Fourteen Detroit residents are running for three, four-year terms on the board for the Detroit Public Schools Community District. Anthony Lanzilote/Chalkbeat

On Tuesday, Nov. 3, voters will elect three people who will take seats on the Detroit school board during a critical period in the district’s turnaround efforts. Fourteen people are running for the three, four-year terms. The candidates include three incumbents, several former school board members, community activists and retired educators.

Read below to learn more about the candidates and their views on some key issues.

This story also appeared in Chalkbeat Detroit

Note: Candidates Elena Herrada, LaMar Lemmons, and Terrance Lemmons did not respond to our request for information. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Richard Clement

About the candidate

Age: 63.
Occupation: Computer consultant.
Education: Graduate of Mumford High School, bachelor’s degree from Alabama State University.
Political/community experience: Precinct delegate, worked for Detroit Councilman George Cushingberry, ran for secretary of state, ran for state Senate, volunteered for legalization of marijuana ballot initiatives in 2008 and 2018.

What is the biggest challenge facing the school district and how should the board address it?

“COVID. And funding,” Clement said. “We’ve been damaged up in Lansing pretty bad by them passing special laws. To undo a lot of that damage and to help with the challenges of the school district we have to change the laws in Lansing. Funding is an issue.”

How would you grade Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s progress in turning around the district?

Clement would give Vitti a “fair” rating.

What metrics do you believe the district should use to gauge whether it is safe to hold in-person school?

Clement said he would consider hospitalization rates and positive COVID rates. “I taught online classes, nothing beats face-to-face. But safety is paramount and what I would push for is testing every school in DPS, testing kids at the school. Being a former teacher, when the kids get sick, you get sick.”

What experiences/background would you bring to the board?

“I’ve taught in Lansing Community College as an adjunct professor, I was in the computers department,” Clement said. He taught programming, basic computer use, Microsoft Office products. Clement also cited his own experiences as a student in the district.

“It’s a redemption tour for me,” he added. “I wasn’t the greatest student in the world. But I made it to 63, and now maybe I can help the district be what it was and make an improvement. When we were taken over by the emergency managers, we lost a lot. We’re going to get it back.”


Sherry Gay-Dagnogo

About the candidate

Age: 53.
Occupation: Completing third term as a state House representative for Michigan’s 8th district, which serves northwest Detroit.
Education: Bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Wayne State University.
Political/community experience: canvassed for Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, a former Michigan congresswoman, worked for the Detroit City Council, former district teacher, studied education reform through various fellowships, served on a district improvement team, worked with United Way on a kindergarten readiness initiative.

What is the biggest challenge facing the school district and how should the board address it?

Gay-Dagnogo said inequitable funding for schools is one of the biggest challenges facing the district. She said those inequities hurt the district’s efforts to support the learning needs of students, especially those in special education programs. She wants to push the state to change how it funds schools by adopting a weighted funding formula that would provide additional dollars for students with the most needs. “DPS has had to do more with less for a very long time. A key part of changing that is building relationships with lawmakers, local leaders, and community members,” she said.

How would you grade Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s progress in turning around the district?

“There are some things that he has done well in respect to communicating through the community,” Gay-Dagnogo said. “The finances are headed in the right direction.” She said school administrators such as principals need more support and said the district needs to build better relationships with them. “Our educators can do a great job as long as they feel appreciated, they feel respected.”

What metrics do you believe the district should use to gauge whether it is safe to hold in-person school?

Gay-Dagnogo said the district must closely monitor declines in the number of positive COVID cases in the city to determine whether or not it’s safe to bring more students and staff back to the classroom in person. Detroit was an early COVID hotspot, and school leaders must be sensitive to the anxieties of students and staff regarding in-person learning. “COVID was a problem, and it killed people,” she said.

What experiences/background would you bring to the board?

Gay-Dagnogo said her work as a state legislator, community leader, and educator have given her insight on how to work with leaders of different ideologies and interests.

