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Time to end the EAA

Everybody hates clichés, but they persist for a reason: There’s often a lot of truth in them. Such as this one: When in a hole, the best thing you can do is stop digging.

When something is broken beyond repair, it is a waste of time to try to fix it. The institution that made me think of this is the EAA, Governor Snyder’s Education Achievement Authority, designed to fix the worst Detroit schools.

Trying to do that was admirable. But it clearly not only hasn’t worked, but has become a corrupt embarrassment. More than a year ago, former State Representative Ellen Cogen Lipton showed that students in the EAA’s test scores were largely getting worse, not better.

Lipton used her own money and the Freedom of Information Act to show that the district had been forced to secretly borrow money from the cash-strapped Detroit Public Schools. It was led by a chancellor, John Covington, who preferred attending conferences in Las Vegas to being in Detroit.

When he was around, he insisted on being chauffeured in a limousine, and was paid more than $325,000 a year. Eventually he was fired, and term limits ended Lipton’s investigations.

But now we know things were even worse than we thought. Earlier this month, we learned that the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit were seeking all sorts of financial records relating to at least five present and former EAA principals.

Another former principal, one Kenyatta Wilbourn, says she has struck a deal to plead to federal charges of tax evasion and accepting a bribe. According to press reports, she has happily chronicled details of corruption in the EAA, including explaining how she helped vendors write bids to win contracts in return for a cut of their payments. She even got one vendor to hire her uncle to channel illegal money to another family member.

Stealing large sums of money meant for struggling school children apparently was pretty easy at the EAA, and there is every reason to think the corruption goes far beyond Wilbourn.

According to a memo by current EAA chancellor Veronica Conforme, Wilbourn said she was taught how to lie, cheat and steal by veteran Detroit Public School principals.

These days, teachers and administrators are fast disappearing throughout EAA schools, and so are the students. Enrollment is down nearly ten percent. Not surprisingly, Conforme is still defending the authority; she too makes $325,000 a year.

The governor, by the way, wanted to extend the EAA’s reach to the entire state. He isn’t talking much about that these days, but he still stands by it, despite all the corruption.

In a hilarious comment that just begs for John Stewart, Dave Murray, one of the governor’s spokesmen, is quoted in the Detroit Free Press today  as saying

“Any time you have a new system in place, there’s going to be some fine-tuning over time.”

I believe he said much the same thing for months in response to the scandals surrounding the world’s worst prison food contractor. Governor Snyder sometimes has trouble recognizing that water is coming in faster than anyone can bail. Even his closest supporters know he hung in there too long with Aramark. Now, it’s clearly time to pull the plug on the EAA.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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