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Original article URL: http://bridgemi.com/2013/06/fortress-grosse-pointe-in-world-of-school-choice-community-says-stay-out/

Talent & education

School choice:

Fortress Grosse Pointe: In world of school choice, community says ‘stay out’

GROSSE POINTE — When Dan Roeske was running for the Grosse Pointe Public Schools board in 2011, he found himself addressing a PTO group at Poupard Elementary, one of the district’s 13 schools. A woman asked bluntly about one of the district’s perennial issues.

“Where do you stand on open enrollment?” she asked.

Roeske took a breath, and told her he was against making Grosse Pointe a schools-of-choice district.

“Good,” the woman said, flatly. “Because I moved from Detroit to get away from those thugs, and I don’t want them in my schools.”

If that sounds like something you’d expect to hear in in a suburban Detroit district widely assumed to be wealthy and white, Roeske quickly points out his questioner was African American, and Poupard, the school where they were, was in a part of the district that extends into an adjacent and decidedly middle-class suburb — Harper Woods.

More than 80 percent of Michigan schools have opted to become school-of-choice districts since 1996, when they were first allowed under state law. Districts may open themselves to non-resident students, who arrive with backpacks full of cash – the per-pupil allotment from the state. Schools of choice have expanded the options for parents dissatisfied with their local schools, and have provided a financial boost to districts; it’s also one of the eight “best practices” districts can pursue for a $52-per-pupil funding boost in the most recent iteration of Gov. Rick Snyder’s education policy.

But some districts have resisted opening their doors to non-resident students. The law requires an annual vote by the board on the question, and in Grosse Pointe no one can remember a single vote – not one, not ever – in favor of it. School board candidates pledge their loyalty to the status quo, and the issue is only discussed in terms of how fiercely it will be resisted by administrators, parents and trustees.

In Grosse Pointe, school choice is like Communism in the 1950s: You can’t stand too strongly against it.

Fortifying the schoolhouse

And yet, accusations regularly fly about widespread residency cheating, and an administration unwilling to crack down. Last summer, a group calling itself Residents for Residency attended a number of board meetings, pressing the administration to get tougher, to check documents more often, to make sure, every year, that every single student is a legal resident of the district.

They succeeded in forcing a policy change that would make the family of any student caught attending illegally liable for a tuition payment of $13,030, although, to date, none have been assessed the penalty.

The Grosse Pointe Public School System posts regularly updated data on the number of residency investigations they do, and an FAQ document as well. At last summer’s meetings, Assistant Superintendent Chris Fenton, who oversees residency checks, pointed out that his staff checks out between 100 to 200 students every year, and usually ejects between 40 to 60 of the district’s enrollment of 8,471.

The Residents for Residency were not mollified. “If you were doing your jobs,” more than one said at the microphone during public comment, “the number would be zero.” Or, put another way: None would get in in the first place.

Fenton takes such remarks personally. He doesn’t deny some nonresident parents will go to great lengths to send their children to school in Grosse Pointe. But he has sat in his car outside a suspected residency cheater’s address in the predawn darkness, like a cop on a stakeout, watching to see if a boy or girl emerges with a backpack to walk to school. He has seen children driven up to a relative’s house in the trunk of a car and let out like illegal immigrants to scurry through the back door and out through the front, as though they lived there. He has peered through windows looking for evidence of habitation. He has knocked on doors and asked to see children’s bedrooms.

Grosse Pointe High School does not admit Schools of Choice students and the district maintains a vigorous effort to detect students in GP schools who do not live inside the district. (Bridge archive photo)

Grosse Pointe High School does not admit Schools of Choice students and the district maintains a vigorous effort to detect students in GP schools who do not live inside the district. (Bridge archive photo)

The district’s FAQ lays out some facts: In 2005, the district re-registered every student, at a cost of more than $80,000. The district pays private investigators about $8,000 a year to check out tips from teachers, staff and the public. State documents put Grosse Pointe’s per-pupil funding at $11,541 from local, state and federal sources for the 2011-12 school year, the most recent data.

Few issues galvanize Grosse Pointers more than threats to their schools. And open enrollment – a key plank in reformers’ plans in Lansing – is seen as very threatening to a high-achieving suburban district that sits literally across the street from the low-achieving urban one in Detroit. Pointers (and residents of Harper Woods who live within its borders) pay higher taxes for their schools, overwhelmingly approve bond issues and support a foundation that spends money on them. Volunteer organizations abound for parental involvement. There are parochial and private options, but no charter schools peeling students away from public schools.

But they are, residents insist, for district residents only.

Across town, a similar fight

Birmingham Public Schools is a district similar to Grosse Pointe in many ways – about the same size, affluent, well-supported by residents. It, too, is closed to nearly all non-residents. And it, too, went through regular squabbles over cheaters, until a few years ago, when Andrew Wilson, who had held various positions with the district, was appointed enrollment coordinator and set up what he now calls “the most aggressive, yet fair policy in the state.”

