Education Beat: Uncertain leadership, uncertain infrastructure challenges roil Flint Community Schools board

Posted on Sep 12, 2021 By Harold C. Ford Flint schools superintendent Anita Steward files…

By Harold C. Ford

  • Flint schools superintendent Anita Steward files lawsuit against board of education
  • Kevelin Jones appointed interim superintendent
  • Two board of education members abruptly resign
  • Doyle-Ryder building closed due to presence of black mold; $440,000 roof repair plan approved by board
  • Board president signals resumption of talks with Mott Foundation

“We are at a very fragile state in this district.” –Carol McIntosh, president, Flint Board of Education, Sept. 8, 2021 

Anita Steward, Flint Community Schools (FCS) superintendent, has filed a lawsuit against the Flint Board of Education (FBOE),  according to a report by MLive/The Flint Journal.    

The lawsuit, according to the report, specifically names four board members: Carol McIntosh, president; Laura MacIntyre, treasurer; Danielle Green, secretary; and Joyce Ellis-McNeal, assistant secretary-treasurer.  

Not named in the lawsuit is the board’s newest member, Adrian Walker. Walker was appointed in Jan. 2021 to fill a vacant seat on the board. 

 

According to the MLive report, “The lawsuit alleges four counts: Whistleblower Protection Act violations, ELCRA (Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act) violations, Breach of Contract and tortious Interference and Gross Negligence.”

The MLive piece claims Steward sought the assistance of then-FCS attorney Kendall Williams about her concerns. Williams was subsequently dismissed from his position as the district’s chief legal adviser.  

In a  July 2021 interview with East Village Magazine (EVM) Steward admitted, “I’m in a difficult space with at least four board members.”

From the get-go

Steward was appointed to the FCS superintendent position on June 25, 2020. From the very start, Steward’s first year on the job was filled with setbacks:

  • June 2020: the board rejected the Steward administration’s plans for reopening schools after being shut down by the COVID pandemic.
  • June 2020: Stacey Watson’s appointment to the principal position at Holmes Elementary was turned down by the board. 
  • Feb. 2021: The board turned down another plan offered up by the Steward administration to reopen schools.
  • Feb. 2021: Steward was admonished by some board members about her interactions with the Harvard Group over the long-abandoned Flint Central campus

Flint Education Continuum, Memorandum of Understanding

Revelation of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) by EVM in May 2021 seemed to hasten the already-deteriorating relationship between Steward and the Flint Board of Education (FBOE). 

The MOU contained the framework of a several hundred-million-dollar plan, titled Flint Education Continuum (FEC), to rescue Flint’s public school system from its decades-long descent. 

The FEC centerpiece was the construction of new schools – four new elementary schools and a new high school – and the renovation of two buildings, one for elementary students and the other for middle school students. All buildings were to be operated by FCS and located within the City of Flint.

Revelation of the plan appeared to upset some FCS board members, who claimed they were left out of the process. ,

In June 2021, as first reported by EVM, the FBOE reprimanded Steward and delivered to her a document that warned “continued unacceptable performance, and/or conduct, could result in disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal.” 

The reprimand further “resolved that the Superintendent must cease all communication, as well as meetings (in-person, virtually, or over the telephone), with all partners and community foundations as well as affiliates of partners and community foundations without the presence of the Board President and his or her designee.”

FCS Superintendent Anita Steward. (Photo source: FCS)

Steward told EVM in the July 2021 interview: “Board members have been invited to participate in these conversations. Some of them have participated. Some of them have elected not to attend the meetings.”

Steward’s fall from FBOE grace was precipitous. As reported by EVM, only six months earlier, on Jan. 7, 2021, Steward received from the FBOE a Superintendent Evaluation (covering the period July 2020 – December 2020) that concluded “the superintendent’s job performance was highly effective,” the best rating possible.  

Steward had been appointed assistant/interim superintendent on May 20, 2020, after her predecessor, Derrick Lopez, was fired by the board. The “assistant/interim” tag was removed from her title as she inked a new three-year contract at the start of 2021. 

Eight superintendents, 16 years

At the FBOE’s Sept. 8, 2021 meeting Kevelin Jones, the district’s assistant superintendent, was named “acting superintendent.” Keiona Murphy, FCS director for federal state and local programs, was named “acting assistant superintendent.”

Thus, Kevelin Jones becomes at least the eighth person in the past 16 years to sit in the FCS superintendent’s chair.:

  • Walter Milton (2005-2007)
  • Linda Thompson (2008-12)
  • Lawrence Watkins (2013-15)
  • Bilal Tawwab (2015-18)
  • Gregory Weatherspoon (2018)
  • Derrick Lopez (2018-20)
  • Anita Steward (June 2020 – ?)
  • Kevelin Jones (Sept. 2021 – ?)

