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Face Off

The smack talk between the Detroit City Council and the Detroit Board of Education — and between supporters and opponents of a proposal to give the mayor control of the foundering public schools — got nastier today after the Council president pro tem took a hard shot at the school board.

During today's public comments, a statement from Council member Gary Brown led to outbursts and angry comments from the audience. Brown told school board member Rev. David Murray that he and former DPS board president Otis Mathis are the “face of the school board.”

Murray is the preacher who lost custody of his five children after facing state charges of neglect and abuse. He's also the same leaning tower of rectitude who defended former board president Otis Mathis after Mathis admitted he masturbated in front of the school superintendent. And Mathis is the same guy who, even before he left the board after he was caught playing with himself, had already brought more stinging national ridicule on Detroit after it was revealed that he couldn't pen a legible sentence.

Needless to say, Brown did not mean his remark as a compliment.

Murray and Mathis are also reflective of exactly why, as much as I don't believe in handing Bing control of the schools, I don't think any Detroiter of conscience can continue to defend the school-board status quo. As insulting as his comment was, Brown's statement also had merit: When the region and the country consider the Detroit school board, too often all they see are the embarrassing headlines that these clowns generate. If we want to rebound, want to be taken seriously as a national player again, we can't keep electing people who are either too venal to see local politics as anything but a personal ATM or too stupid to enact policy that will do us any good.

But to Brown's deeper suggestion: Is the election of hacks, fools, bumblers, crooks and chicken-chokers — even in this troubled corner of America — in and of itself enough justification to do away with a board that the majority of citizens want to keep? And most importantly of all, will doing away with the board ensure that poor children in the city get the same quality of education as their more affluent peers in other districts? Is shoving the schools' problems onto the mayor's overflowing plate going to raise a singe test score or make one more fifth-grader proficient in mathematics?

I also wonder, does Brown's insult extend to the City Council, too? Surely, the council has provided us with enough scandal, incompetence, silliness and ineffectiveness over the years that it too could be assessed according to its lowest common denominators. Like Mathis from the school board, Monica Conyers is gone from the Detroit City Council — but given the cloud of scandal still looming over City Hall amid the ongoing FBI corruption investigation, can she fairly be called the Council's "face?"

As I figured, the mayoral control battle already has become the most hotly contested issue of the still-young Detroit political season. A board member has already suggested that she might question the necessity of the Council if the city leaders agree to move foward with the ballot proposal. Given this start, I expect that the sticks and stones being hurled will grow heavier and sharper as the days go by.

And maybe it won't do any good in this battle, but it's worthwhile for these "august" bodies to remember that calling someone else's face ugly, even if true, is a sure-fire way to get everybody looking at yours, too.

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