This week, 13 Detroit Public Schools administrators and a supplies vendor were charged with bribery in a kickback scheme that saw several prominent principals pocketing thousands of dollars. One of the principals was even featured recently on the Ellen Degeneres Show when his school, Spain Elementary, was given half a million dollars by Ellen after receiving national attention for deplorable conditions at the facility. The charges come amid negotiations at the state Capitol over how and whether the state should bail DPS out of deep financial debt.
“There’s never a good time for public corruption,” says U.S. Attorney for Michigan’s Eastern District Barbara McQuade. She says her office did consider the timing of the charges, given the legislation at hand. But ultimately the charges needed to be filed, she said.
McQuade says the kickbacks for this group of principals began as early as 2002. Much of the illegal activity happened while the district was under state emergency management. DPS has been under the control of a string of state-appointed emergency managers since 2009.
McQuade says her office is always investigating possible corruption in school districts, not just Detroit Public Schools. She says there is no evidence the principals at DPS were in contact with each other about the kickbacks, or that it was the result of cultural problems in the district.
“I’m not sure you can blame a culture, so much as the individuals who accept bribes,” she says.
This week’s revelations could have significant consequences at the state Capitol, where lawmakers are debating a $715 million bailout to keep the district from going broke.
State House Speaker Kevin Cotter (R-Mt. Pleasant) released a statement soon after the charges were announced this week calling for added state oversight of DPS as part of the legislation.
“This is exactly why House Republicans were so adamant that strong fiscal oversight be a prerequisite to any additional state funding for Detroit’s corrupt and broken school administration,” said Cotter. ”And it is why we will continue to insist that strong financial and academic reforms be a part of any long-term solution to decades of DPS failures. Detroit’s children deserve better than to be fleeced again by these crooks.”
To hear more of from McQuade’s conversation on WDET’s Detroit Today, and a reporter roundtable discussion on the DPS legislation and emergency management, click on the player above.