Jones told EVM on Sept. 8, “As far as I know, Ms. Anita Steward is coming back on the fifteenth (of September). And on the fifteenth, I’ll be going right back to being assistant superintendent.”

Tom R. Pabst, a Flint-area attorney representing Steward in her lawsuit against the board told MLive on Sept. 9, he “doesn’t see Steward returning to the district.”  

EVM learned from an authoritative and source who has requested anonymity that Steward had applied for the superintendent position in the Beecher Community School District when Marcus Davenport left that position to become Grand Ledge superintendent starting July 1, 2021. 

In May 2021, Richard Klee, a principal at Taylor High School, was chosen to replace Davenport. Steward was one of three finalists, along with Klee, for the Beecher position. 

“The only thing constant … is change.” –Heraclitus

Steward is currently on leave from the FCS superintendent position per provisions of Michigan’s Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Ayunna Dompreh, FCS executive director of finance, also has taken leave from the district. 

In Aug. 2021, both Steward and Dompreh filed “hostile work environment’ charges against board treasurer MacIntyre. Subsequently, MacIntyre’s interactions with the two central administrators were to be more restricted, according to a declaration by board president McIntosh. 

Ayunna Dompreh, FCS executive director of finance

Dompreh had replaced former FCS finance director Carrie Sekelsky in October 2020. Jorgina Rubin is the new FCS executive director of human resources replacing Cassandra Washington who left in February 2021. William Chapman was named the director of operations in July 2020; he has since stepped down,

In July 2021, with the arrival of the Steward-Jones team at the district’s central office, at least four changes in administrative assignments at FCS buildings were announced. Any subsequent changes in building administration are, for the most part, unknown by the general public as personnel reports listing such changes are no longer available at public meetings as they once were. 

Two veteran board members resign

Two veteran board members – Vera Perry, the board’s vice president, and Diana Wright, trustee – abruptly resigned from the board Sept. 7 on the same day that Steward’s attorney filed a lawsuit against the board. Perry and Wright had missed several meetings prior to their resignations. 

FCS Board member Vera Perry. (Photo source FCS website)

Perry had served on the Flint board for more than 18 years; she was chosen the board’s vice president earlier this year, in January, 2021. 

Perry declined a recent interview request by EVM saying her services were “no longer used.”

Wright served as an educator in the district for 31 years. Her tenure on the FBOE exceeded six years. 

School Board member Diana Wright listens to Ridgway White as he speaks to the board from the speaker’s podium. (Photo by Tom Travis)

In January, 2021, with no previous education board experience stated on their resumes, MacIntyre, Ellis-McNeal, and Walker replaced Betty Ramsdell, Blake Strozier, and Casey Lester who took with them into retirement more than two decades of service on the Flint panel. Additionally, Ramsdell had served the district for 38 years as a professional educator.  

Thus, in the first nine months of 2021, the FBOE lost five persons from positions of leadership who, collectively, had served the district for more than 113 years.

Sept. 22 deadline for applications

Persons interested in filling the two FBOE positions vacated by the resignations of Perry and Wright should file an application with Monaca Elston, executive assistant to the board, by 4 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 22. 

Applications can be hand-delivered to the FCS Administration Building, 923 E. Kearsley St., Flint. Or they can be emailed to [email protected]

$440,000 plan to repair Doyle-Ryder roof

On Sept. 8, a four-member FBOE (board trustee Walker was on vacation) approved a $440,000 plan to fix the problems at its Doyle-Ryder Elementary building that closed on Aug. 30 due to the presence of mold in early childhood classrooms.  

Dustin Fremion, field adviser, and Kevin Holyszk, senior field advisor, both representing Ohio-based Tremco, a “Construction Products Group,” met with the FBOE for nearly two hours. All other agenda business was suspended for one week until Sept. 15. 

Tremco representatives Kevin Holyszk (left) and Dustin Fremion (right) during Sept. 8 presentation to Flint Board

Fremion said his first visit with FCS was  4 to 5 years ago when he met with the then-director of FCS facilities. Fremion asked the director, “What do you have in place for a roofing program?”

The FCS director of facilities shared with Fremion a sheet of notebook paper that contained a handwritten list of buildings – Freeman, Eisenhower, Holmes, and others – that had roof leaks. 

It is a common practice for stewards of public buildings, especially those in which children are present, to develop a schedule of regular maintenance. 

Flint’s Unitarian-Universalist Church, for example, has a “Twenty-Year Maintenance Plan” that includes items such as: “parking lot professional repairs – every 5 years (done 2004, 2014, 2021)”; “new carpet for building – every 10-15 years (done May 2010).” The plan is reviewed monthly. 

Fremion told the board that Tremco’s goal was to assist FCS in achieving “dry, healthy environments in their buildings” by removing “unwanted water and air” and by developing “long-term asset management programs.” 

