By Harold C. Ford
“It is my hope that, from this point on, the board and I will be able to work collaboratively to move the district forward.” — Anita Steward, superintendent, Flint Community Schools
[Editor’s Note: Anita Steward, superintendent of Flint Community Schools (FCS), consented to an interview with East Village Magazine’s (EVM) Education Beat writer, Harold Ford, about her current relationship with the Flint Board of Education (FBOE).EVM extended an interview invitation to Carol McIntosh, FBOE president, and Vera Perry, FBOE vice-president. Perry declined; McIntosh has not yet responded. The interview took place July 1 in the office of Dean Yeotis, a Flint attorney who has represented Steward ever since she negotiated her initial superintendent contract with FCS one year ago. The interview is offered in a Q & A format with very light editing for purposes of space and/or clarity.]
EVM: In one year, how did we get from “hometown girl” [the term used by Carol McIntosh, board trustee, on the occasion of Steward’s hire] and a 5-0 vote to approve your appointment as superintendent, to where we’re at now—a 4-3 vote to reprimand you [in a June 16, 2021 document signed by McIntosh, now FBOE president] and restrict your movement as superintendent?
AS: “That is something I have been extremely puzzled by. I went from being asked if I would step up to be superintendent, and I willfully said yes, no hesitation, and still to this day, no regrets, because I’m a product of Flint Community Schools; I went to college and made the choice to come back to Flint to work in the district that had poured so much into me, and I have matriculated up to the current position I’m in now.
Not only that, bringing the district through a pandemic, and receiving a ‘highly effective’ evaluation in December (2020), to from January (2021) through May to receive a reprimand, and basically being told that ‘I’m less than effective’, I have no idea as to how I’m at this point that I am now.
I have not received anything in writing that shares with me that my performance has been ‘less than effective’; I’ve not had any conversations with any board members from January (2021) to now which states that my performance has been ‘less than effective’, so I am completely puzzled of the action that took place on June 16.”
EVM: Describe the level of disappointment you feel with the apparent deterioration of your relationship with the district’s governing board?
AS: “I am extremely disappointed that we are in this space that we are now. I have been completely transparent, I’ve been completely honest in all communications with the board. I provide them with monthly updates, I provide them with periodic emails as far as what is going on in the district. I have one-on-one biweekly meetings with the board president, some that have taken place, some that have been canceled due to many reasons.
So, to know that I’m in a space now where what was a really good relationship with all of my board members, I’m in a difficult space with at least four board members. It’s extremely hard, especially when you do not know the reason why you’re now in this space, especially when those reasons have not been communicated to you so that you can have an opportunity to work on those relationships, it’s extremely difficult.
And I’m a person, I like to be collaborative; I like to be able to work with people so that we can get issues resolved; and so to be in a space where that collaborative relationship is no longer in place, is extremely difficult.”
EVM: Do you think that you bear any responsibility for this apparent deterioration? If so, what would that be?
AS: “So I think that one could always be reflective and think about ‘What part of this do I own?’ And I have been reflective; I’ve been reflective with my (administrative) team in trying to figure out what we have not done right or what we could have done differently.
And, everything that I’ve done from January (2021) to May are things that I was doing when I was the interim superintendent, from March to June 30 (2020) as well as the superintendent from July 1, 2020 through December 2020.
I haven’t changed anything; I have not done anything different. So, I’m not sure what it is that I’m doing wrong or what I could have done differently. Is there a space, an opportunity for growth? Of course, which is why I asked the board president (McIntosh) back in February (2021) if we could all go through board training together, MASB (Michigan Association of School Boards) training together—me, as the appointed superintendent, along with the seven elected superintendents (FBOE members). I requested that back in February; it’s June. That still has not happened to this date. And I was even told in May by a few board members that they were not going to participate in the training. So, how can we grow as seven elected and one appointed together if we don’t participate in board training to be able to develop the tools necessary to run a district effectively?”
EVM: To this point, has the MASB been involved in helping the district through this situation?
AS: “I do know that the board president has reached out to MASB as she’s had a few meetings with (MASB) this month. But that’s all I can share with you at this point in time. Have we participated as a total group. No.”
