By Charles Sercombe
In an emotional and packed special school board meeting, a divided board voted Wednesday evening to hire one of their own as the next district superintendent.
In a 4-2 vote, Jaleelah Ahmed, the Director of the district’s English Language Development, will now be the next superintendent.
Technically, the vote was to allow contract negotiations to begin with Ahmed, a Yemeni-American, who has worked in the Hamtramck district for three years.
The first vote to consider on who to be the superintendent went to Dr. Youssef Mosallam, who is from the Dearborn Public School District, where he is Executive Director of Community Partnerships, College & Career Readiness Achievement.
Mosallam was one of several Dearborn school officials named in a lawsuit filed by a fired school employee, who accused them of harassing non-Arab, non-Muslim employees. That lawsuit was thrown out in court.
Neither of the candidates were at the meeting.
The Hamtramck teachers’ union started an online write-in campaign for Mosallam. Nearly 200 online letters of support were forwarded to the board in favor of him.
Three board members, Evan Major, Dennis Lukas and Magdalena Srodek voted for hiring Mosallam.
Four boardmembers, Salah Hadwan, Moortadha Obaid, Jihan Aiyash and Showkat Chowdhury voted in opposition.
Before that vote, Major, the vice president of the board, read from a prepared statement outlining the vast experience that Mosallam has.
Major said that Ahmed, on the other hand, now has to start working on becoming certified to remain as a superintendent, while Mosallam already is qualified.
When that vote failed, Major then motioned to hire Ahmed.
But before that vote took place, Board President Srodek pointedly asked Chowdhury, who had been out of the country for the entire interview process of the superintendent candidates, why he was supporting Ahmed.
Chowdhury, a Bangladeshi-American, said he was impressed that Ahmed has been working in the district.
She also asked Hadwan, Obaid and Aiyash, who are all Yemeni-Americans, why they were supporting her.
Hadwan said it came down to imagining himself as a student, and who he would want as superintendent.
“I believe Jaleelah has a better vision,” he said.
Srodek, a Polish-American, spoke just before calling the vote, and in a lengthy and emotional plea, she urged those who voted against Mosallam to reconsider.
At times choking back tears, she said that by having Ahmed remain in her department and Mosallam as superintendent, it would be “the best of both worlds”
“I urge you to reconsider,” Srodek said. “This is a monumental step. We are on the cusp.”
A number of African-Americans in the community opposed having Ahmed become the superintendent.
Darla Swint said, in a social media exchange, that Ahmed insulted the black community during an interview with the school board. During a portion of the interview when the public was allowed to ask questions, Swint asked what Ahmed would do for troubled black students.
Swint said she was offended when Ahmed used the term “dysfunctional” to describe the problem.
“The moment she used the word dysfunctional to describe my community of people, I shut down. …,” Swint said.
The vote for Ahmed went 5-2, with Lukas and Srodek voting in opposition.
The vote stumbled for a moment when Chowdhury at first voted against Ahmed, but then quickly corrected himself.
A murmuring erupted throughout the room and in the hallway where onlookers were pressed shoulder-to-shoulder.
One person was heard saying: “He doesn’t even know what he’s voting on.”
Immediately after the vote, Board President Srodek called for a vote of unity to support Ahmed.
That was the only vote regarding this issue that was unanimous in support.
At the end of the meeting, passions still ran high.
A number of teachers were visibly shaken, some crying.
Michelle Cook, the president of the Hamtramck Federation of Teachers, declined to comment, while wiping away tears.
Inside the board meeting room, Latrello Sephers, 50, an African-American who has lived in Hamtramck his whole life, was shouting at boardmembers.
“You guys just set back black people 30 years in this meeting,” he said.
Assuming contract negotiations are successful and the board agrees to the contract, Ahmed will be the first Muslim superintendent of the Hamtramck School District.
That cultural shift has also played out in city government, where the city council is a Muslim majority – a first in the entire country.
Current Superintendent, Tom Niczay, is retiring at the end of June after serving 11 years as superintendent. He has been in education for 40 years, mostly in the Hamtramck District.
May 17, 2019