By Harold C. Ford
The dramatic twists and turns reflected by and from the leadership teams—elected and appointed—at Flint Community Schools (FCS) deepened when Ridgway White, CEO of the Flint-based C. S. Mott Foundation, announced a pause of FCS grant funding on July 16.
A plan titled the Flint Education Continuum (FEC), spearheaded by the Mott Foundation, aiming to renovate or replace all of Flint’s school buildings and provide supportive programming, led indirectly to the pause.
The Flint Community’s division over these developments was evident during a five-hour FCS Board of Education meeting in a packed and steamy hot auditorium of some 200 persons at FCS’ Accelerated Learning Academy on July 21.
White then reversed himself and announced a restoration of FCS grant funding the next day on July 22.
How it started: FCS board’s restrictions on its superintendent led to grants pause
“We must reluctantly pause all grants,” White wrote in a July 16 memo to Carol McIntosh, FCS board president.
White asserted that “community partners must be able to communicate with district leaders to ensure smooth and effective programming.”
A June 16 document titled “Flint Expectations of Superintendent” signed by McIntosh, indicated “Superintendent (Anita Steward) may not fully understand the expectations from Board members relating to her communications with, and dissemination of information to, the Board of Education members …”
The board “further resolved that the Superintendent must cease all communication, as well as meetings (in-person, virtually, or over the telephone), with all partners and community foundations as well as affiliates of partners and community foundations, without the presence of the Board President and his or her designee.”
During a July 1 interview with East Village Magazine, Steward said: “I am extremely disappointed that we are in this space that we are now. I have been completely transparent … I’m in a difficult space with at least four board members.”
A July 20 memo posted by Steward at the district’s website titled “FCS Programming Update,” acknowledged that “Grants that supported four of the district’s programs and services have been paused.” As a result, programming provided by the Crim Fitness Foundation and YouthQuest would not be available for the 2021-22 school year that starts on Aug. 4 for FCS students.
Divided public packs board meeting
Some 200 persons packed the July 21 meeting of the Flint school panel at FCS’ Accelerated Learning Academy (formerly Scott School). The FEC may not have been on the agenda but it was on the minds of citizens who chose to address the board at the five-hour meeting.
Approximately a dozen speakers spoke in support of a partnership between FCS and the Mott Foundation. And about the same number of speakers were critical of the partnership.
Speakers supportive of a FCS-Mott Foundation partnership:
- Marla Settle: grandmother who enrolled her grandson at Brownell where she works as an attendance clerk: “That last meal from YouthQuest could be their only meal … That one YouthQuest worker could keep a student from committing suicide … It is not fair to the parents nor to the students to rip YouthQuest and Crim from them because we can’t come together and agree on something … give them schools that have air because we have asthmatic babies that could pass out … That’s all Flint’s board has been for our babies is unstable … How do you think we feel bringing our babies in them hot, boiling schools? Give them schools that have air because we have asthmatic babies that could pass out … They deserve to walk into a building and have air … They deserve fine arts … They deserve a STEM lab. They deserve computer labs … I don’t care if Superintendent Steward met with Santa Clause, Jack the Ripper, Batman and the Joker by herself … And if you can’t come together President McIntosh, with the superintendent being your blood, and you all can’t agree, there’s something wrong with that … If you don’t get on the ball and put your pride and egos aside, you’re gonna’ lose, and these babies are losing … Care about our babies!”
- Malique Forward, 18: “What I’m hearing is the board is taking away (funding) from us, the future … we are products of Flint Community Schools and we’re doing good for ourselves … (YouthQuest) that’s a big help in kids’ life … That extra time could change someone’s life after school.”
- Sonyita Clemons, Flint Central HS grad: “I implore each of the (board) members to come out to the schools to see what the school directors are doing, to understand from the mouths of children how the programming is impacting them … We just want an opportunity for the children that attend Flint Community Schools … that matches, that rivals, that equals everything else that is going on in the county.”
- Margaret Fox, Flint Education Foundation board member; former FCS educator: “I’ve watched Flint’s student enrollment decline from 25,000 students to under 4,000 students. Students have left for other districts and charter schools causing the district to close buildings … Currently, 10,000 kids, or 78 percent of the City of Flint’s students are choosing to attend other schools … We must stop allowing this district to bleed students and funding … We can create a solvent district but we have proven time and again we cannot do it without community partners willing to help. I implore this board to work with the Mott Foundation … Families want stability, decent buildings, good teachers, competitive technology, and opportunities for their kids … We have an opportunity to provide these things for our students if this board would allow the district to engage in conversations with the Mott Foundation.”
- Amare Green: “The Community Foundation has done so much for us as students … To take this away from the students coming up is so unfair.”
- Joe Eufinger, Flint school’s grad, longtime Flint educator; Flint Education Foundation board member: “I do know this, there’s a lot of money on the table … You don’t have enough money … You have a lot of buildings that need help … Flint Central … knock it down. Put something better there in the heart of the Cultural Center, next to a brand-new library … a brand-new historical museum … an art institute … two major colleges … Create an environment that will make kids want to come to … school in Flint.”
