Board member’s 'white flight' comment draws fire

East Detroit opens district to all counties

By: Sara Kandel | C&G Newspapers | Published March 14, 2012

The East Detroit Public Schools Board of Education meeting Monday night — when members voted 5-2 to open the district via schools of choice to kids from any county — has been getting a lot of attention from local media outlets and residents alike.

But it wasn’t the board’s decision itself that’s been stirring all the talk — it was a board member’s comment that night.

At the March 12 meeting, Board Vice President Jon Gruenberg, who voted against opening the district to students from other areas, made a remark that’s been drawing heat regarding the decision and possible “white flight.”

But he says his words have been taken out of context.

“I was speaking in general about schools of choice, where in general white flight has occurred,” Gruenberg said. “I was just stating what has occurred in the past, in our district and in others, not that it will happen further. At least I hope it won’t. I hope most of the people who think that way have already left our city. But could it happen in the future? Maybe. Maybe not.”

While his commentary may have focused on students from Wayne County, the overall vote was to approve allowing students from any county — St. Clair, Wayne, Oakland, Lapeer, etc. — to attend EDPS. But since Eastpointe boarders Eight Mile and Detroit, most talk on the issue has seemed to highlight Wayne County.

Gruenberg — who voted “no” along with his son, Board member Jon Gruenberg — says he’s not against schools of choice because of the Wayne County angle, though.

He was just pointing out what he thinks one of the possible consequences of it could be: furthering the loss of current students.

According to Gruenberg, his comment didn't draw immediate fire. It wasn't until a special meeting on March 13 that members of the crowd spoke out against it.

“There are a multitude of reasons I am against schools of choice,” said Gruenberg. “I am also against it because funds are leaving the classrooms to go to advertising; we are competing with other schools — somewhat bad-mouthing them to get students to pick us over them — and there have been cases, with sports especially, where some recruiting goes on.

“It’s not that I don’t want those (Wayne County) students or more students,” he added. “But I don’t think we should be competing to get students. When we do that we aren’t being as helpful to each other as we should be. We should all be, everyone in education, working together to make sure every child gets they education they deserve.”

Board member Deena Trocino says she’s also against schools of choice, but in this case she had to vote for it.

“I don’t believe in school of choice because it pulls people out of the community,” she said. “I believe we need to be vested in the community we live in, but right now we are in such a dire place with the budget that this was necessary. You can cut back and cut back, but if nothing is coming in, it doesn’t matter how much you cut. If we don’t bring money in, we won’t have a school or we’ll have an emergency manager here.”

The decision to not only become a schools of choice district, but to expand the parameters to any county, might come off as somewhat surprising for the EDPS board, which in the past has voted unanimously against such a move.

“For the longest time we weren’t open as a school of choice district, and then we were opened to Macomb County for a few years, then we opted out,” Trocino said. “And now it’s gone to where we will be open to Wayne County?”

In 2007, the district opened enrollment to all students in Macomb County, but in 2009 the district decided to limit enrollment from other districts to kindergarten through sixth grade only. The decision came after data showed middle school and high school students who transferred from other districts fell behind dramatically.

According to school officials at the time, those students weren’t prepared for the rigors of the curriculum and weren’t succeeding academically and didn’t have time to catch up.

In 2010, the district turned down open enrollment altogether with a 7-0 vote. The same results were seen when the issue came before the board again last year.

Gruenberg says he’s not too worried about the school not being academically successful with open enrollment, though.

“I think we have a strong enough staff that it will have no effect on us and we will continue to improve academically every year,” he said. “We are launching programs to accommodate students at every skill level from high achieving to low achieving and average.”

Now that the issue has passed, he says it doesn’t matter how he voted on it. He has to support it and find ways of making it work.

“Our board sat here and debated and discussed it very vigorously and we voted — it went through the democratic process and passed, so even though I voted against it I now have to focus on supporting it and doing whatever it takes to make it work.”

Trocino is optimistic that this could all be a good thing as the move already has inspired the school to restructure programs to better enable districtwide achievements at all grade levels and launch a career-based curriculum at the high school — not to mention it could bring more residents to the city.

“I would personally like to see people come to East Detroit for the great education and realize Eastpointe is great place to raise your family and move into the city and become part of our family town,” she said. “And I really think it could work like that if we treat everyone who comes in like part of our Eastpointe family.

“If we can get the community behind this, it will be a great success.”