Philanthropist Bob Thompson has renewed his efforts to donate
$200 million toward the construction of 15 new high schools in the City of
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
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
The DFT, which represents more than 10,000 teachers and
staff, has threatened to file a lawsuit stopping any attempt to open new
"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
"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
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
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.