In the summer of 2007, he notified all families with children in the district that they would have to re-enroll. He required extensive documentation, including deeds, leases, utility bills, bank statements and auto insurance certificates. It was a methodical process that took months, he said, but it yielded a database of information on each family, and “now it’s a maintenance program,” Wilson explained. When leases expire, parents are required to come in an re-verify residency. If family situations change, they do the same.

Birmingham’s program differs from Grosse Pointe’s, however, in that it allows non-residents to enroll under a tuition program. This year, 171 students attend under the program, paying up to $13,350 a year, a lucrative revenue stream for the district and a way for families to get the benefits of the district without cheating, Wilson said.

“They can come here at a lower rate at any private school,” he said. “You look at what we have vs. private schools, you get a bigger bang in Birmingham, even with our tuition rate.”

A changing district

Both Birmingham and Grosse Pointe are facing demographic and economic change that has complicated the problem. A decade ago, both cities had about 8 percent of their students living in rented housing. Now it’s 24 percent in Birmingham; 20 percent in Grosse Pointe. Renters are harder to track, and are the most frequent target of suspicion, Fenton said. The district asks landlords to sign affidavits attesting to who their tenants are, as well as the number and ages of any children.

Grosse Pointe is changing in other ways, too. Joan Richardson was president of the school board in 2005 when a residency discussion arose, and Richardson gave an interview to the Detroit Free Press. She made a comment that to this day she insists was innocuous: “Frankly, this is a community that is very uncomfortable with diversity, and as we become more diverse, that’s a real stretch in Grosse Pointe.”

“I thought that was simply stating the obvious,” Richardson said recently. “I think everyone is uncomfortable with diversity. I think it’s a hard issue, no matter what community you’re in.”

Grosse Pointe, however, roared its objection. Letters to the editor poured into the local weekly. A stream of residents appeared at the next board meeting to hector Richardson, who received more than 100 emails, most condemning her.

“The way it was interpreted is, I was saying people were racist, and that’s not what I was saying.”

There was an attempt to recall her, she said, and a potential coup by fellow board members was blocked by an ally. It all became “an overblown situation, where instead of having a good discussion about what it means to be a more diverse community, and how we’re going to get there, it turned into a really ugly moment.”

Richardson left the board a month later, something she had intended to do all along, she said.

The district saw a 263 percent increase in African-American students between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, led by Harper Woods, which had its black population rise from 10 percent to 45 percent. Richardson said when she was on the board, some residents would call her and complain about “more black faces” at schools that were fed from the Harper Woods area, “although they’d never say it publicly.”

That’s one reason the Birmingham system, as it’s now in place, is so important, said Paul DeAngelis, assistant superintendent there.

“Every kid of color in this district prior to us putting our policy in place had to look over their shoulder at who was pointing their finger at them,” he said. “That doesn’t happen anymore.”

Staff Writer Nancy Nall Derringer has been a writer, editor and teacher in Metro Detroit since 2005.

13 comments from Bridge readers.Add mine!

  1. JJ

    Why would anyone want to send their children to such uppity, snobbish schools like Grosse Point or Birmington? Oh, because they don’t want them rubbing elbows with “them.” We can only speculate who them would be. Perhaps African Americans or perhaps just low socio-economic children. These people need to open their eyes and join the REAL world. Public education is supposed to be free and open to everyone. Somewhere along the way someone decided to start segregating children based upon socio-economic status because of where you live. I want my children to be exposed to diversity and to see, everyday, the real world. If Richardson wasn’t calling SOME of the people in these communities racist she should have been. Perhaps they are not racist against African Americans but it certainly sounds like they are racist against lower income people. Hopefully Grosse Point and Birmingham’s funding from the state will continue to drop to make all districts receive the same funding. In 2013 Grosse Pointe received $9,714 per student and Birmingham received $11,174 per student, whereas, most school districts across the state receive around $7,000 (http://www.michigan.gov/documents/fdtnall_49926_7.pdf).

    1. Mom C

      JJ, do you really have any knowledge of the Birmingham Public Schools? Because it sounds as if you do not. The district is very diversified – including the teachers and administrators – and the schools are respectful of all. There are individuals everywhere who are not so nice but the overall atmosphere in the Birmingham schools is not “snobbish”. You might enjoy reading the following:
      http://www.hometownlife.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2013306090319

  2. Chuck Jordan

    How very sad. What a sad commentary on education in Michigan.

  3. John Smith

    Grosse Pointe can do whatever they want. Parents pay out of their behinds to keep the district up. If they don’t want the state – or anyone else for that matter – up in their business, so be it.

  4. ***

    Snyder tried to get legislation through which would force every school district in the state that had
    open spaces for students to accept them no matter where in the state they came from, this bill came
    under strong resistance from his own party which undoubtedly heard an earful from districts such
    as Grosse Pointe in opposition. Snyder eventually gave up on the plan.