“I’m an organizer. I’m a legislator,” she said. “I have the ability to pick up the phone, or go to Lansing, and advocate for my district, because I have institutional memory of what has happened to our district. I worked under emergency managers. I studied education reform. I’m a teacher with pedagogical competency. I have relationships with every sector in this state of civic, faith, grassroots and community leadership. And so I’m prepared to not just speak to academic improvement, but how do we advance a community-inclusive plan to move our district forward? And how do we go and negotiate policies that are also beneficial for our district? I have those relationships, and I have a proven track record.”


Bessie Harris

About the candidate

Age: 65.
Occupation: Retired DPSCD principal (Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, 2007-2016).
Education: Graduate of Murray-Wright High School. Bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education administration from the University of Detroit-Mercy.
Political/community experience: Volunteers in mentoring program at Second Ebenezer Church, with Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, and with Detroit Unity Temple.

What is the biggest challenge facing the school district and how should the board address it?

Special education is the biggest challenge, said Harris, whose background is in that area. Special education has been a low priority. “Parents of special ed students are frustrated. Their concerns are their child’s IEPs. I think the biggest disservice the board is doing right now is not addressing special education,” she said.

Harris said there should be a school board committee assigned to monitor the special ed department.

“There should be a hotline where parents can call to state what the complaint is, and it should be pipelined to the special ed committee” in addition to the department, she said.

How would you grade Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s progress in turning around the district?

“I don’t even want to answer that,” Harris said. “I’ve seen some changes in the district, but I’ve also seen a lot of challenges that the district is facing with curriculum, staff morale, and special education. If you talk to teachers, the curriculum is not up to what they would like the curriculum to be. There’s a lot of loopholes in the curriculum. The teachers who say they didn’t have a say in the curriculum outweigh those who did. I would also bring the union in, the [Detroit Federation of Teachers], to help with the selection of the curriculum.”

What metrics do you believe the district should use to gauge whether it is safe to hold in-person school?

Harris said she doesn’t favor face-to-face instruction. She said the district should use state, federal, and local guidelines when making decisions. “If there was a significant decrease [in coronavirus cases] at a steady level, then I would probably change my view. If there was a vaccine I would definitely change my view.”

What experiences/background would you bring to the board?

“I was a special ed teacher for over 20 years,” Harris said. “I was a special education resource teacher, assistant principal, and principal. I’ve come up through the ranks, and that speaks for itself. More educators are needed on the board.”

Zsa Zsa Chantel Hubbard

About the candidate

Age: 35.
Occupation: Media and radio personality and social entrepreneur.
Education: Graduate of Mackenzie High School. Studied at Bowling Green State University. Expected spring 2021 graduate of Wayne County Community College District.
Political/community experience: Has been politically active since high school. Worked for Wayne County Clerk’s office for nearly a decade as deputy clerk and performed many duties, including voter registration and voter awareness.

What is the biggest challenge facing the school district and how should the board address it?

Virtual learning is the biggest challenge, said Hubbard, who is most concerned about students who don’t have appropriate learning environments at home. “We should have made sure all of our students had safe homes where they could learn.” The district, she said, should have partnered with the city to make sure students had adequate housing. The district also should have ensured that all students had adequate resources to complete their online learning. “We need innovative thinking, leadership. We don’t have people who will stand up for these kids and teachers. We have people who are ok going with the grain, putting their head down, while our children are suffering and have the poorest school system in the country. That’s not a funding issue, that’s a leadership issue.”

How would you grade Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s progress in turning around the district?

“I’ll give him a C+. At the end of the day you can only do as much as you’ve been given. He’s not from Detroit (Vitti grew up in nearby Dearborn Heights). He’s not vested in Detroit. There’s no loyalty there.” Her biggest concern: She believes the district is spending too much on administration. She said the school board gave Vitti a blueprint that he has followed. But she doesn’t believe it was enough. “I don’t think the plan was to make sure our kids have quality education.”

What metrics do you believe the district should use to gauge whether it is safe to hold in-person school?