Other Tremco clients in the area include the University of Michigan – Flint, Mott Community College, Hurley Hospital, and other area K-12 school districts, Fremion said.  Tremco serves clients throughout Michigan, the United States, and Canada.  

120-year-old building

Fremion showed board members recent photos of Doyle-Ryder’s roof taken from the underside of the roof. He said, “Daylight is visible in several areas highlighting deficiencies as well as how easily water is able to make its way into the building.”

Photos of the exterior of the building show “large areas of missing shingles.”

Diagnostic tests of Doyle-Ryder’s flat roofs, done in 2019, detected eight spots of “wet insulation.”

“What we know to be true is these deficiencies don’t get better on their own,” advised Fremion. 

At present, the deteriorated portions of Doyle-Ryder’s roof have been covered with protective tarps. 

Work on repairing and replacing the school’s roofs could begin in a month. No date for completion of the work was announced. 

In the meantime, Doyle-Ryder students have been relocated to the district’s Potter building. 

Black mold

Fremion said that Tremco was informed of the presence of black mold in six Doyle-Ryder classrooms in late July, 2021, just a week and a half prior to the start of school.  

According to the HGTV (Home & Garden Television) website:

“Black mold can cause an array of allergic reactions and health problems. In most cases, depending on the length of exposure and the number of spores inhaled, symptoms can include chronic fatigue or headaches, fever, irritation to the eyes, mucous membranes of the mouth, nose and throat, sneezing, rashes, and chronic coughing. In cases of prolonged or severe exposure, or cases exacerbated by an allergic reaction, more extreme symptoms can present, including nausea, vomiting, and bleeding in the lungs and nose.”

Some Doyle-Ryder teachers had walked out of the building in June 2021 when the building’s air conditioning malfunctioned. 

Doyle-Ryder was originally constructed in 1901, making it, at 120 years old — the oldest FCS school building in use at the start of the 2021-22 school year. 

[During the Sept. 8 presentation by Tremco representatives at FCS’ Accelerated Learning Academy, the 60-year-old Scott building, a cockroach silently scampered across the auditorium aisle near this reporter’s seat.]

“All of our buildings gotta be renovated.”

The eleven school buildings that currently house FCS students average 70-years-old according to information provided EVM by the Flint-based Sloan Museum. The average age of school buildings in the U.S. is 44 years according to a 2017 report by Education Week

Durant-Tuuri Mott school on University Ave near Kettering University. (Photo by Tom Travis)

Failing infrastructure in old FCS buildings has been addressed by district officials and the public alike at several recent FBOE meetings including: HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning) systems; electrical grids unable to support HVAC systems; yet-to-be-installed hydration stations or smart water fountains; unreliable internet capabilities; outdated plumbing; crumbling athletic facilities; leaky roofs.  

Freeman elementary school in the south end of the Flint Community School District. (Photo by Tom Travis)

“All our buildings gotta be renovated,” concluded board treasurer Green at the panel’s Aug. 18 meeting. 

“Allow us to partner with you.”

Ridgway White, C.S. Mott Foundation CEO, appeared at the June 28, 2021 meeting of the FBOE asking for partnership.  

“Today I’m asking that you let the Mott Foundation … help Flint (schools) recover and rise,” said White. “Allow us to partner with you.”

“It will not be on the … agenda.”

At the Aug. 18 meeting of the FBOE, board trustee Wright clashed with board president McIntosh over Wright’s suggestion that the Mott Foundation’s proposal be put on the board’s agenda at future FBOE meetings.  

FCS President Carol McIntosh. (Photo source: FCS website)

“It will not be on the … agenda,” declared McIntosh. In fact, the Mott proposal did not appear on board agendas in July or August of 2021. 

Lost school days

In the first few weeks of the 2021-22 school year, classes were cancelled six days due to hot temperatures inside FCS buildings. 

Three additional days were lost due to insufficient, less than 75 percent, attendance as required by the Michigan Department of Education. 

Pierce Elementary School (Photo by Tom Travis)

The Michigan Department of Education allows up to six “forgiven” days in a school year. Beyond that, the district could lose significant state aid for unforgiven days. 

Change of tune

At the start of the Sept. 8 FBOE meeting, McIntosh signaled a resumption of talks with the Mott Foundation:

“I would just like to say for the record we have been speaking with the C.S. Mott Foundation concerning the MOU plan for partnership with the board of education … So, we are in conversation and working together collaboratively.”  

Upcoming FBOE meetings

The next regular meeting of the FBOE is scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 15, 2021 at Accelerated Learning Academy, 1602 S. Averill Ave., Flint. 

The FBOE will resume its suspended Sept. 8 Committee of the Whole meeting one hour earlier at 5:30 p.m. prior to the board’s regularly scheduled meeting at 6:30 p.m.

EVM Education Beat reporter Harold Ford can be reached at [email protected]