    1. Ted

      GP is represented by Demecrats in both the statehouse & congress, so I doubt he heard much from them.

  5. KG-1

    The overall tone of this piece is meant to portray those against schools of choice as some kind of roadblock to progress by insinuating they are somehow closed minded and racist, instead of looking out for their best interests of their own children’s education.

    Even this passing mention doesn’t bring any real balance to the overall article:

    “Few issues galvanize Grosse Pointers more than threats to their schools.
    And open enrollment – a key plank in reformers’ plans in Lansing – is
    seen as very threatening to a high-achieving suburban district that sits
    literally across the street from the low-achieving urban one in
    Detroit.
    Pointers (and residents of Harper Woods who live within its
    borders) pay higher taxes for their schools, overwhelmingly approve bond
    issues and support a foundation that spends money on them. Volunteer
    organizations abound for parental involvement.”

    If people like Ms. Derringer really wanted to get the the main crux of the argument against SOC, just ask the parents themselves from other school districts surrounding DPS, and who have followed the school of choice siren song (along with Gov Snyder’s “bribe” attached to it), what they think of opening their districts to those living outside of their district?

    She should specifically ask those districts how many students residing outside of their districts are not performing at grade level?

    How many of those students residing outside of their district are disruptive in school?

    And finally ask how much district resources have had to have been redirected from the instruction of students already residing within those districts, who actually want to be there and learn, to those families of students who don’t pay the taxes within those districts, so that they can brought up to grade level?

    If the intention is to write a balanced article on education, the questions above will be a good start.

  6. KG-1

    The overall tone of this piece is meant to portray those against schools of choice as some kind of roadblock to progress by insinuating they are somehow closed minded and racist, instead of looking out for their best interests of their own children’s education.

    Even this passing mention doesn’t bring any real balance to the overall article:

    “Few issues galvanize Grosse Pointers more than threats to their schools.
    And open enrollment – a key plank in reformers’ plans in Lansing – is
    seen as very threatening to a high-achieving suburban district that sits
    literally across the street from the low-achieving urban one in
    Detroit.
    Pointers (and residents of Harper Woods who live within its
    borders) pay higher taxes for their schools, overwhelmingly approve bond
    issues and support a foundation that spends money on them. Volunteer
    organizations abound for parental involvement.”

    If people like Ms. Derringer really wanted to get the the main crux of the argument against SOC, just ask the parents themselves from other school districts surrounding DPS, and who have followed the school of choice siren song (along with Gov Snyder’s “bribe” attached to it), what they think of opening their districts to those living outside of their district?

    She should specifically ask those districts how many students residing outside of their districts are not performing at grade level?

    How many of those students residing outside of their district are disruptive in school?

    And finally ask how much district resources have had to have been redirected from the instruction of students already residing within those districts, who actually want to be there and learn, to those families of students who don’t pay the taxes within those districts, so that they can brought up to grade level?

    If the intention is to write a balanced article, the questions above will be a good start.

  7. ***

    Does anyone have a link that lists all the school districts in Michigan that are not schools of choice?

  8. Lauren H.

    This article’s tone portrays those against SOC as racists and I am really upset about this. I am bi-racial and a product of DPS and a GP resident. I moved here because it’s quiet, beautiful, close to nature and it was my personal choice.

    I choose to pay high taxes so I receive quality schools and great city services. If GP became a SOC district, what would my taxes be paying for? Why would any of vote against SOC be because of race? If GP Schools choose to stay a closed district and taxpayers agree, then what business is it of anyone? If Detroit residents want their children to attend better schools, there are plenty of private schools and other open schools districts.

    African Americans worked too hard to have writers like Nancy make something out of nothing. It sets us all back.

  9. THIV

    THIV

    I believe Grosse Pointers are open to all people moving into our community and taking advantage of our schools as long as they share our values. The reality is that what once was a barrier to entry, housing prices, is no longer an issue. So whether you want to rent or buy, there are huge deals to be found in GP. Having skin in the game is important to weed out the users and takers (so if you want to attend our schools, antie up).The implication of racism gets stale. Snyder thinking he can drive SOC down our throats is ridiculous. He and his minions have duped all Michiganders on Proposal A. He promotes SOC as a free market principle yet he is stripping our locally elected school boards of any power. I would think pushing decision making down to the lowest level possible (example, local municipalities), is the most conservative of principles.- See more at: http://bridgemi.com/2013/06/fortress-grosse-pointe-in-world-of-school-choice-community-says-stay-out/#comment-101926

  10. THIV

    JJ,

    Please define the “real world” for me.

  11. Anonymous

    Like others who commented before me, I strongly believe the author is taking sides and I expect to see two words in big capital letters at the start of this article, OPINION PIECE.

    Tell us it reflects only your opinion, nothing but your opinion, or just refrain from cherry picking statistics and hearsay, which coincidentally happen to support your world view.

    Thank you.

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