By Harold C. Ford
“I’m just so happy we got the homegrown girl. I think this is going to be beneficial for our district.”
— Carol McIntosh, Flint school board trustee, June 25, 2020, upon the appointment of Anita Steward to the Flint Schools superintendent position
“I don’t feel like this board is being respected. It is my hope to get Ms. Steward on track so we can move forward.”
—Carol McIntosh, Flint school board president, June 16, 2021, upon the introduction of a resolution to verbally reprimand Anita Steward, Flint Schools superintendent
What a difference a year makes.
Anita Steward, Flint Community Schools (FCS) superintendent, was issued a verbal reprimand by the FCS board of education at a special meeting June 16, 2021. The measure passed by a 4-3 vote.
The very public reprimand came almost one year after Steward’s appointment to the FCS superintendent’s office by a unanimous 5-0 vote just one year ago, on June 25, 2020. Voting then in the affirmative were board members Blake Strozier (now resigned from the board), Vera Perry, Diana Wright, and Carol McIntosh.
The notion—it never became a motion—to issue a reprimand, or “verbal warning,” was introduced by McIntosh but was never voted on during another display of parliamentary confusion by the Flint panel. Later, a vaguely-worded motion “to advise the superintendent of the…expectations of her” was supported by McIntosh, Danielle Green, Laura MacIntyre, and Joyce Ellis-McNeal.
Voting against the motion were Perry, Wright, and Adrian Walker.
Most of the discussion (incorrectly, from a parliamentary perspective) preceded introduction of the motion with McIntosh, MacIntyre, Ellis-McNeal, and Green making comments critical of Steward’s performance in the superintendent’s office:
- McIntosh: “Ms. Steward has a clause in her contract that she is to keep the board informed,” McIntosh said, “I don’t feel that has been the case…It’s just like pulling teeth from a lion’s mouth.”
She cited what she characterized as unresponsiveness to an overflowing recycling bin at an unidentified school, a search for employment that was halted, a driver education program that failed to come before the board, and failure to provide certification qualifications for an HR person.
- MacIntyre: “I too agree that we’re working with an increasingly hostile administration department,” MacIntyre alleged. “It’s almost becoming untenable to get the work of the district done…” MacIntyre listed withholding of requested information, complaints about facilities and maintenance, concern about water filtration systems, trash not being picked up, lack of a strategic plan, nonprovision of disability accommodations, and a vacant “director of public services” position as additional reasons for her support of the reprimand.
- Green: “They [supporters of Steward] don’t have trouble getting information from Ms. Steward,” Green said. “Getting information from Ms. Steward can be very difficult.”
- McNeal: “It’s getting to be embarrassing when the people on the outside know more than the board,” McNeal said. “And most of the problems we’re having in our schools is the lack of administration skills…”
Spirited defense by Steward
Steward, who declined the offer of a closed meeting, gave a spirited defense of her administration:
- Monthly administrative updates were provided to board members in March, April, May, and June, she stated.
- Steward said that she was informed of the overflowing recycling bin on June 10 and “immediately went into action to contact the company.” The district was transitioning from one recycling vendor to another.
- The information about driver training was emailed to board members “as soon as I got the flyer from Youth Quest,” she said.
- Steward said her administration was scrambling to provide information about contracts, qualifications, and job duties within the 30-days contractually allowed while “in the midst of closing out a school year, working on summer school, and then trying to prepare for the 2021-22 school year.”
- A “parent that was turned away” happened while Steward was on vacation. She said Kevelin Jones, FCS assistant superintendent, handled the matter that turned out to be a misunderstanding that was quickly resolved.
- Steward was “thrown back and surprised” by comments about a hostile administration at the June 16 board meeting as she had requested a closed session on May 12 to address the matter.
- “We don’t have a director of public services,” Steward said. “We have a director of operations.” She said the position was posted as soon as it became vacant. “We did interviews last week for this position. I’m not just sitting around not doing anything.”
Steward said she had requested training for the Flint board and administration from the Michigan Association of School Boards but the MASB had yet to respond. “My understanding is that the board is governance and mine is management and there’s so many gray areas and there’s so many areas of crossing over,” she said. “The both of us are new to our positions.”
Voices of support:
“Anita Steward has done a great job for employees and students alike…who are encouraged by her vision and her consistency,” said Chris Martin, senior pastor at Flint’s Cathedral of Faith. “She has worked her way up through the ranks in this district and has become…a hope, not only for children throughout…the city alike, but also for these educators who attend my church.”
Martin spent eight years on the Flint school board, two years as its president.
George Wilkinson, pastor at Flint’s Word of Life Christian Church, spoke on behalf of Alfred Harris, president of Concerned Pastors for Social Action.
“The work by Anita and her staff…would attract parents to send their children to Flint Community Schools,” Wilkinson said. “We support her with confidence and conviction as the superintendent for today and into the future…”
Events foretold fallout
Despite the board’s initial embrace of Steward as Flint superintendent, several setbacks in the first year of her administration foretold a falling out:
- June 2020: In the same month as her appointment, and with only five weeks until the start of the 2020-21 school year, the board rejects the Steward administration’s plan for reopening schools.
- June 2020: The board turns down Stacey Watson’s appointment to the principal position at Holmes Elementary. Some board members question Watson’s ties to Ernest Steward, FCS director of parent/student intervention, safety, and Title IX coordinator. Watson and Steward both attended Beecher High School and Michigan State University. Ernest Steward is also the husband of the FCS superintendent. “We should know ahead of time if you’re interviewing your friend,” said McIntosh, board trustee at the time.
- June 17, 2021: The board votes to not to return students to the school buildings on Feb. 22, ignoring the advice of the Steward administration. “I definitely believe the buildings will be ready on the (Feb.) 22nd,” said Kevelin Jones, FCS assistant superintendent. “We can do that (reopen schools) safely,” Steward said, adding she was “taken aback” by the board’s last-minute decision.
- Feb 2021: Steward is admonished by the board about interactions with the Harvard Group to explore possibilities for the long-abandoned Flint Central campus. The heated discussion led Steward to declare: “I want board members to know that it’s not in my heart to be disrespectful to anyone. And…if I disrespected anyone tonight, I apologize to you.”
Seven superintendents in 15 years
With the appointment of Anita Steward in June 2020, Flint had been led by seven superintendents in a 15-year span: Walter Milton (2005-07); Linda Thompson (2008-2012); Lawrence Watkins (2013-2015); Bilal Tawwab (2015-2018); Gregory Weatherspoon (2018); Derrick Lopez (2018-2020); Steward (June 2020-present).
EVM Education Beat reporter Harold C. Ford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.