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Culture of corruption in Detroit Public Schools

There are those in Lansing who say, perhaps not so openly, that the people who run Detroit Public Schools can’t be trusted, that they are incompetents and thieves, and that to give them more money and free them from emergency management is to court disaster.

Yesterday, we learned that the federal government is accusing a dozen present and former principals of doing their part to prove that Detroit Public School administrators deserve to be held in contempt.

U.S. District Attorney Barbara McQuade charged them with being involved in a million-dollar bribery and kickback scheme. An administrator and a vendor were charged as well.

The way it worked, the government explained, is that the principals would order badly needed supplies that would never be delivered. The vendor, one Norman Shy, would get paid, and in return, he would give kickbacks to the principals. The administrator who allegedly made this all possible, one Clara Flowers, allegedly got more than three hundred thousand dollars.

The principals involved got kickbacks ranging from nearly two hundred thousand to a piddly four thousand dollars. Shy, the vendor allegedly has been doing this for thirteen years, scamming $2.7 million along the way.

If the charges are true, these were parasites who stole these funds from a district that often can’t provide proper supplies to children who sit in bug-and-mice-infested classrooms, shivering in the cold. Everyone is, of course, entitled to be regarded as innocent until proven guilty. But Barbara McQuade is anything but reckless or a grandstander.

Yesterday, she told reporters, “the real victims are students and families who attend Detroit Public Schools. This case is a punch in the gut for those who do the right thing.” This does, ironically, seem to be a case of white collar black-on-black crime, given the ethnic composition of Detroit schools. I found it interesting that only two of the accused principals actually live in Detroit. The rest live in nice suburbs.

If this had happened in Maoist China, the accused here would likely have been made to march around with placards around their necks and then shot. I have to say that as legally outrageous as that would be, that image is a bit tempting. Instead, what we will see here is plea bargaining. It will be interesting to see how many of the fourteen do any time at all.

These folks were apparently caught, by the way, after another principal pleaded guilty to bribery last year and told the feds she wasn’t the only one.

Some Detroiters yesterday were saying that as contemptible as these individuals were, the real culprit is the emergency manager system, which apparently allowed building principals to order supplies and dispense large sums on their own. They may have a point. Yesterday, new emergency manager Steven Rhodes put an end to that practice.

Ironically, yesterday was also the day the governor signed a supplemental spending bill providing $48.7 million to Detroit Public Schools so they don’t run out of cash before the school year ends. They’ll need a much bigger long-term bailout after that.

Yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof said this indicates the need to attach much stronger state control strings to any further funding. These new corruption charges will make it very hard to argue that he is wrong.

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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