In a recent night when temperatures hovered near zero, Aliya Moore and her two school-aged daughters bundled up for the 20-minute drive from their home in northwest Detroit to the Frederick Douglass Academy, a public school not far from Midtown.
They made the trek through the bitter cold to join about 40 others for a meeting of public officials who’ve been stripped of all their power — the Detroit Board of Education. The board discussed legal action to challenge the appointment of yet another state-appointed manager to run the district — the fourth in less than six years — and floated the idea of seeking an independent audit.
To pursue either of those things, the board would have to figure out how do so with no district funding — which has also been eviscerated by order of the emergency manager.
Until a few years ago, Moore never bothered coming to meetings like this. For a long time, she confesses, little thought was paid to either the board or the emergency manager.
It’s not that she didn’t care about the quality of education her children receive. She cares deeply. But as long as things were going well at her neighborhood school, she didn’t feel the need to become enmeshed in the conflicts surrounding the district’s long-standing financial crisis.
And things were very good at the Oakman Elementary-Orthopedic School, specially built in the 1920s to accommodate the needs of children with physical handicaps.
Moore’s eldest daughter, 13-year-old Chrishawna, had been going there since kindergarten. Tyliya, now 7, spent much time at Oakman as well, accompanying her mom on frequent visits to do volunteer work there.
Neither child has a disability. Instead, Moore liked that the school was within walking distance of their home. More than that, though, she wanted Chrishawna and Tyliya to learn about diversity and how to get along with a variety of other children.
In that respect, Oakman offered a special opportunity.
The girls say they loved it there, and formed close relationships with the other kids and the staff, most of whom had been at the school for years.
When it was announced that the place would close in 2013 in an attempt to help narrow the district’s perpetual budget gap, the community rallied in an attempt to save it. Activists and parents joined students, drawing widespread media coverage.
But the protests, heart-rending as they were, failed.
That’s in line with the purpose of Michigan’s emergency manager law, considered by experts to be more far-reaching than any other like it in the nation. Given vast authority over financially struggling cities and school districts, appointed emergency managers can make unpopular cuts without having to worry about being voted out of office by irate constituents.
So Oakman’s doors were boarded up and its students sent to other schools less well-equipped to meet their needs.
And Moore was transformed into an activist.
“Unless it is affecting you, you don’t get involved,” she said. “You think, ‘That’s not my fight.’”
Because of its unique qualities, she believed the school would survive no matter how bad the district’s finances grew. She called it, “being in my Oakman bubble.”
“We thought they would never close Oakman,” said Moore.
But close it did.
By Curt Guyette, Investigative Reporter