EVM: Would you agree that the FBOE by condition of your contract has the authority to address information-giving aspects of your job, specifically Article 4 duties in your contract: “The Superintendent agrees … to follow Board directives to carry out the educational programs and policies of the District during the terms of this Agreement.”
Here Steward’s attorney Dean Yeotis (DY) replied: “Those are false assertions (that Steward was not keeping the FBOE informed). Whether there’s a misunderstanding on their part, I don’t know. Perhaps the most important part of Anita’s job description as superintendent is to exercise good leadership in furthering the mission of the school district.
And, if she was required, which she is not, contractually or in any other way, to have a babysitter, whether it’s a board member or anybody else, attend every communication she has with anybody, that would do nothing but undermine her credibility and effectiveness as a leader, and cause the district to suffer unnecessarily without any rational basis.”
EVM: Some with knowledge of employment relations, would interpret the June 16 memo as a reprimand and as a possible next step in the direction of termination. Do you expect to be FCS superintendent one year from now?
AS: “I can tell you where my heart is. My heart is with Flint Community Schools which is why I am currently the FCS superintendent.
‘Reprimand’, ‘resolution’, I’m still confused by the action that occurred on June 16. It was verbally stated that it was a ‘verbal reprimand’. Then, what I received was a paper copy of a resolution. The (board meeting) agenda was not amended for a resolution to be on the agenda.
So, is it a legit resolution per Open Meetings Act? That is still something I am consulting with my attorney [about]. The agenda was never amended for that resolution to be added. What was stated verbally, that the board voted on, was totally different from the resolution that I received as a document.
So, I’m not sure. I’m not sure where we stand with that action and whether it is truly a legit action. A week later, I received a revised resolution that was never voted on by the board. Are all seven board members aware of this revised resolution? Have they all agreed to this revised resolution? I’m not sure. So, legally, I’m not sure where that resolution stands as far as a true and legal reprimand for me.
Do I expect to be the FCS superintendent next year? I don’t think anyone knows the future. I am concerned about my reputation, personally and professionally, which is why my attorney and I have agreed to meet with you. I do want to make sure that the community is aware and they have all the facts of what has been transpiring these past five months.”
EVM: This is a time when we would all agree that Flint Community Schools needs steadiness at the top because of challenges: the graduation rate; declining student enrollment; loss of students and state aid; financial stress; lawsuits; attrition of teachers; infrastructure needs; and a three-year partnership plan with the state that requires a 10 percent improvement in test scores, reduction of suspensions by 10 percent, and increased attendance to 90 percent. This current step is not exactly a step in the direction of steadiness, is it?
AS: “It is not. And I’m glad that you mentioned the MDE (Michigan Department of Education) partnership agreement, because the (board’s) resolution states that I can’t talk to any of the partners. But yet we’re in an MDE partnership agreement that the district entered into prior to me becoming the superintendent. So, that’s very interesting that I’m being directed not to communicate with any of the partners …
Someone mentioned to me that in the past 15 years we’ve had seven superintendents; that would say that the district has been extremely unstable when it comes to leadership, because every time you have a new superintendent, he or she has his or her own vision of how they want to run the district. Every time you bring someone else new in, there’s some adjustments, there’s some change of course. The district has not had an opportunity to be stable with leadership so that you can get some momentum going with the vision of the superintendent…We keep taking several steps back, starting over, starting over, starting over.
It was my hope that once I was appointed as the superintendent that instability would go away, and that the staff, the scholars, and the community would finally have some stability with leadership so that we could truly develop a strategic plan that could lead the district and guide the district for the next five years … But, I’m not sure where the board is going to go with that. I would hope that they would see the instability and, once and for all, put an end to that revolving door.”
EVM: Part of the strategic plan is consideration of the FEC (Flint Education Continuum) with 17 other organizations, individuals, or agencies. How do you account for the apparent reluctance of some FBOE members to positively even consider the FEC that was revealed in the MOU (Memorandum of Understanding)?
AS: “I was appointed superintendent July 1, 2020. My goal was to be able to see in the very near future new facilities going up in the district. So, when someone told me that our newest facility was built in 1972, three years before I was born; our scholars, our staff have not had a new facility since 1972. Yet, all of the surrounding districts, the suburbs, facilities are going up left and right.
