Many parents believe that their influence on their children’s education is critical, and now a group in Bloomfield Hills has taken the idea of parental and community educational involvement to a new and very intensive level.
Emerging from the collective initiative of a cadre of concerned Bloomfield Hills district parents and community members a year-and-a-half ago, a political action committee of sorts has begun to support candidates for the school board whom its members believe will "ensure that our schools provide our children with the finest public education available in the country." The self-described grassroots group, Bloomfield 20/20, was successful in endorsing and electing three candidates to the Bloomfield Hills School Board in June 2004.
Originally, dissatisfied parents organized the group to oppose a high school consolidation plan proposed by the school board; a board which the parents felt was not listening to the community. "You had a rubberstamp school board that was unchecked," recalls Joanne Warner, one of 20/20’s first activists.
The small group created an e-mail database, and its activity and community impact have grown rapidly during its short existence. The ability to raise significant amounts of money for school elections has put Bloomfield 20/20 in a position to affect the governance of their school district to a greater degree than is seen in many districts. They even filed as an official PAC in Oakland County.
In 2004, Bloomfield 20/20 raised over $100,000 to support the election of Jenny Greenwell, Michael Scadron and Carol Stencel, and to fund a campaign against the proposed plan to combine two district high schools. According to Warner, about $20,000 was used to support 20/20 candidates, and between $80,000 and $85,000 went to the effort to oppose the high school consolidation. All three candidates were elected, and the high school plan never reached the ballot — a victory for 20/20.
The group’s platform of fiscal responsibility includes the goal of finding "responsible solutions to … budget challenges," and reaching out "to the private and public sectors to find creative ways to work within Prop A’s funding environment." The PAC’s mission and past successes have sparked the growth of similar 20/20s in neighboring districts. Already, Farmington, Royal Oak and Rochester chapters have come about with the desire to emulate Bloomfield’s achievements.
But others have taken note of the election successes and the grassroots activism of 20/20, most specifically a group of citizens led in part by two former Bloomfield board members who have formed Bloomfield AWAKE to try to combat 20/20’s influence.
According to The News, AWAKE has admitted that they cannot rival the $20,000 that 20/20 contributed to candidates. However, it was AWAKE’s candidates that came out on top in the last election cycle.
In May, two board openings had to be filled, and 20/20 endorsed and contributed to the campaigns of board member Jenny Greenwell and newcomer Creighton Forester.
AWAKE endorsed Martin Brook and Mary Ellen Miller, who both won handily.
AWAKE referred Michigan Education Report to their Web site when we contacted them. According to the site, the group’s mission is to "make sure the people elected to serve on the Bloomfield Hills School Board bring the skills, experiences, and approach necessary to make our exceptional district even better." They also say that they "reluctantly formed … to counteract the negative tone and tactics of Bloomfield 20/20." According to AWAKE, "Politics do not belong in schools, we did not want to see a PAC in control of the Board of Education." They have offered to disband simultaneously with 20/20, but Warner gave no indication that 20/20 had any such plans.
The 20/20 spokeswoman believes that the lack of a big ballot question, like the high school consolidation plan of 2004, may have contributed to AWAKE candidates’ victories this year, but the group believes there are still lingering problems with the district that can be addressed, especially in the improvement of high school facilities. Warner explained that the group was disappointed when Lahser High School received a new artificial turf football field before fixing leaky roofs; an inversion of priorities from 20/20’s perspective.
But the group does pride itself on doing some good for the Bloomfield Hills community. "We have raised community awareness about school elections," says Warner. "We got the vote out."
According to unofficial election results, May’s school election turnout could have been as high as 9,400, or roughly 30% of the district’s registered voters, which by school election standards is relatively high. Under the new election consolidation laws, voter turnout for school elections may be increasing due to absentee ballots, but overall, turnout remains lower than November state and national elections. However, The Detroit News reports that turnout in Oakland County, the home of Bloomfield Hills, Rochester, Royal Oak and Farmington, increased to about 15 percent this May, up from 9 percent last June.