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Should the Mayor of Detroit Control the City's Schools? Cont'd.

The more I look at the debate over control of the Detroit Public Schools, the more paradoxical it seems.

I mean, on one hand, here's a fight whose stakes -- the education of our children -- are as a high as they come, right? On the other hand, for all that's at risk, the outcome of this whole issue of "mayoral control of schools vs. an elected board" could wind up proving to be utterly meaningless in the long run. Because no matter who wins,  I worry that Detroit schoolchildren will continue to be the biggest losers.

For the record, I favor the idea of communities having a direct hand in how their schools serve them. And despite the antics of past and present members, I can readily acknowledge that there've been some board members who have proven to be conscientious and thoughtful and good for the schools.

But they are far too often offset by the clowns and the crooks, not to mention the semi-literate. I hear people around town complaining often about a dearth of leadership in this region, and the local school boards are regularly held up as Exhibit A. But it's more than just personalities. These days, I also wonder whether the Detroit board is structurally viable anymore. With shrinking resources and fewer students, why do we still need nearly a dozen people to administer the schools? With 11 seats, the Detroit School Board as currently configured presents an open invitation to far too many agendas that have nothing to do with the children. And over the years, the board has indeed become an outpost for opportunists more intent on using their seat to line their own pockets, serve patrons and/or pave personal roads to higher echelons of politics. At the very least, why shouldn't the board be trimmed to a more manageable number of seats, say, 3 or 5?

Or does that mean you try to concentrate all responsibility for the school system and its $300-million-plus deficit in the hands of Detroit's mayor? Biggest problem is, the city's flat busted, too, sitting on a $400-million deficit of its own, racing desperately to stay ahead of bankruptcy and/or receivership. Meanwhile, the same dearth of serious leadership reflected by the board seems to have spread to the mayor's office over the years. (Would you have wanted Kwame Kilpatrick overseeing school contracts?) For his part, current Mayor Dave Bing often seems alternately detached from and overwhelmed by the problems already on his plate and seems unable to delegate effectively. I understand that, as mayor, he has to sweat the quality-of-life issues that bad schools present and thus is vested in the success of DPS, but why should any parent think he can make anything better of the system? Hell, why would Bing himself think so?

I still wonder, though: Taken on its merits as an idea, does mayoral control work anywhere, particularly in cities burdened by overwhelming deficits apart from school operations? I've heard conflicting opinions on this. Some say cities like D.C. and New York have seen gains. However, other reports suggest that mayoral control brings no guarantees. And what does "mayoral control" mean for us exactly? How do you configure a system that gives Detroit children the best chance for success? How absolute would the mayor's power be? What role does the City Council play?

How do we make sure we're not just exchanging one backwards, self-interested, myopic and comically incompetent bureaucracy for another?

Whoever wins this battle for control of DPS will wield a powerful tool, one that could drastically shore up the crumbling quality of life in our battered city...

...or leave us screwed yet again.

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