- Lauren Holaly-Zembo, Crim Fitness Foundation CEO: “As part of the 2012 Flint Master Plan in which over 5,000 residents participated, the community requested the return of community education. Then-superintendent Larry Watkins asked the Crim to lead this effort … In 2014 with a grant provided by the C. S. Mott Foundation we were able to pilot community education at the Brownell-Holmes STEM Academy and soon other school principals requested funding at their buildings … We support educators by allowing them to focus on teaching and learning while we support them by focusing on services and programs to help overcome barriers to learning.” Holaly-Zembo said the Crim helps provide basic needs like food, clean clothes, health care, toiletries, and transportation at low to no cost. She noted that during 2012-20 school year, nine of every ten FCS students were served by Crim programs.
- Skyler Kelly: “My kids have been in Crim sports, they’ve been in YouthQuest … and it was all at no cost … We need to find a solution, one way or another, that keeps services going for the children … Our kids are not going to stay in a school that doesn’t even provide the basic, essential services.”
Speakers critical of a FCS-Mott Foundation partnership:
- Victoria Marx: “I want to tell the board members, the four of you, to stand your ground. You’re not being unreasonable in your request to have someone else in these meetings.” She likened Ridgway White to a “benevolent puppeteer … schoolyard, rich-kid, bully taking his ball home because he doesn’t like the way the game is played. Mott has got its dirty finger in everything in Flint and it needs to stop.”
- Arthur Woodson: “Anita Steward, why are you not transparent? If Ridgway cared about the students, he wouldn’t have used this funding as a puppet, as a tool … the sad part is that this board … is a middleman … Why Mott can’t give us the money and we can hire the people we want. Why we gotta’ go through Crim. Crim ain’t nothin’ but a pimp … Let’s get off that plantation.”
- Claire McClinton, FCS graduate, community activist: “Would a partner pull the plug on a program you love? Nobody on this board decided to pull the plug on a program you love. Ridgway White at the Mott Foundation pulled that plug. That is not partnership. When the partner takes over your assets, that’s not a partnership; you’re being controlled. We need to figure out who our friends are and our enemies are.” McClinton and others advocated use of federal funds to support programming.
- Audrey Young, occupational therapist: “Be transparent. Don’t come in here with some other kind of objective … You wouldn’t pull your money to hurt the children because you can’t control them (board members). Bring us the correct information so we can sit down and talk about it … It’s the Mott Foundation holding our children hostage.”
- Beth Hazard: “Mr. White…wanted them (school board members) to blindly to approve a contract.” Hazard claimed a White family business, Lurvee-White Ventures, a local real estate and development company, has benefitted from local construction projects like Michigan School for the Deaf. “His actions … of pulling funds … makes me wonder what his plans are for Central.” She suggested that construction contracts and property ownership are underlying issues to be scrutinized.
- Laura Sullivan, Kettering University instructor: “Non-profits are directed to throw business to companies in which the foundations have investments and the whole purpose of their presence is not to lift up the poor … it’s to profit … There is an intentional lack of transparency … It’s nice to know that we live in a society where decisions are made by people who are elected, not by wealthy foundations.”
- Gina Luster: “We don’t need these foundations. Why fix it if it ain’t broke?”
- Claudia Perkins, union representative: “It’s time to stand up and stop letting any one person or entity rule your lives.”
The final speaker, Dwayne Clemons, praised the work of the Crim Fitness Foundation, but urged a middling course of action:
“I’m a businessman. When I look at any situation, I look at it from a business perspective first … I ask myself, ‘Do I want to repeat the past?’ Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it … The C. S. Mott Foundation has built a small economy around the Flint school system … Crim Fitness Foundation YouthQuest, MSU are organizations that are dependent upon that (Mott) money … and are part of that village to help raise these children … I’m not telling you to take the money. I’m not telling you not to take the money … I’m telling you to make a good, sound business decision … You’ve got to think of a way for both sides to win.”
White announces restoration of grant funding
On the very next day, following the five-hour board meeting on July 21, White reversed course and announced the restoration of FCS grant funding for YouthQuest afterschool programs and the Community Education Initiative administered by the Genesee Area Focus Fund and the Crim Fitness Foundation.
“We’ve all been through a lot in the past decade,” White wrote, “and I will do my best to keep the Mott Foundation’s support positive and beneficial for Flint kids and families …”
He issued a public apology for “creating this instability.”
MOU and FEC sparked the recent chain of events
A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) proposing a massive several hundred-million-dollar plan to rescue Flint schools — the Flint Education Continuum (FEC) — was revealed by EVM in May 2021. The FEC would include three levels of government, several Flint-area nonprofits, and all three of Flint’s major institutions of higher learning.
The centerpiece of the FEC would be the construction of new school buildings—four new elementary schools and a new high school—and the renovation of two other buildings. All buildings would be operated by FCS and located within the City of Flint.
White told EVM that the FEC, inspired by Flint’s water crisis, had been in the works for at least five years. Some FCS board members complained they were not included in the planning process.
