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Despite lawsuit, state school reform office appoints CEO for East Detroit schools

Gary Jensen
State of Michigan
Gary Jensen

For the first time, Michigan’s State School Reform/Redesign office has appointed a CEO to take over some low-performing schools in one district.

That’s despite an ongoing lawsuit by district officials to stop the state intervention.

Gary Jensen will take control of four “chronically underperforming” East Detroit Public Schools. The district has seven schools altogether.

Jensen was named Michigan’s Principal of the Year in 2014. He’s credited with leading an academic turnaround at Lakeview High School in Montcalm County.

State school reform officer Natasha Baker says Jensen’s new mission in East Detroit schools comes with sweeping powers, including the ability to remove and replace staff.

“Obviously he’s a great relationship-builder. He’s going to work with folks to propel children forward,” Baker said. “But he does have the authority to lead the four schools in the manner necessary to turn them around academically.”

Jensen signed a three-year contract this week. He will be paid $160,000 per year, with an additional $80,000 available to cover benefits, travel, and other expenses. The state will cover his salary.

Baker said student performance in the schools will be reviewed every 6-8 weeks.

“We are focused on student achievement outcomes,” she said. “The decision was not made for any other reason, other than that these schools are chronically failing.”

East Detroit school leaders, however, are suing to stop the move, claiming it will cause “irreparable harm” to a district that has worked hard to eliminate a budget deficit.

A Macomb County Circuit Judge issued a temporary restraining order to block a CEO appointment last month. That order expired this week, and the state successfully fought to move to the case to the Michigan Court of Claims.

George Butler, attorney for the East Detroit school board, says the district sought the help of the Macomb Intermediate School District and cooperation from state officials to launch an academic turnaround plan.

Those efforts were rebuffed, according to Butler.

“The state seems to prefer the unilateral takeover model,” Butler said. “Which naturally East Detroit Public Schools is a little skeptical about, because it has not succeeded anywhere it’s been employed, to our knowledge.”

Despite Jensen’s appointment, Butler says the district plans to “pursue the case as we filed it.” He says there are serious questions about whether the state school reform officer has authority to seize the schools under existing law, and what will happen to state school aid payments for students at those schools.

Even though the state is covering the direct costs of Jensen’s employment, Butler says removing those payments from the district’s budget without compensation for larger costs, like transportation and debt re-payment, will plunge it back into deficit.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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