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Detroit rejected $200M school gift

This is really, really sad.


What Newark got, Detroit turned down


Bob Thompson admittedly is not as sexy as Mark Zuckerberg, the 26-year-old Facebook founder who is being lionized for donating $100 million to help reinvent the Newark, N.J., schools.

Zuckerberg is a master of the Internet universe; Thompson is in asphalt. Zuckerberg is young, hip and speaks eloquently the language of the globally connected; Thompson is old, square and talks only when he has to, and then in a Midwestern drawl.

But, still, Thompson must be scratching his head. While Zuckerberg's generosity put him on top of Oprah's Great Guys list, Thompson's attempt to give twice as much money to Detroit's schoolchildren got him a kick in the butt.

And while Zuckerberg's gift amounts to roughly 10 percent of his personal wealth, Thompson was all in; the $200 million he offered Detroit was nearly his entire fortune.

Why Thompson wasn't welcomed as the savior of education in Detroit is just another self-destructive episode in the city's tragic journey.

Thompson, the Plymouth road builder who gave half his wealth to his employees when he retired, wanted to give the other half to Detroit to build a network of 15 high-performing charter high schools.

Teamed with his strategic wizard Doug Ross, Thompson guaranteed schools that would graduate 90 percent of their students and send 90 percent of those graduates on to college.

Instead of grabbing the money and doing a happy dance, Detroiters, as is their custom, wailed about a suburban outsider taking away their schools and stealing their children.

Then-Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick told Thompson to just drop off the check and let Detroit Public Schools decide how to spend it. Gov. Jennifer Granholm stood in the schoolhouse door, assuring unionized teachers she wouldn't allow Thompson's charters to come in and take their jobs.

That was six years ago. Had Detroit embraced Thompson the way Newark is embracing Zuckerberg, the city would have all 15 of those high schools open by now, and a whole lot more of its children in college. Newark is on the road to better schools; Detroit is still resisting reform.

You don't have to imagine what the education environment might have looked like. Thompson worked the cracks to build or help build three high schools.

The newest Thompson school opened on Detroit's riverfront this fall. It's magnificent. For $16 million, Thompson and other backers turned an ancient warehouse into a beautiful example of how decrepit industrial buildings can be repurposed.

The remake of the Albert Kahn-designed structure will be a catalyst for rebirth in the Warehouse District. The University Prep Math and Science Academy offers students lavishly equipped classrooms and laboratories, as well as a glass-walled penthouse cafeteria with a river view.

It's the only year-round school in Wayne County. Each student gets a laptop, studies abroad and benefits from a partnership with the University of Michigan College of Engineering. Average classroom size is 20.

And Superintendent Margaret Trimer-Hartley didn't have to lure kids for Wednesday's Count Day with Target gift cards, as DPS did.

"Our kids can't wait to get to this building in the morning," she says.

You leave the school thinking, "Every kid should learn in a place like this."

Every Detroit kid might have, if the city had seen in an old asphalt man what Newark sees in a flashy young Internet prince.



Re: Detroit rejected $200M school gift

  • How sad. Kwame and Granholm really are wonderful, aren't they?  Sheesh.
  • Holy crap. I'm especially rolling my eyes at the mayor's and governor's responses at the time. H doesn't like when non-teachers want to donate money and think they know what will solve the education problem. I see his point but at the same time, I think the outside perspective can be helpful here and in most situations. Either way, if the man wants to donate his fortune to the schools, then at least show the guy some courtesy, geez.
  • Typical Detroit.  They don't want any new ideas but they sure want the money to maintain the status quo. 

    No offense to anyone on this board who lives in or near Detroit, but man, the city sure does live up the the nickname we have for it, "the armpit of Michigan,"

  • That's pathetic.

    I'm not usually a supporter of non-educators starting charter schools (bad experience; I taught in a super crappy one) but that guy clearly had a plan and a vision.  Why the hell wouldn't you jump on that opportunity.

    I blame the teacher's union  :)

    "Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you've got about a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies. God damn it, you've got to be kind." - Kurt Vonnegut
  • I think I can understand an institution turning away a gift. I work for a large non profit--not a school system--but I've been in that position and I can see many reasons for doing so.

    We've turned away grants (in some cases $100+ million in sole-sourced grants) for a variety of reasons:

    1) we were uncomfortable with the expecations of the donor (either because we felt their targets were unreasonable or because their expected methodologies unethical or simply untested to be used on such a large scale)

    2) the size or scope of the grant would cause mission creep away from our core objectives

    3) accepting the funds posed a large reputation risk--due to the nature of the donor, the high level of risks associated with the work they'd asked us to do or our own absorptive capacity.

    I know that non profits and school districts are not the same thing. But both have a system of governance and funding that can be distorted by large grants from private individuals. In the case of a school district in particular--this allows private actors who may or may not have the expertise needed--to buy influence above and beyond that of the people of a city/state whose votes speak to how they would prefer their schools be run and their hard-earned tax dollars spent.

    Whether this is the right decision is something I am ill equipped to judge, but I do believe there are plenty of reasonable reasons for a public institution or a non profit to turn away a large gift.

    "We tend to be patronizing about the poor in a very specific sense, which is that we tend to think,
  • zuckerberg is sexy...what planet does this person live on?
  • Kwame now sits in jail

    Granholm is on her way out as she has term limited out of office this fall. 

    Michigan is in shambles financially, but Granholm certainly has supported all the unions.

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