Why can’t we have that? Our scholars deserve that. Our staff deserves that. The City of Flint deserves that. That was a goal of mine; it is still a goal of mine. So when Mr. Ridgway [White, Mott Foundation CEO] shared this MOU with me, that predates me; this MOU started several years before I was superintendent of the district; and it is my understanding that they are conversations. And every time the group has a new conversation, there’s a new draft, and I think currently they’re on draft number eight. And so these conversations have been going on for a while.
And Mr. White stated to me, ‘Anita, no strings attached. None.’ I just want to be able to do something for the school district. So let’s sit down and have a conversation. And the conversations have involved board members. 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. Why? I have no idea. What is the harm in sitting with a person who wants to give you a check with no strings attached and have a conversation about it? It’s a conversation.
Nothing is binding you to this agreement. It’s a conversation. Let’s talk about it. Is this possible? Can we do this? And what can we do to make this happen? I’m not sure why there’s reluctance in having that conversation, but let’s sit at the table. And, if you decide after sitting at the table and having the conversation, ‘Nope, this is not what we want to do; let’s walk away,’ you still have the choice to walk away.
But I don’t understand why someone wouldn’t want to sit down and have a conversation with the person who wants to give you a check. His words, ‘No strings attached.’ And I’ve always stated to board members, ‘Let’s see what the end result is going to be with the written document. Let’s get it in writing.’ And, if after we get it in writing, we decide that we don’t want this, we can walk away from it. But you don’t have anything until you have something in writing.
Right now we just have a person’s word. But let’s have those conversations, get it in writing, and walk away with a document that we all agree upon. Because, he [White] has stated ‘The previous MOUs, we can tear ‘em up, we can start over, we can revise it, we can do whatever it is you want to do with it.’ He just wants us to come to the table and have a conversation with him.”
EVM: Do you think the public’s awareness of the MOU and the proposed FEC is part of the reason why you’ve arrived at this difficult relationship with some members of the board?
AS: “I think that (it may) be a part of it. These conversations started long before I was appointed the superintendent. I just came in on these conversations. And I think there’s a perception out there that conversations have been happening without board members and without the community being aware of those conversations. Because of that perception, I think a negative perception has been added to the MOU.
But, that’s not true. I’m not sitting at the table making side deals with Mott. And I’ve always stated that ‘Anything that we do, the board gets the final approval, the board gets the final vote.’
Attorney Yeotis (DY) again replies: ‘One thing that’s been pretty obvious … is that when Anita has pointed out to individual members of the board, or the board as a whole … a body that isn’t focused on furthering the goals, the mission of the district … where their actions, statements, agendas have been in violation of either board bylaws, to Anita’s contract, to constitutional ramifications, they’ve retaliated against her.
A basic example would be when Anita tried to professionally and civilly work with the board in moving the district’s goals forward, there would be inexplicable pushback involving hundreds of millions of dollars that would be an amazing boon to the district with no strings attached and they did everything possible to fight against her.
And she continued to try to be civil. And then it got to the point where the actions of the board were not only harming her personal reputation and credibility, but (also) her ability to lead the district. It was harming her leadership capability because the perception was ‘Flint schools don’t have their act together.’ She pointed out to them the various ways in which they were not complying with everything from the bylaws to the constitution and she was retaliated against.
She brought to their attention, finally, that they were creating a hostile environment and that there was no rational reason why they were treating her the way they were treating her. It was obvious that it had nothing to do with improving the running of the Flint schools.
What they did was, they took the playbook that ‘the best offense is a good defense,’ turned it around, and reprimanded Anita for a ‘hostile work environment.’ Then when that didn’t make any sense, apparently to a lot of folks, they decided that they would terminate the relationship with the law firm that had been advising the board. [Funding for the Williams firm has not been included in next year’s FCS budget.] Which raises a lot of questions; perhaps ‘kill the messenger’ is one of them.
There’s a pattern here. Somebody says something any individual board member doesn’t like, rather than try to communicate in the marketplace of ideas and good communication, we just retaliate against that person and make them wish they didn’t say it, or try to; to try to silence her and Anita’s not one who’s going to be standing by and abdicate her responsibilities as an effective leader for the Flint schools and she’s going to continue to do her job. And she feels stronger about that than ever; she felt strong from the start.”
