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$5M gift to build Cranbrook girls school
Detroit News
Sept. 14, 2006

by Nolan Finley

Julie Fisher Cummings calls it a "gulp gift," suggesting that even for the very wealthy, five million bucks is a lot of money.

You don't sign a check with that many zeros on it without spending a lot of nights tossing and turning, and weighing very carefully how the money will impact the community.

Julie and husband Peter Cummings will announce today a $5 million gift to Cranbrook to build a new middle school for girls. It's the largest donation made to the schools since the founding donors, the Booth family, then the owners of The Detroit News, provided the funds to open Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills in 1922.

And it is the first major donation made by members of the Fisher family since Max Fisher, perhaps the greatest Detroit philanthropist of his time, died more than a year ago. The Cummingses initially committed the money anonymously, but decided to go public for reasons that have nothing to do with ego.

"We decided to talk about it to raise the bar for the new generation of donors," Peter Cummings says. "We are losing a great generation of philanthropists. Some, like my father-in-law and Josephine Ford, are already gone. Others are aging and won't be around much longer. The question is, 'who will take their place?'

"There are people coming up behind them who have the resources to continue their work. Julie and I hope to encourage them to step up."

Peter Cummings says the bleak Michigan economy makes developing a new base of big donors essential. Governmental support of cultural and charitable institutions has all but evaporated. Corporations are hurting and have cut their giving. Foundations and individuals have to play the leadership role.

Many younger donors are already making an impact, Cummings says. Domino's Chairman Dave Brandon and his wife, Jan, for example, announced last week a $4 million gift to the University of Michigan.

"But there are many more sitting on the sidelines who could make a difference," Peter Cummings says.

Cranbrook is a particular passion for the Cummings family. Julie is an alumna, and the couple moved back to Michigan from Florida in the late 1980s specifically so their children could attend the schools.

"This is our biggest gift, and that's intentional," Julie Cummings says. "I feel very strongly about the institution and what it's trying to do. It's very important for girls to find their voice at that age, as they become empowered as women."

The girls middle school is currently housed in the basement of the high school. Its new site will be next to the Institute of Science and will be the first new campus on Cranbrook's 320 acres since the science institute opened in 1949, also with money from the Booth family. Programs of the two institutions will be intertwined, giving girls a greater exposure to science.

"This is huge for us, and Peter and Julie are making it happen," says Cranbrook President Rick Rahm, adding the Cummingses' donation should push fundraising for the school over the top. "Their gift gives us the momentum to get this project done."

The $16 million Kingswood Middle School is expected to open in the fall of 2009.

Cranbrook has 1,629 students in its various schools, including 135 middle school girls. About a quarter of the students are on scholarship, and 30 percent are minority.

The Cummingses are not only providing the major funding for the new school, but also will stay involved in the operation of Cranbrook.

"A new kind of giving is emerging," Julie Cummings says. "People aren't just scattering checks around. They are targeting their money to institutions they can connect to."

Peter and Julie Cummings are connected to a number of institutions in this community, including the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Community Foundation and the Jewish Federation.

That they intend to at least partially fill the philanthropic shoes of Max Fisher, and recruit others to join them, is good news for Metro Detroit.

Nolan Finley is editorial page editor of The News. Reach him at nfinley@detnews.com or (313) 222-2064. Watch Nolan Finley at 8:30 p.m. Fridays on "Am I Right?" on Detroit Public TV, Channel 56.

Note the line on which that story ended: Good news for Metro Detroit.

MONEY WOES: District is reeling from debt, falling enrollment

By Marison Bello and Jennifer Dixon

Detroit Free Press

September 14, 2006

Despite reaching a cost-saving deal with its teachers, Detroit's public schools face a fundamental crisis: Crushing bills. Shrinking income. And a load of debt that is only going to get worse.

The situation is so bleak, experts say, that any unexpected expense -- a run of high heating bills in a rough winter, for example -- could be devastating. And if more students leave the district than estimated, more layoffs loom.

"The handwriting is on the wall," said Joseph Harris, a certified public accountant who, as the former auditor general for the City of Detroit, raised similar concerns about the city's troubled finances.

"It's doomsday for the system as we know it."

For students and their families, the outlook is grim -- fewer art and gym classes, and the potential loss of intramural sports, cheerleading activities and spelling bees.

