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Oversight still lacking

Taxpayers should be aware that Oakland County school superintendents and administrators are still having a hard time complying with public oversight at the Okma International Academy. And that could be a real bad deal for taxpayers.

I wrote Downtown newsmagazine this past February to try to bring to public light the Okma International Academy's opening and operating of private schools in China. Michigan's constitution prohibits public schools and their employees from "directly or indirectly" directing resources to private schools – here or in China. Indeed, parochial schools in the state are contesting in court this constitutional block, arguing that state mandates force them to spend dollars the state won't provide. More generally, though, most would agree it is bad precedent to have public schools here using their time to own and operate private businesses abroad. But that is what happened.

How? The answer, in part, is that the Okma IA is governed by a loose agreement from the 1990s that gives governance of the school to the "joint steering committee" – a group composed of administrators from the 13 consortium schools that can send children to the lottery magnet school. This means, in short, that the public has no direct oversight when it comes to the Okma IA. The school is not governed by locally elected school boards. This loose structure, it seemed, worked well enough when responsible administrators were checking in – but even that stopped in and around 2008 or 2009. The Okma IA, then, does not hold open meetings and is responsible to no one.

You see the problem. It is an old one in American politics. Individuals in public institutions without oversight start to see public money and time as their own. So private, for-profit schools in China made sense if you were looking to make some bucks and take a few junkets. All this was brought to the attention of Bloomfield Hills Schools and, in particular, some newly elected board members. BHSD is the fiscal agent for the school and its board last winter and spring. Downtown's Lisa Brody wrote up some of the aftermath (March 1, 2019) explaining that the "joint steering committee" had cleared the IA administration and other K-12 administrations of wrongdoing. This was, well, a complicated assertion. First, and again, the "joint steering committee" had not really been functioning. So they weren't in a position to investigate anything. Second, even if they could investigate, they were not a body beholden to public scrutiny. Brody, it seems, was fed bad information by Bloomfield Hills School District (they have since had some considerable changes in administration).

What actually happened from last winter to now went something more like this: several Bloomfield board members and other local board members – notably from West Bloomfield – work as a "task force" to try to set things right. Representatives from the consortium schools did hastily try to hold actual meetings and function as a governing body. The latter didn't work out so well. The "JSC" couldn't manage meetings with a quorum. And they couldn't agree on writing a new consortium agreement that would work. The former had more success. They developed a proposal for a new "Joint Steering Committee" that would provide legitimate public oversight. An elected board member would serve on this new committee, guaranteeing at least some public scrutiny. But even this is too much for Oakland County superintendents, particularly in Troy and Birmingham. They are pushing hard for no public oversight. None. That's right.

These folks liked the opening the flawed IA governance structure gave administrators. Even after all this. The question is why? What is it that prompts public school officials to fight so hard to keep the public from seeing what is going on? After the private schools in China you do have to be impressed with the out and out arrogance to try to shut down public scrutiny – even by elected school board members.

Ken Jackson

Bloomfield Hills

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