The most important thing, Hubbard said, is gauging how parents feel about it. Any plan to reopen schools more widely should involve bringing small groups of students back at a time. The district should then carefully look at the number of people in buildings not getting COVID and compare them with those who do in order to make bigger decisions about reopening buildings. She also believes the district should create safety packages students can take home to their families. Those packages should include things such as hand sanitizer and masks, Hubbard said.

What experiences/background would you bring to the board?

“I’m a native Detroiter. I’m from the community. I know the community our children have to walk through to go to school.” She also is an alum who graduated 17 years ago and witnessed firsthand the struggles of the education system. As a parent (with a child currently at Cass Technical High School) she sees that those same problems remain. Hubbard said she wants to be part of the effort to improve the district. “We have to make sure that cycle stops. I have experience in the political atmosphere and the political world. What we need is true, effective leadership — people that are not afraid to open their mouths, stand up and make sure we have a voice at the table.”

Jermain Jones

About the candidate

Age: 40
Occupation: Political activist.
Education: Studied at Marygrove College.
Political/community experience: Has been involved in the political scene in Detroit since 2006 and opened a political consulting firm in 2009.

What is the biggest challenge facing the school district and how should the board address it?

Jones said the pandemic “has altered society and the community. The way we operate will probably never go back to how it used to be.” Schools, he said, are among the main institutions that have been affected the most. He said the challenge is balancing at-home learning and in-school learning, especially in a community like Detroit which has a large population of students from low-income families. “We need to address some of those foundational challenges so we can move forward with life post COVID-19.”

How would you grade Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s progress in turning around the district?

Jones said there have been “challenges as it relates to the administrative overseeing of the school district.” Vitti “can be more instrumental in making sure Lansing lawmakers are behind large African-American districts,” he said. Jones said that if elected, he would be more vocal about holding Vitti accountable for building conditions. “Sitting on our hands as school board members is not something I plan to do. I plan to come right in addressing a lot of those issues.”

What metrics do you believe the district should use to gauge whether it is safe to hold in-person school?

Jones said the district and school board should rely on the advice of health experts “and not political agendas and motives.” He said he doesn’t believe now is the time to open school doors more widely to students. “It’s not over. We can very well be sending our children back into dangerous conditions.” Jones noted that in some areas that have opened up widely, schools have had to close because of spikes in COVID cases.

What experiences/background would you bring to the board?

Jones said he doesn’t bring “some fancy Ph.D.” or “powerful political legacy.” I’m a dude with integrity and a reputable member of my community. What I can bring to the board is a true representative of the people.”

Sonya Mays

About the candidate

Age: 44.
Occupation: Chief Executive Officer, Develop Detroit.
Education: Bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and Juris Doctor from the University of Michigan.
Political/community experience: Has served as board member and treasurer of the Detroit school board for four years. Founding CEO of an affordable housing and real estate development nonprofit. Board member of a number of organizations, including Boys & Girls Clubs of Southeastern Michigan, Detroit Public Theatre, Greater Detroit Area Health Council, Alumni Board of Governors for Michigan Ross School of Business.

What is the biggest challenge facing the school district and how should the board address it?

Mays cited several challenges, from safety to finances. “We must ensure that our schools are safe and secure so that our students can concentrate foremost on their education when in the classroom,” Mays said. “We must recruit and retain high performing teachers and DPSCD must continue to reduce chronic student absenteeism. As the current DPSCD [board] treasurer, I have been tackling the district’s most pressing challenges. I have led fiscal policy that supported a fund balance and a $12K increase in teacher starting salaries.”

How would you grade Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s progress in turning around the district?

“I believe that Dr. Vitti has executed the current board’s vision with fidelity. Under his leadership, the district has made progress in academic achievement, as well as other key areas.” Mays cited nearly a dozen examples, including academic progress on both the state M-STEP exam and a rigorous national exam, reduction in chronic absenteeism, restoration of the arts to schools districtwide, expanded technology, water hydration stations in every school, reduction in teacher vacancies.

What metrics do you believe the district should use to gauge whether it is safe to hold in-person school?

