International Academy Leadership, Finances Under Scrutiny

International Academy East in Troy

By ELENA DURNBAUGH

The Bloomfield Hills School District, along with Troy and other consortium school districts, recently launched a task force to investigate concerns about the International Academy regarding lack of oversight surrounding a failed venture to launch a school in China.

Troy School Board President Karl Schmidt, who represents Troy Schools on the task force, said this new ad-hoc committee will look into concerns regarding IA Principal Lynne Gibson and the possibility of financial impropriety.

Gibson has been the principal of the IA since 2009. She is also the chairperson of the Joint Steering Committee, which is made up of representatives from all 13 of the IA’s consortium school districts.

Because Bloomfield Hills Schools is the fiscal agent for the main campus, Gibson is an employee of that district, but she oversees all three IA schools in Oakland County, including IA East in Troy and IA West in White Lake.

Over 1,500 students from across 13 districts in southeast Michigan attend the IA. The magnet school consistently ranks as one of the best public high schools in the country. Unlike most public high schools, one district school board does not oversee the IA. Instead, the governing body is the Joint Steering Committee.

International Academy Okma campus in Bloomfield Hills
Who was making decisions? Joint Steering Committee in Violation of Open Meetings Act

In December 2018, the Michigan State University First Amendment Law Clinic notified the Joint Steering Committee, Gibson, Bloomfield Hills Schools Superintendent Rob Glass, and members of the IA consortium that the committee was in violation of the Michigan Open Meetings Act.

The meetings were closed to the public, minutes were not posted, and a quorum was not present to make decisions. Nancy Costello, director of the Michigan State University First Amendment Law Clinic, said that between 2014 and 2018, 90 percent of the meetings held by the committee did not have a quorum present.

“There was no public oversight of the decisions that were being made,” Costello said. “The question becomes who’s making the decisions, who’s accountable for the decisions, who’s benefiting from the decisions?”

Since then, the committee has taken steps to comply with the Open Meetings Act, including posting meeting times and locations online and publishing its previous meeting minutes on the IA website.

Costello said that although these actions were progress, the committee’s response is still incomplete. All of the minutes from Joint Steering Committee meetings must be posted, along with supporting documents.

The law clinic sent another letter to school officials in January, and since then, officials have said the committee is working toward resolving the issues.

Transparency Concerns at Qingdao International Academy

But parents and students still have concerns about transparency.

At a Bloomfield Hills School Board meeting on January 17, community members asked the board to investigate decisions made at Joint Steering Committee meetings regarding the establishment and funding of a private sister school in China known as the Qingdao Okma International Academy (QIA).

The school in China was established in 2015 by Gibson’s husband, Bert Okma, who started the IA in Oakland County. In June 2017, it closed because the school failed to thrive, officials said.

On January 27, a former IA student started an online petition calling for Gibson to step down as principal. The petition stated that Gibson should step down “as a direct consequence of her involvement in the QIA project.”   

More than 1,100 people have signed the petition.

Community members also want to know if funds from the IA Foundation, a nonprofit charity also known as Partners International Education, were used inappropriately in connection to the QIA school.

At its February 7 meeting, the Bloomfield Hills School Board announced it was establishing a task force to look into people’s questions and concerns. The committee’s first meeting was on February 20. Paul Kolin, president of the Bloomfield Hills School Board, said that all consortium districts were invited to participate and that representatives from several districts including Troy, Birmingham, Huron Valley, and West Bloomfield attended.

Bloomfield Hills Board of Education President Paul Kolin and the Bloomfield Hills School Board discussed the IA task force at a Feb. 21 school board meeting.

“The idea of the task force is all these questions,” Kolin said. “How much connection does the current principal have to what was going on in China?”

A Concerted Effort

According to Kolin, Gibson’s leadership role at the IA made it important for all consortium schools to be involved with the task force.

“I think there’s a misconception that everything falls on Bloomfield Hills,” Kolin said. “[Gibson] oversees all the schools, so we wanted to make sure that … whatever happens, they feel comfortable.”

Troy School Board President Karl Schmidt said that the committee would defer back to Bloomfield Hills concerning Gibson.

“It’s not our jurisdiction,” he said. “The only thing I can do is bring that back to my board.”

Kolin agreed that because Gibson is a Bloomfield Hills Schools employee, his school board would have to take the lead, but he stressed that the questions being addressed by the task force were not just a Bloomfield Hills problem.

“We needed to bring in all these districts,” Kolin said. “By no means should we be responsible for the IA.”

Schmidt said that he’s worried that unrest in the broader organization could disrupt operations at the IA’s Troy campus.

Troy School Board President
Karl Schmidt

“IA East is running beautifully,” he said. “We’ll only be involved to the extent that is appropriate for Troy.”

In addition to examining Gibson and the IA Foundation, the task force will work to clarify the IA consortium agreement and determine what is best for making sure the school has proper oversight.

“The long term is to take a look at the structure and who has that responsibility,” Kolin said. “It can’t all fall on Bloomfield Hills.”

Schmidt said that the task force discussed different options for oversight, but it was too early on in their discussions to say what the model would be. He said it wouldn’t make sense for IA East in Troy to break away from the rest of the organization because it would be costly, and that IA East gained something by working together with other schools and districts.

“The consortium itself is strong,” he said.

The task force investigation is expected to last at least three months. Throughout the process, committee members are expected to report back to their respective school boards. The next IA Joint Steering Committee meeting will be held at IA East on Monday, March 4 at 6 p.m. The next regular Troy school board meeting is Tuesday, March 19 at 7 p.m. at the Troy School District Services Building.