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Schools critic turns power player

Announced amid fanfare three years ago, the $60 million 21st Century Initiative was supposed to show the old Detroit school board how to reinvent its schools. A quieter initiative two years ago was supposed to show the board how to reinvent itself.

Ultimately, both efforts helped foster the demise of the old city board. And New Detroit President William Beckham, a point person for both initiatives, is a) in a key spot to help shape the future of Detroit schools, and b) the object of suspicion that he helped engineer the whole takeover.

While a number of people close to the events in the takeover dismiss the idea of Beckham as a coup plotter, as does Beckham, there’s little question that he now occupies a position of considerable power and influence. Not that he necessarily sought it.

"New Detroit sent a list of names we thought should be considered for appointment … for the new reform board, and that list did not include my name, by the way," says Beckham, who was chosen to be the vice chairman on the new board.

He comes to the position with a long résumé of management experience and political connections.

Since 1996, Beckham has been the president of New Detroit Inc., a coalition of community and business leaders formed after Detroit’s 1967 riots to focus on race relations. Beckham says the group has made education a priority in seeking to improve the economic standing of African-Americans in the city.

Prior to New Detroit, Beckham spent two years as operating officer of the Phoenix, Ariz.-based Envirotest Systems Corp., which provides vehicle safety and emissions testing, and before that he spent 13 years with Unisys. He’s best known in Detroit, though, for his political résumé, including several years in the Coleman Young administration (including a stint as deputy mayor) followed by treasury and transportation posts in the Carter administration.

Beckham recently was appointed president of the Detroit-based Skillman Foundation, which has a $575 million endowment allowing it to donate about $25 million annually to groups that work to improve children’s lives in the tri-county area. Beckham is to leave New Detroit to begin with the foundation Oct. 1.

Pushing reforms

The Skillman Foundation was one of the leading contributors to the Schools of the 21st Century Initiative, a project which Beckham and others say brought the former school board’s failings to light.

In 1996, the Annenberg Foundation donated $20 million for a five-year Detroit public school improvement program. The foundation challenged the school district and the community to raise an additional $20 million each. Consequently, several community groups, other foundations and New Detroit coalesced to form the Schools of the 21st Century Initiative.

Teressa Staten, executive director of the 21st Century Corporation, which oversees the program, says the collaboration includes parents, students, teachers, administrators, business and labor, local and state government agencies, and community and church groups.

"Educators cannot educate children alone," says Staten. For students to succeed, she says, the entire community must assume responsibility.

But Staten says that while embarking on the initiative, it became apparent that the former school board was resisting change.

The idea of the program is to work with clusters of 35 schools each to develop improvement plans and apply for funding. Only 10 of the 18 applicants are to be funded. Staten says applicants are to model their plan after one that has been proven to be successful in another school district, include parent and community participation, assess the status of each school and set new goals. But Staten says that while embarking on the initiative, it became apparent that the former school board was resisting change.

One of the goals of the 21st Century program is to free principals and teachers to incorporate new ideas, she says, but the former board discouraged this, and in some cases schools acted secretly, having to hide their actions from the board. The board’s inflexibility was evident to the entire community coalition, says Staten.

"It raised awareness of people in and outside the school system of the need to do something different," says Beckham, about the 21st Century program. "And the only way to make changes was to change the top, because the top was part of the problem."

He also says that the layers of bureaucracy prevent schools from thriving.

"That is not to say that the board did not empower some schools," he says, "but they could also withdraw their support and change what they granted, which created a structural barrier."

The problems that surfaced during the Schools of the 21st Century Initiative were compounded by a 1998 schools audit report.

In 1997, the former school board asked New Detroit and others to audit the district’s daily nonacademic operations and recommend more effective approaches.

According to Beckham, the group wrote an initial report with recommended changes. A year later, the group reviewed the board’s progress and released a follow-up report.

"If the restructuring mission set forth by the board one year ago is to be accomplished by the year 2000 … the board will need to accelerate the pace of progress by reaffirming the critical nature of this effort," the report states.

According to the report:

• The board had not developed a plan to train employees about policies governing the district’s operations, and had not restructured the way it functions so that committee meetings and staff resources would be reduced.

• The board also failed to hire heads of operations, human resources, information systems and purchasing for at least two years, which drastically slowed down the pace of restructuring these key areas.

• By reducing multiple layers of management, the central administration could have cut 300 employees, freeing about $12 million that could be used for local schools.

Some, including State Rep. Keith Stallworth, D-Detroit, who opposed the school board takeover, point to this report as the beginning of the end of the former board.

"If the board acted expeditiously in response to the report," he says, "this may never have happened."

Beckham’s involvement with the audit and Schools for the 21st Century made him an obvious candidate for the new board. Mayor Dennis Archer appointed him as vice chair while appointing Deputy Mayor Freman Hendrix as chair.

There are also suspicions that Beckham played a more active role in the demise of the old board.

The fall

"We had confidential information that Beckham made numerous trips to Lansing in that regard," says former school board member Margaret Betts. She would not mention names, but says that they were reliable sources who are close to the governor.

(Susan Shafer, deputy press secretary for Gov. Engler, could not be reached for comment.)

Former school board member Alonzo Bates was less discreet. "Beckham led the whole thing to get the reform board," he says. Bates says he spoke with state representatives including Kwame Kilpatrick and Stallworth, who said Beckham was in Lansing several times before the takeover.

Kilpatrick and Stallworth both deny making statements about Beckham helping engineer the school board takeover. In fact, Stallworth says that Beckham did everything he could to prevent it.

"I will say that throughout the debate of Bill 297, I was in daily contact with Bill, and despite what some (board) members may say or think, Bill was always of the opinion that there had to be a viable role for the community," says Stallworth. "I met with (NAACP president) Wendell (Anthony) and Bill on a Saturday to try to change this thing, and the governor was just not buying it."

Beckham says that he is not surprised by the former board members’ suspicions, but that they brought about their own demise.

"Some assume I have more influence in Lansing than I do," he says. "It was not something I or others did. It was the inactions of the board to not do what they have been warned about."

Archer’s press secretary Greg Bowens says Archer chose Beckham because "the mayor knows Beckham and respects the work he has done for Detroit and certainly respects the work he has done with trying to move public education forward in the city of Detroit."

And though former school board member Ben Washburn is critical of the takeover, he says Beckham is a good choice for the new board. "He is a real bright guy, able in a lot of ways," says Washburn. "He is probably the most knowledgeable of the new school board members."

Though Beckham is hopeful that the new school board will truly reform Detroit Public Schools, he admits, "The jury is still out on how well we do it."

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