A look at the system's most-recent financial documents shows:

The district's net worth has steadily dropped, reflecting a system that increasingly owes more in debt than it owns in cash, buildings or other investments. Its net worth went from $159 million in 2002 to being $31 million in the hole by the end of the 2005 school year, according to the district's most-recent year-end audited report.

Last year, officials borrowed $210 million to pay the bills. As a result, the debt payments the district makes from its general fund will rise from $2.9 million last fiscal year to $19.4 million this year, according to the district's deficit elimination plan.

The city's student enrollment is projected to fall by 42% from 1999 to 2009. A loss of 10,000 students annually translates into $74 million less a year in state aid.

The district has only 1% of its $1.4-billion budget in reserve, a signal of financial distress which is tantamount to "having a nickel in the bank," said Tom White, who heads Michigan School Business Officials, a state organization of school financial officials.

White's group recommends districts have at least 10% of their budgets in reserve to avoid having to borrow money.

It remains unclear precisely what effect this week's settlement of the teachers strike will have on the district's financial future.

Superintendent William F. Coleman III said Wednesday that he would not discuss the district's finances in detail with the Free Press. He said the full financial picture cannot be completed until officials negotiate concessions with another dozen unions and get a student head count.

Up-to-the-moment data on district finances also remain elusive. Even the budget the school board adopted last month has changed because the district did not get the concessions it wanted from the teachers. The district says it will have to make 2% across-the-board cuts to cover savings it did not recoup from the teachers.

In the last two years, the district has closed more than 30 schools and laid off about 2,000 people. School board President Jimmy Womack said the district is solvent but must close up to 50 more schools and make additional job cuts to remain so.

Otherwise, the district's future remains bleak.

"The district will go further in debt, and it can't survive going further into debt," he said.

"From my perspective, there are no sacred cows, as long as what we do doesn't interfere with academic development."

For parents, the continued disruptions, cuts in programs and classes and teacher layoffs exacerbate an already ugly situation.

Aletha Kates, a laid-off factory worker, said she pulled her son out of Campbell Elementary on the east side last year after officials eliminated free after-school special-education classes and started charging $400 annually.

She enrolled him at the nearby Timbuktu Academy for Science and Technology, a charter school that now will keep almost all of the state money for her son that would otherwise flow to Detroit Public Schools.

This year, Kates enrolled her two younger children in the academy as well, a move she said she planned to make even before talk of a teachers strike.

"They have smaller classes, one-on-one learning," Kates said of the charter school. "To me, it's a more calm environment. It's not as wild as DPS."

As more parents like Kates pull out, the district's financial death spiral -- as Tom Watkins, the former state education superintendent, calls it -- can only be stemmed with tough, structural changes.

As with U.S. car companies, which must close plants and curtail pension and health care costs, the district must do the same, Watkins said Wednesday. Despite the problems, he said he does not see another state takeover of the district.

Still, concern mounted as the teachers strike lingered.

Terry Stanton, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Treasury, said the state appointed a group to watch over the Detroit school finances after it borrowed money to cover its deficit last year. He declined to discuss the district's financial future because, he said, many issues must still be resolved.

Liz Boyd, a spokeswoman for Gov. Jennifer Granholm, offered only this general assessment of the district's financial crisis: "When districts lose students, they need to downsize, but they need time to make sure the process doesn't hurt kids."

Marilyn Dailey, a second-grade teacher at Howe Elementary who has been teaching in the district since 1968, questioned whether administrative misspending contributed to the district's money woes.

Dailey said her school is just 3 years old and yet the drinking fountain in the main corridor doesn't work, a first-floor ceiling leaks, and it took three years for the heating and cooling systems to work properly. She said her room was so cold the year it opened that she bought sweatshirts for her students at a secondhand store to keep them warm.

If the district "handled things in a businesslike way, we wouldn't be in the mess we're in," Dailey said. "Detroit just seems like they've mismanaged millions of dollars."

Contact MARISOL BELLO at 313-222-6678 or bello@freepress.com. Contact JENNIFER DIXON at 313-223-4410 or jbdixon@freepress.com. Staff writer Chastity Pratt contributed to this report.

— Nolan Finley, Marison Bello and Jennifer Dixon
Detroit News and Detroit Free Press




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