“Local infection rates and trends, as well as availability of PPE [personal protective equipment] and cleaning.”

What experiences/background would you bring to the board?

“I have nearly 20 years of local and national experience as a community, public sector, nonprofit and business leader — skills and experiences that are essential for continuing reform work in the district,” Mays said. “My entire career has been about building the skills and credibility to fight for those in our communities with the least.” Mays cited being a graduate of Renaissance High School and the daughter of a retired, longtime district teacher, as well as her experience as a Wall Street investment banker, a key member of the team that led the city of Detroit’s municipal bankruptcy process, and a nonprofit founder.

Ida Short

About the candidate

Age: declined to provide.
Occupation: Professor of English, teaches full time at Schoolcraft College and part time at the Wayne County Community College District.
Education: Bachelor’s and master’s degrees from University of Michigan and doctorate from Ferris State University. Graduate of Western High School in Detroit.
Political/community experience: Served on the Detroit school board when state-appointed emergency managers were in control. Former Girl Scout leader. On the board of the YWCA.

What is the biggest challenge facing the school district and how should the board address it?

Short said there are multiple big challenges in the district, with the most pressing being the experiences some students are having learning online using district-provided tablets. “The computers have problems. The parents don’t know where to get help,” Short said, noting that she’s heard concerns from parents that a help line the district created isn’t as responsive as it should be. Parents and students should be able to get live help from the help line seven days a week, throughout the day and into the evening, she said. That help line, Short said, should also include psychologists, social workers and counselors who can help students and parents who are struggling. Another big challenge, Short said, is the need for parents to have a voice in the district. When Short served on the board previously, she chaired the board’s parent committee. “We had regular meetings with parents. We tried to address the needs of all parents.”

How would you grade Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s progress in turning around the district?

Short said district students are capable of achieving more and questions why that isn’t happening. “Academically we’re not where we should be. You cannot [improve] by isolating yourself from the people on the front lines who are doing the work. It’s important that you meet with them. A leader is only as good as the people that you lead.” She said she doesn’t believe Vitti is doing enough to hear from staff. “It’s apparent to me from talking to teachers and other union members of different unions that there is a disconnect in the communications.”

What metrics do you believe the district should use to gauge whether it is safe to hold in-person school?

“It’s real simple to me,” Short said. “It’s based on what the national, state and local situation is regarding the coronavirus. All that stuff impacts what could happen here in Detroit. We were among the first that had such a huge number of coronavirus cases and deaths here in Detroit. It’s important that we continue to try to keep our numbers down.” Short said the disproportionate impact of COVID on African American, Hispanic and other communities of color should have officials questioning “how can I best protect those people who make up the majority of our community.”

What experiences/background would you bring to the board?

Short said she is “highly trained,” after taking a number of classes through the Michigan Association of School Boards during her previous stint on the board. She cited her experience leading the board’s parent committee and being part of the audit committee. “I know how to read a budget and ask the right questions and I know what questions to ask auditors. I am also an active advocate of healthy food for our children.” She also cited her experience as an educator. “I’m an educator. I have a master’s in reading. I really understand what our children need. I’m very eager to bring our district back to where we were prior to the start of state control.”

Chico Frank Sorrell

About the candidate

Age: 55.
Occupation: retired district teacher, current high school district basketball coach.
Education: Bachelor’s degree from Howard University, master’s degree from University of Detroit-Mercy.
Political/community experience: Volunteering and working with a local youth football league, building community in McDougall Farms through nonprofit work.

What is the biggest challenge facing the school district and how should the board address it?

Sorrell said he wants better support for teachers. “The teacher morale has always been low for many years. And teachers feel overwhelmed and disrespected,” he said. “We have to make sure … the teachers are [taken] care of, the teachers are happy and that the teachers have a say so.”

How would you grade Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s progress in turning around the district?

Sorrell said it’s hard to grade the superintendent because he doesn’t know the criteria, but he did give him credit for the district’s efforts to bridge the digital divide. “I do like the fact that he was able to get the business leaders and Southeast Michigan to help provide tablets for the students” he said. “So in that regard, I think that was wonderful. I gave him high marks.”

