by Joy Mohammed
Surely you remember this Tale from the Hood that came out of Detroit, Michigan this year: the slum-like conditions that had become homeostasis for Detroit’s schools. Ceiling tiles falling like rain, warped wooden floors, bathrooms without, well, toilets. Then like the parting of the red sea came the national headline: “12 Detroit principals stole $1M in kickback scheme!” As if a few principals stealing money was the primordial strain of the educational flu that Detroit has been in for decades.
Sell that shit to someone who doesn’t know better.
One of the principals, Josette Buendia, I worked with for a year after I graduated college. I was 23, pregnant, newly married. Buendia has to be about 45, divorced with two budding adolescent children. I remember one day she sat me in her office and told me that my cute bellyband was not cutting it a maternity fashion statement. I just needed bigger clothes. She handed me a shirt that fit. I still wear the Bennet Elementary shirt to this day. She fought the embezzlement charges last month, lost, and now faces up to 10 years at her sentencing in April.
Granted, some of her colleagues are slime and allowed schools to exist in failure as they replaced their roofs and drove luxury cars. That was not the Josette Buendia narrative. Her school, Bennett, was the first and only where I could eat off the floors. The hardwood shone in the sunlight. Oh, sunlight — you could see it because the windows were not barred and covered, a trend Buendia started. Graffiti that went up Monday was removed Tuesday morning. There was no trash on the sidewalk. And your car was safe while you were at work. Teachers and children smiled when they arrived and smiled when they left. Bennett sits in the ethnic enclave of Mexican town. So parents came to learn English, and the staff worked to learn Spanish. It was the highest-functioning elementary school in Detroit I have seen to date.
So when news came that my school leader had received $45,775 in kickbacks over the years, I knew exactly what she had done with that money. She had invested it into the school.
Bribery and conspiracy are all illegal, and not the proper way to fund your school. However, Detroit public schools have been the personal mammary gland for well-connected Detroiters to suckle from for years, leaving few options for people like Buendia and teachers. I remember working at a school where I was not allowed to make copies all year because the DPS office failed to pay so many invoices that Staples refused to do business with us anymore. They reached out to Office Max, who had heard about us and turned down the contract. The solution: a former board member created a copy supply company and began to supply the schools. They froze pay raises and refused to reimburse for supplies purchased by teachers, whose starting salary is $34,000.
I remember when they laid off all of the locally employed janitorial staff and signed a contract with Sodexo, a company managed by then-Mayor Dave Bing’s wife. The new janitorial staff operated with such disdain for the students and their condition, we were taking out our own trash by the end of the year.
U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade is quoted saying, “the principal took bribes in exchange for shortchanging the school district. Regardless of what she did with the money, Detroit Public Schools and the students pay the price.”
That is the same as telling someone who makes minimum wage if they stop drinking Starbucks once a week, they, too, could own a mansion. It doesn’t make sense.
Long before Buendia chose to use ill-gotten means to solve the same systemic issues that still exist in Detroit schools, there were some serious issues that needed to be addressed. DPS and the Michigan legislature will not and has not financially supported or managed Detroit educators or Detroit kids. So, like Olivia Pope tells us, “The fish rots from the head.” Cutting off a fin won’t make it smell any better.