douglass, the board tabled a vote on beginning a name change process. “I just continue to find school names to be something that should be a little lower on our priority list compared to all the other challenges that we’re facing in terms of supporting our students in their reading proficiency (and) math proficiency,” said board member Misha Stallworth West, who chairs the district’s policy ad-hoc committee.

Named for the writer and orator who fought for the abolition of slavery, Frederick Douglass Academy of Young Men enrolls students in grades 9-12 and is the only all-boys school in the district.

A proposal to change the school’s name was introduced in 2018 but dropped for lack of support.

Little information was shared about the rationale behind the latest renaming proposal, but board President Angelique Peterson-Mayberry suggested it has to do with projecting a new image for a school that had a “negative stigma” of being associated with at-risk students. It was unclear how the Douglas name fits in with the discussion about the stigma of the school.

A district report said parents, staff and students are behind a name change. 

But a couple of Frederick Douglass Academy alumni showed up at Tuesday’s meeting to oppose a name change.

“I think the stigmatization of bad kids at Frederick Douglass has always been there,” said Daivon Reeder, an Army veteran and 2012 alum of Frederick Douglass Academy. “It’s something that I faced in 2012. It’s something the kids face now. But it’s something that we face as Black men. We face that every day in the world.”

Changing the name won’t change the stigma, Reeder said. “We need resources, we need community, we need funds to change that stigma.”

Community advocates continue to push for sale of Cooley High School

The fate of the shuttered Cooley High School was not on Tuesday’s school board agenda, but advocates of selling the dilapidated building raised the issue during the meeting’s public comment section. 

Last month, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti revoked a recommendation to sell the vacant Cooley building to local nonprofit Life Remodeled for $400,000, opting instead to seek negotiations for better terms.

Vitti’s decision reflected concerns among some board members about whether the district was underpricing the property, and about how its future owners would use the site. 

Life Remodeled had proposed redeveloping the property as a community hub over three years through an investment of $37.5 million. It would be similar to Durfee Innovation Society, a former district elementary school that is now a hub for nonprofits and entrepreneurs.

Residents of the neighborhood, along with Cooley alumni, have been calling on the district to address the building’s decaying condition, either by selling or reopening the high school.

“We as a community have spoken and voiced our concerns,” said Detroit resident Francis Rowland, who said at the board meeting that she has “lived behind Cooley school for many years.”

“We have said many things as to why that school building should be sold,” Rowland said. “For a safe community. To enhance the community and the young people. To have a better future, cleaner environment, and to believe in something more positive in the community.”

Ethan Bakuli is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering Detroit Public Schools Community District. Contact Ethan at ebakuli@chalkbeat.org.

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