A crew from CNN showed up in January at Spain Elementary-Middle School in Detroit, and here’s what it found: The children seldom used their gym because the floor was warped from rain damage. The playground was deemed unsafe, so even on the nicest of days, the students played in the hallways during recess. And teachers and staff complained about poor heating and air, a lack of supplies, and a “cycle of neglect.”
Since then, the school received good news about its future — celebrities Ellen DeGeneres and Justin Bieber stepped in to raise money and awareness for repairs and supplies. Lowe’s agreed to donate $500,000, which will no doubt make a big difference. But more recently we’ve learned that the ailing Detroit Public Schools system needs more than an infusion of money. It also needs an infusion of morals.
Prosecutors announced in late March that they had charged a Detroit businessman and 13 current or former principles — including the principal at Spain — in an alleged kickback scheme. The government claims the businessman paid the school employees $900,000 from 2002 to 2015; in exchange, his company billed the district for around $2.7 million for supplies the schools never received.
Barbara McQuade, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, summed it up well when she said, “A case like this is a real punch in the gut for those who are trying to do the right thing.”
It seems to me the Detroit Public Schools is overrun by what I call “shadow cultures” — the cultures that hide in the darkness and operate counter to what everyone publicly acknowledges is right. I believe people, sometimes very good people, slip into these shadow cultures when they fall away from the values of transparent leadership. And it will take a return to such values to lead the schools out of the shadows.
A culture like Detroit’s can feel hopeless at times. Leaders can develop a “why bother” attitude that can put them on a slippery slope toward justifying inaction or, worse, selfish and even illegal actions. But if leaders will filter their decisions through the right values, they can operate with transparency and build trust.
The schools in Detroit face some huge challenges right now, and they won’t win their battles overnight. Nor will money solve their problems. What they need is strong leaders who will operate with integrity and restore trust through transparency.