LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Now let's hear why Detroit school principals are accused of corruption and why some parents still support them. A dozen principals are accused of taking payoffs in exchange for contracts. The accusations have shocked the city. But listen to the reasons some parents say the story is more complicated. Michigan Radio's Sarah Cwiek reports.
SARAH CWIEK, BYLINE: Here's how the alleged scheme worked. Twelve principals, all working separately, gave contracts for school supplies to a vendor, who then kicked back some profits to them. The federal charges come at a particularly bad time for the Detroit public schools. The district needs hundreds of millions of dollars in long-term state aid. As its financial crisis deepened this winter, teachers staged a series of sick-out protests to draw attention to decrepit conditions in many schools. Detroit U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade says the alleged fraud totals $2 and a half million. She calls this yet another gut punch.
BARBARA MCQUADE: Any time a principal, who is entrusted with the public trust to make sure that their work is for the benefit of the children, is instead diverting money for their own personal profit, it is egregious conduct.
CWIEK: But on the ground, it's a more complicated story. Several of the principals were well-respected leaders of some stand-out schools, like Thirkell Elementary-Middle School. Its principal, Clara Smith, is accused of taking almost $200,000 in kickbacks. Parent James Rushing calls that shocking.
JAMES RUSHING: It's pretty much inhumane, you know - 'Cause it's like once we stop caring for each other, that's the point in time when we stop being human beings and become robots.
CWIEK: Many parents at Bennett Elementary School in southwest Detroit are standing behind their accused principal. Josette Buendia is well loved by many at this tight-knit community school, even though she's charged with taking more than $45,000 in kickbacks. Christina Estrada was furious when she first heard about the charges. But she says Buendia did amazing things for the school.
CHRISTINA ESTRADA: And I feel like, you know, hey, you're innocent until you're proven guilty. And I have her back.
CWIEK: For others, the timing and larger political implications of the charges are more troubling.
PATTI MCCOIN: My first thought was, hello, Distraction.
CWIEK: Patti McCoin is a middle school math teacher in Detroit. McCoin says before this, the focus was on the district's larger crisis and the state of Michigan's role in creating it. The Detroit public school system has been under the control of state-appointed emergency managers since 2009 and some kind of state control for most of the past 16 years. McCoin thinks these latest accusations are relatively minor and was reminded of that when cleaning out her classroom recently.
MCCOIN: And there was a couple left-over books from when Barbara Byrd-Bennett had ordered the "StoryTown" series.
CWIEK: Byrd-Bennett was a top district official under its first emergency manager, Robert Bobb. She made a $40-million, curriculum-changing deal with publishing giant Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt. It was the single largest contract in Detroit schools' history.
MCCOIN: We used it for one year.
CWIEK: Some suspect Byrd-Bennett rigged that contract. And she recently pleaded guilty to bribery for a similar scheme at Chicago public schools. Ida Short is on Detroit's elected school board, which has been virtually powerless for years. She thinks these latest charges just scratched the surface.
IDA SHORT: Let's get the big fish. These are little fish that you've got.
CWIEK: Bigger fish like questionable real estate deals and multimillion dollar construction contracts for buildings that were later shut down or given away. The board recently filed a federal class action lawsuit contending that under state control, Detroit public schools have deteriorated to such an extent they violate student civil rights. Short says the latest corruption allegations are symptoms of that larger dysfunction. She says principals normally wouldn't approve these kinds of contracts on their own.
SHORT: We have no oversight. So you have an emergency manager. And you have schools that are actually run as individual schools and not as a district.
CWIEK: The district's current emergency manager, Steven Rhodes, has put all the accused principals on unpaid leave. Not all have been arraigned yet. Most seem likely to take plea deals. But many in Michigan's Republican-dominated state Legislature, already skeptical about extending a fiscal lifeline to the district, now see these charges as more proof the district can't return to local control. Some even think it should be allowed to go broke, even though all Michigan taxpayers would ultimately be on the hook for at least half a billion dollars of its massive debt. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Cwiek in Detroit.
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