He was more critical of Vitti’s leadership during the COVID-19 crisis.

“I heard a lot of complaints about how some of the decisions are being made. Forcing teachers back into buildings when there’s a pandemic,” he said. He’s also heard from teacher colleagues about the challenges of adapting to the school year.

What metrics do you believe the district should use to gauge whether it is safe to hold in-person school?

Sorrell said the district should continue following the guidance of public health experts. But he said he’s cautious about expanding in-person learning. “We still don’t have a handle on it. So why would we put our kids in danger? Why would we put staff in danger?”

What experiences/background would you bring to the board?

Sorrell said he has more classroom experience than many of the other school board candidates and coaches high school basketball. “I’m engaged with the community. I think I’m the best person for the job,” he said.

Misha Stallworth

About the candidate

Age: 31.
Occupation: Deputy CEO, CitizenDetroit.
Education: Bachelor’s from the University of Chicago, master’s from the University of Michigan School of Social Work.
Political/community experience: Served four years on the DPSCD board of education. Volunteered or worked with Big Brothers Big Sisters, Cody Rouge Community Action Alliance, Developing KIDS, Meals on Wheels, Michigan Senior Advocates Council, Senior Housing Preservation Detroit, City Year, New Leaders in African-Centered Social Work, City Year Los Angeles, Upward Bound, Drug Free Youth in Detroit, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., National Association of Black Social Workers, Detroit Global Shapers, Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolkids.

What is the biggest challenge facing the school district and how should the board address it?

“As a current member of the DPSCD board, I have been tackling the District’s most pressing challenges,” Stallworth said. “At the top of the list is our students’ proficiency and opportunities to excel in literacy and math. Their quality of life depends on it, their access to future opportunities depends on it, and the district itself depends on it since academic quality is at the core of a family’s school choice for their child.”

The district has reformed curriculum in math and science, but more improvements must be made to science and elective classes, she added. Safe school buildings are also important to allow students to focus on academics.

“That means addressing the challenges with our buildings and ensuring we have the right staff in the right roles,” she said, adding that recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers and support staff, especially those focused on social and emotional support, is critical.

How would you grade Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s progress in turning around the district?

“I believe Dr. Vitti has been a very strong superintendent,” Stallworth said, noting that he has created new opportunities for students and followed through on the board’s vision.

“He has been driven by strong values in support and love for children as well as determination to tangibly improve the district using data driven approaches,” she added.

She credits a long list of successes to Dr. Vitti, including improvement on the M-STEP exam that outpaced statewide improvement, as well as data showing more than half of K-8 students made at least one year of growth in reading, and more than a quarter made at least a year of growth in math. Stallworth also cited declines in the rate of chronic absenteeism. She pointed out that all K-8 students have access to art, music, or performing arts, up from 50% in 2017, when Vitti was hired. She also noted that Vitti implemented teacher trainings that address oppression and trauma, and established career training pathways for all high schools.

What metrics do you believe the district should use to gauge whether it is safe to hold in-person school?

Stallworth said, “Local infection rates and trends, as well as availability of PPE and cleaning protocols,” should determine whether in-person classes are held.

What experiences/background would you bring to the board?

“The last four years of serving on the board have been invaluable experience,” she said.

“We’ve consistently had to make tough decisions while prioritizing academic excellence and rebuilding the integrity of the district. Given the uncertain times we face now, that experience is critical for the future.”

“I have also spent most of my career as a youth development specialist in schools and after school settings,” she added. “So, I have a unique understanding about the needs of young people and the families trying to support them.”

Stallworth said it is critical for board members to understand the difference between policy/governance and operations. The Detroit Board of Education is a policy board, making it especially important to recognize the separation between board members and the superintendent. She noted that the superintendent is the primary employee of the board who must be supervised and evaluated by the board.