EVM: You were the 7th Flint superintendent in 15 years at the time of your appointment. The board rebuffed your appointment of Stacey Watson to head up the junior high, twice opposed your plans to reopen schools during the pandemic, and admonished your administration’s conversations with the Harvard Group about the abandoned Flint Central campus. Did you see this coming or were you blindsided by the board’s reprimand?
AS: “I was blindsided by it. I was because some of that information is not true. I did not have a conversation with the Harvard Group about Flint Central. Not true.
FCS has 22 vacant properties, that are sitting on our books, draining our general fund. And board policy states, ‘the superintendent can have a conversation with an interested party who is interested in purchasing any of our properties.’ Anyone who has contacted me about purchasing a vacant property, I’ve had a conversation with them. If they called to say, ‘Can I take a tour of a vacant property?’ I’ve arranged for the director of operations to give them a tour of the vacant property. They can submit a proposal which is what board policy says; they’re supposed to submit a proposal to the superintendent.
The Harvard Group contacted me about taking a tour of Flint Central. I asked the director of operations to give them a tour … I’ve had other entities to contact me about taking a tour of our vacant properties, and I’ve allowed them to take a tour of our vacant properties. That’s the extent of my conversation with anyone in regards to our vacant properties.
Anyone who knows Anita, knows that it is my dream to build a new high school on Central property. So I’m not talking to anyone about selling it, especially if I want to build a new high school there, because I think that’s where the new high school should go. I think it’s a prime spot for it. It’s in the middle of the city; and if we’re going to have one high school, it needs to be centrally located for our parents and our students. It’s close to Mott College and U of M; our high school students can take advantage of dual enrollment; they’re in walking distance.
It’s right there in the middle of the culture center, so our students would be able to take advantage of everything that’s in the culture center. It’s close to downtown; they will be able to take advantage of everything that’s close to downtown.
That’s my dream. That’s what I want. So I’m not interested in selling Central to anyone. And I’m not even having a conversation about selling Central to anyone. But if you contact me and say, ‘Anita, can I take a tour of the building?’ Am I going to give you a tour? Sure. You may put something on the table I can’t resist. You may put something on the table the board can’t resist.
I don’t know. I don’t have the money to build a new high school right now. So am I entertaining any and all proposals so that I can pass them along to the board, which is what board policy says, yes. Because I have to figure out a way how I can be fiscally responsible when it comes to the district. And if there is a way to get any of these 22 properties off of our general fund that we are already draining, then that’s what I’m responsible to do as a leader.
So, conversations with the Harvard Group, I don’t know where that came from because that’s the extent of my conversation with the Harvard Group.”
EVM: What do you hope will be the impact of telling your story to the public?
AS: “It is my hope that everybody will be able to hear both sides of the story. Not just one side of the story, but the board’s side of the story and my side of the story. It is my hope that, from this point on, the board and I will be able to work collaboratively to move the district forward.
That’s what this is all about. It’s about what’s best for the scholars. That’s what I want. I want a working relationship so that we can truly do what’s best for the scholars and the city of Flint.
That’s my goal. My goal is for, once I’m able to return to work from FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act; [Steward had been on leave from her post to attend to her critically ill father who died the evening before her interview with EVM] for me to be able to return to work in an environment that is conducive to moving the district forward. That’s my hope.”
EVM: Quote from a former Flint board member, now retired: “The greatest challenge is working as a team to get the mission accomplished because we all come from different places with different expectations.” Do you find agreement with that statement?
AS: “I do. I do. My hope is that, not only are we able to work collaboratively, that we’re able to work together as a team to take the mission seriously and to carry out board policies and the bylaws of the district. I agree with everything that was just stated. One mission, one goal, one vision, support, and move forward. We may not always agree. That’s OK. It’s OK to disagree. But let’s disagree professionally with keeping the one thing in mind: Every decision we make is what’s best for scholars, so that we can move the vision, the mission of the district forward.”
EVM Education Beat reporter Harold C. Ford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.