Bob Thompson renews $200 million offer

DFT: “We’re prepared to sue”

Philanthropist Bob Thompson has renewed his efforts to donate $200 million toward the construction of 15 new high schools in the City of Detroit.

Thompson, of Plymouth, Mich., originally offered the money in 2003, but was rebuffed by the Detroit Federation of Teachers and others. Despite passage of a new state law that year allowing for the creation of up to 15 new charter high schools in Detroit, none were built. The Detroit Federation of Teachers held a rally in Lansing, which was followed by Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and Gov. Jennifer Granholm deciding to withdraw support for Thompson.

The incident shed a negative light on Detroit both statewide and nationally. Time magazine columnist Joe Klein said the DFT "led a furious, and scurrilous, campaign against (Thompson’s) generosity." The Metro Times, a weekly paper, said Thompson’s offer was "amazingly generous," especially "in a city where the schools, like the government, are a stunning failure."

This time around, Thompson is not fighting the battle alone. He has teamed with The Skillman Foundation and former Detroit Pistons star Dave Bing. Thompson would provide the money for the construction of the schools, while Skillman would pay for the cost of implementing a curriculum. Bing, an NBA Hall of Famer and Detroit business owner, has stepped forward to carry the message to the public.

The team filed an application with Grand Valley State University in August and is awaiting a decision. The Detroit Federation of Teachers, however, remains staunchly opposed to the plan.

"We believe Mr. Thompson earnestly wants to make a positive difference in the lives of the children in Detroit," Janna Garrison, DFT president, told Michigan Education Report. "But we think he’s going about it the wrong way."

Garrison also said her union has been in talks with Thompson and The Skillman Foundation.

"We’d rather spend time working with them," she said. "Not against them."

The DFT, which represents more than 10,000 teachers and staff, has threatened to file a lawsuit stopping any attempt to open new schools.

"We stand prepared to sue if they attempt to come into the city," Garrison said. "We will fight them every step of the way."

Garrison said she would not discuss strategy regarding when a lawsuit might be filed, either upon approval of the charter schools by GVSU or when construction begins.

Ed Richardson, director of Grand Valley’s charter schools office, said a decision is expected on the application by the end of the calendar year. The application includes an official name of the entity, Partnership for New Schools Detroit, and a proposed school board.

"The intent is to start one school and see how it goes," Richardson said. "That board would start the first school, then a second and go from there. It could take several years."

Richardson said Partnership for New Schools Detroit can be authorized to open all 15 new charter high schools allowed under P.A. 179 of 2003.

"Our interpretation of the law is that a single contract can be signed with a single provider," Richardson said. "That provider can then open one or more schools, with each school being a subcontractor."

Garrison said her union believes education in Detroit has already been hurt by the existence of charter schools.

"The efforts to take from the masses for the specialized use of a few is something we’re opposed to 100 percent," she said. "We already have enough charter schools in Detroit draining away money."

Under state law, charter schools get per pupil state aid, but cannot raise additional funds via tax levies. Detroit Public Schools receives just over $7,100 per pupil in state funding, and nearly $10,000 per pupil total once local taxes are added.

Currently, there are 40 charter schools in Detroit, including five high schools. One of those high schools, University Prep, was built by Thompson and his wife Ellen. They spent $15 million on the five-building campus near downtown. The school is run by Doug Ross, who was an official in the Clinton administration and a 1998 candidate for the Democrat party nomination for governor. The school’s mandate from Thompson is simple: a 90 percent graduation rate and 90 percent of graduates going on to college.

"The kids we started with in sixth grade are now juniors," Ross said. "We won’t know for sure if we’ve met the 90-90 performance until June of 2007, but we’re still on path to deliver the goods."

Ross said the school has a retention rate of 96 percent, and about half of the juniors have already been accepted to various colleges.

Curriculum at the school is individually tailored to each student, and internships are encouraged. Math and science classes are taught by professors on loan from Wayne State University. If the school does not meet the 90-90 goals, it will close.

Ross thinks Thompson is trying to help and shouldn’t be treated like the enemy.

"The DFT opposed him for what they regarded as good reasons," Ross said. "The politics broke down and now there is an effort to put them back together again."

University Prep also is chartered by GVSU, which Richardson thinks is a plus for the new application.

"It does help," Richardson said. "There’s a model in place. They have students in the seats and are showing real promise."

Thompson leases the buildings to University Prep for $1 a year. If it does not succeed, he has said it will become office space.

"I didn’t run just another road paving company," Thompson told the Detroit Free Press. "I’m not going to run just another school."

After teaching high school industrial arts in Detroit and flying jet fighters in the U.S. Air Force, Thompson and his uncle founded the Thompson-McCully Co. in 1959. Wilbur McCully left the business in 1960, but Thompson stayed on, turning it into Michigan’s largest contract asphalt paving company.

Thompson sold the company for well over $400 million in 1999, then gave $128 million of that to his employees. About 80 workers, those who had been with him the longest, became instant millionaires. Thompson set up annuity funds for other employees.

Turning his attention to education, Thompson then established several scholarships around Michigan, including 1,000 private school scholarships for Detroit students, 500 scholarships at Schoolcraft Community College in Livonia, 100 engineering scholarships at Michigan Tech University and 20 graduate scholarships at Michigan State University.

The Skillman Foundation has shown a commitment to education as well. It has given Detroit Public Schools more than $55 million in grants since 1995, mainly through the "Good Schools Initiative." The foundation also has agreed to give $500,000 a year for three years to Communication and Media Arts High School, one of 30 schools DPS had slated to close. Talks have begun between the school district and the teachers union to allow Communication and Media Arts High to become a contract school, whereby teachers agree to a different set of working conditions than are set forth in the regular contract.

Garrison, of the DFT, says Skillman’s involvement with Thompson will force the union to rethink its relationship with the foundation.

"We’re very disappointed with them," she said.

Bill Hanson, director of communications for The Skillman Foundation, said partnering with Thompson is just part of what Skillman does.

"We partner with Detroit Public Schools on a variety of things," Hanson said. "Indirectly, we partner with DFT, too. We never intended to be against them."

In June, Skillman gave out $1.4 million as part of its "Good Schools: Making the Grade" initiative. Of the 76 schools in Detroit that received grants, three quarters were DPS schools.