“An effective board member should also be prepared to receive feedback from the community,” she said. “I have led the revision of the student code of conduct, and established the Sanctuary District policy protecting the rights of immigrant students and families. I’m also very vocal about my support for adding the Muslim holidays of Eid to our school calendar and intend to finally accomplish this within my next term.”


Iris A. Taylor

About the candidate

Age: Did not provide.
Occupation: Healthcare Consultant/ Retired President DMC Detroit Receiving Hospital and University Health Center.
Education: Bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and doctorate from Wayne State University. Fellow at the Wharton School of Business.
Political/community experience: Current member and president, DPSCD school board.

What is the biggest challenge facing the school district and how should the board address it?

Taylor said the most pressing challenges, aside from the pandemic, are addressing the district’s aging infrastructure, being removed from oversight by the state Detroit Financial Review Commission, lobbying for more equitable state and federal funding, and continuing to provide resources that help students with achievement.

“We will continue to strengthen our relationship with the community and business partnerships,” Taylor said. “We have started to build trust and will continue to demonstrate the district’s leadership and board are responsible stewards.”

How would you grade Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s progress in turning around the district?

Vitti’s overall performance “has been highly effective to excellent,” Taylor said. “His experience in school reform is evident in DPSCD transformative work. Specifically, implementing a new curriculum for K-12, rate of improvement with partnership schools, opening of a new school [Marygrove], development of career academies, and use and implementation of technology for instruction.”

What metrics do you believe the district should use to gauge whether it is safe to hold in-person school?

“The metrics and criteria established by the CDC, MDHHS and City of Detroit Health Department will guide measurement of the environment,” Taylor said.

What experiences/background would you bring to the board?

“My collective experiences as a hospital president, mediator, and community board memberships enables me to be an effective school board member. I understand the role as a leader to inform policy and governance and the superintendent’s role to navigate operations and academic reform.

“During the past four years as board president, we hired one of the best urban reform superintendents in the nation. We developed a sound strategic plan with accountability metrics that indicate we were on pace for success prior to the pandemic. I have facilitated our active support and implementation of the strategic plan objectives.”


John Telford

About the candidate

Age: 84.
Occupation: Retired educator. Previously interim superintendent, Detroit Public Schools. Also held leadership roles in the Madison Heights, Rochester, Plymouth-Canton, and Berkley school districts.
Education: Bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and doctorate from Wayne State University. Graduate of Denby High School.
Political/community experience: Previously ran for county commission and Detroit mayor. Has run some community agencies. Member of the Keep the Vote/No Takeover Coalition. Lifetime member of the National Action Network. Vice president of Detroit Track Old-Timers.

What is the biggest challenge facing the school district and how should the board address it?

Telford said he’s discovered in the last few years of teaching poetry to high school students that too many of them can’t read. He blames it on nearly two decades of state control (which mostly ended in 2016), saying that period “brought our reading scores to the bottom in the country.” Telford says that in order to make literacy a priority, the district must use a research-based program that is proven to work. “The current board members have had three years to do something about it and they haven’t done anything.”

How would you grade Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s progress in turning around the district?

Telford said he likes Vitti personally and credits the superintendent with being a “good manager” and “a good organizer.” But he’s critical of what he says are tiny and insignificant gains in reading since Vitti arrived. “Instead of being in the toilet, [the reading scores] are about an inch above the toilet.” Telford reiterated the need for an aggressive approach to improving reading achievement. “If kids can’t read, they can’t do anything else.”

What metrics do you believe the district should use to gauge whether it is safe to hold in-person school?

Telford said the district and board should listen to scientists and doctors such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. “In my own opinion we prematurely opened school. We should have some schools open as centers for certain services. I don’t think there should be face-to-face classes happening now. It should be happening online.”

What experiences/background would you bring to the board?

“I’m very knowledgeable. I’ve been an educator for six decades. I’ve run school districts. I’ve taught. I’ve run (nonprofit) agencies. I have a wealth of experience and knowledge that I don’t think any other candidate brings to the board. LaMar [Lemmons, a former board member running for an open seat] brings a lot of political experience. I’m savvy in the academic area.”

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