However, Steward told EVM: “Board members have been invited to participate in these (FEC) conversations. Some of them have participated. Some of them have elected not to attend the meetings.”
Timeline of some recent FCS events
A chronology of FCS events over the past 15 months may help clarify the uncertain machinations of FCS governance.
- April/May 2020: The FCS board terminates Derrick Lopez as Flint’s superintendent. Anita Steward becomes assistant/interim superintendent.
- June 2020: Steward is appointed FCS superintendent on a 5-0 vote of the FCS board becoming the seventh FCS superintendent in 15 years. Carol McIntosh, board trustee, praises the new administration: “I am so proud of this administration … You guys are doing a great job.”
- June 2020: In her first public setback after less than a month on the job, the FCS board turns down the Steward’s administration’s nominee for the principal position at the Holmes building. “No” votes are cast by McIntosh and board treasurer Danielle Green. The board also nixes the Steward administration’s plans for reopening schools closed to face-to-face instruction by the COVID pandemic.
- July 2020: Steward and the FCS board sign an Employment Agreement effective through June 30, 2023.
- December 2020: Steward’s job performance as superintendent is rated “highly effective” by the FCS board in all four performance categories—Community Relations, Staff Relations, Instructional Leadership, and Governance and Board Relations.
- Jan. 2021: Three newcomers, with no stated experience on education boards, take seats on the seven-member FCS governing panel. Laura MacIntyre, Joyce Ellis-McNeal, and Adrian Walker replace Casey Lester, Betty Ramsdell, and Blake Strozier who, collectively, take with them more than two decades of FCS board experience into retirement. McIntosh becomes president of the FCS board.
- Jan. 2021: Board meetings are marked by errant parliamentary procedure and missteps in following the printed agendas. “This meeting (Jan. 20, 2021) has been very, very confusing,” observed A. C. Dumas, longtime Flint social justice activist. “If you (board members) are confused, then you know the general public is confused.” Tension-filled, “confused” meetings continue throughout 2021.
- Jan. 2021: FCS starts 2021 with at least eight central and building administrators in new assignments, all with less than a year of experience in their positions. Steward tells EVM in a July 1, 2021 interview “the district has been extremely unstable when it comes to (enduring) leadership …”
- Jan.-Feb. 2021: FCS board meetings often devolve into tension-filled, name-calling sessions. “You better stop that heifer,” said board trustee Vera Perry to board treasurer MacIntyre on Feb. 17. “I hate to see our board members walk away angry and frustrated,” said board trustee McNeal near the end of a raucous Feb. 10 board meeting. “Let’s have some order … Lord have mercy,” pleaded McIntosh at the same meeting.
- Feb 17, 2021: The FCS board turns down the Steward administration’s plans for reopening schools a second time.
- Feb. 2021: Steward is publicly admonished by some FCS board members for her interactions with the Harvard Group about possible plans for the abandoned Flint Central/Whittier property.
- May 2021: East Village Magazine (EVM) reports on a massive several-hundred-million-dollar plan to rescue Flint schools in a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) leaked to EVM. The plan, titled Flint Education Continuum (FEC), calls for renovation or replacement of all currently operable FCS school buildings and sweeping support programs for students. The Flint-based C. S. Mott Foundation would be the primary funder of the FEC.
- June 16, 2021: A document titled “Flint Board Expectations of Superintendent” issued by the Flint board, leaked to EVM by an unidentified source, indicates “the Superintendent may not fully understand the (Board’s) expectations …” The board orders “the Superintendent (to) cease all communication, as well as meetings … with all partners and community foundations as well as affiliates of partners and community foundations without the presence of the Board President and his or her designee.” The document warns Steward that “continued unacceptable performance, and/or conduct, would result in disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal.” The document was signed by board president McIntosh.
- June 28, 2021: Ridgway White, Mott Foundation CEO, appears before the FCS board and asks support for the FEC. “I’m asking for you to allow us to partner with you, to talk with you, to go over things that are in the MOU.”
- June 28, 2021: McIntosh and board trustee Diana Wright clash over Wright’s suggestion that the proposed FEC be put on the July board meeting agenda. “It is my expectation that this agenda item (FEC) is on the July agenda,” insists Wright. “It will not be on the July agenda,” replies McIntosh. In fact, the FEC would not appear on any July board agenda.
- July 1, 2021: Steward consents to an interview with EVM. She asks, “What is the harm in sitting with a person (White) who wants to give you a check with no strings attached …?” Steward admits, “I’m in a difficult space with at least four board members.”
- July 16, 2021: White announces “pause” of Mott Foundation grant funding for FCS schools. “Community partners must be able to communicate with district leaders to ensure smooth and effective programming,” he says.
- July 21, 2021: Public comments at a packed FCS board meeting indicate deep divisions over Mott Foundation support for Flint schools via the proposed FEC.
- July 22, 2021: White announces resumption of FCS grant funding.
The next meeting of the FCS Board of Education is a Committee of the Whole meeting starting at 6:30 Aug. 11.
EVM Education Beat reporter Harold Ford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.