Detroit School Board

Detroit School Board (July 7, 1986)
Duration: 00:28:51

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Themes: Education and Families | Leadership | Urban Challenges |

Guests: Clara Rutherford, Alonzo Bates
Host : Ed Gordon
Producer : Bob Rossbach, Dianne Atkinson-Hudson
Executive Producer : Juanita Anderson

Summary: In the early 1980s, the Detroit Board of Education became a lightning rod for criticism over some of its financial dealings and budgetary practices. The district was under increasing pressure because of public concerns over safety in the schools and the quality of education in the district, and district officials were seeking to draw attention to inequities in school funding statewide.

At the time this program was aired, in 1984, one board member had been forced to resign as board president over allegations of corruption in the awarding of a milk contract. Meanwhile, other members of the board had become targets of pointed criticism for the use of district-paid chauffeurs and what some considered excessive spending by board members on travel, particularly first-class plane tickets and expensive hotels.

In the program, host Ed Gordon and several callers from the viewing audience question board members Alonzo Bates and Clara Rutherford on the board's spending practices. Both Bates and Rutherford defend the spending.

Rutherford says the use of a driver is, for her, a safety issue, given the number of school-related events she has to attend in the evening. Bates adds that the travel (for workshops) is in keeping with the practices of school boards all over the country. "We should be the only ones to not travel . . . just stay dumb?" Bates asks.

It is clear, however, that the issue is much more than a mere question of policy. Both Bates and Rutherford say they feel the board members are being picked on. Bates declares that the criticism is "racist."

Bates is particularly critical of a Detroit Free Press reporter who had written about the issue, calling him "a little white boy from the suburbs." He asserts that the board's travel practices had only drawn criticism after blacks became a majority on the board. "Why should we be treated like we are second-class citizens?" he demands.

The show closes with a commentary by Susan Watson, an African American columnist for the Free Press, who assails the board for irresponsible spending. "I almost think they believe getting elected to the board is the same as winning the state lottery," Watson says.

Although it is interesting to note that twenty years later Bates, then a Detroit City Council member, was indicted by a federal grand jury for putting "ghost employees" on the city payroll, the 1984 interview does highlight a significant point of racial tension in Detroit. As the city's population became increasingly African American and as African Americans came increasingly to hold the reins of power in the city, many in the city came to believe that the new African American leadership was being held to higher standards than the previous white administrations.

That concern came up time and again, not just in relation to the school board, but also in corruption allegations against the long-time administration of Mayor Coleman Young. This program offers insight into the sensitive issue of race and power.

Related Production Materials held at MSU Libraries, Special Collections:
Box 1, File 47, Public Education: A Community Crisis – 1983
Box 2, File 10, Detroit Board of Education – July 7, 1986
Box 2, File 12, School Strike –September 14, 1987
Box 2, File 16, School Board Recall – October 26, 1987
Box 4, File 5, McGriff – Graduation School Year – 1990/91 – June 10, 1991– Show # 2230
Box 16, File 17, Detroit Public Schools – Report: National Commission on Excellence in Schools
Box 16, File 26, Education (Detroit Public Schools) – 1984
Box 18, File 26, Deborah McGriff – Detroit Public Schools Superintendent – 1991