A girl runs in front of a Flint Community Schools bus.
Photo: Adam Stoltman

The following is a statement from Ridgway White, Mott Foundation president and CEO.

The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation has always believed in the importance of a strong public school district to serve Flint students and families. At the same time, we recognize that the Flint Community Schools district has faced decades of challenges that have led to shrinking enrollment, crumbling infrastructure, financial distress and poor academic outcomes.

The Mott Foundation’s longstanding offer to provide up to $200 million in grant funding to help support and strengthen the district is not a criticism of FCS or its board. Rather, it reflects recognition of the importance of the district, the challenges it faces, and the fact that the only way to make real change for kids is for a variety of community institutions, parents and others who care about the future of Flint kids to come together.

No institution can do this alone, including FCS. And Mott isn’t trying to do it alone either. We want to work in partnership by listening to what district leaders, parents, students and the community want and then providing grant support to help make that happen.

Unfortunately, there are some in the community who are promoting false narratives regarding how and why Mott has been involved in conversations about providing resources that could enable the district to make transformational change. So, I want to set the record straight.

First, there have been no secret meetings about the draft memorandum of understanding, which has been in the works for nearly four years. Over the course of those years, we’ve worked with Flint Board of Education presidents Harold Woodson, Diana Wright and Casey Lester and have had conversations with Carol McIntosh. Work on a draft MOU began when Bilal Tawaab was superintendent. When Derrick Lopez succeeded Mr. Tawaab, he suggested a number of changes. Soon after Anita Steward took the helm as superintendent, Mott and other community partners who have been involved started meeting with her.

It has always been the intention that the draft MOU would serve as a springboard for discussion with the Board of Education and the broader community. The process did not play out as intended only because the draft document was leaked before that could happen. And the reason there were nine drafts before the document was shared is because of the rapid transitions in district leadership.

The Mott Foundation has never proposed or considered owning any of the schools. An earlier version of the MOU included the possibility of Mott Community College owning a new high school, in large part because that could have leveraged funding in the form of state appropriations that community colleges are eligible for. There has never been a version of the MOU in which the Mott Foundation would have owned any FCS buildings.

The Mott Foundation is not seeking to direct how FCS uses other funding sources. The idea of an MOU among many partners and FCS was in the works years before current federal stimulus funds were made available to help FCS recover from the pandemic. What’s true is that combining available federal funding with potential Mott grants would create a once-in-a-generation opportunity to dramatically shift the educational landscape for Flint kids. It’s also true that there have been discussions about how federal funds and private funds could complement one another. The Mott Foundation does not want to direct any federal funds. We only want to understand how our funds could fit into the big picture to most fully benefit Flint kids. For instance, Mott Foundation funds could be used to construct new buildings, while federal funds could be used to support community education and afterschool programs.

Neither the Mott Foundation nor I receive any financial benefit from grants to FCS or any other grant the Foundation makes. The Mott Foundation grants funds to organizations to support charitable purposes. Our grants are not some kind of “investment” that yields financial returns. There are IRS regulations, conflict of interest policies and guidelines to prevent that.

The Mott Foundation cares deeply about Flint kids. We didn’t pause our grant funding to FCS because we don’t care about kids. We paused our grant funding because we must be able to have timely and direct communication with the superintendent to responsibly administer and implement grants.

In addition, we made an exception by continuing to provide three months of support for the community education initiative and YouthQuest afterschool programming that were underway for the summer. We did not want to disrupt families who are depending on this support and would lose it without notice.

It was our hope that, during this pause, we could all come to resolution on this matter so we could go forward with a different understanding — not that programs would be discontinued.

Our commitment to the district is clear. From 2013 through 2020 alone, the Mott Foundation granted more than $70 million directly to, or in support of, FCS. That’s an average of $8.8 million per year. It’s simply not feasible to manage that level of grantmaking without the ability to pick up the phone and make a quick call.

The Mott Foundation isn’t seeking to punish or bully the Flint Board of Education. Our need for timely and direct communication is not a condition that’s specific only to FCS. To ensure that any grants we award meet both the goals of our grant agreements and the requirements of the IRS, we must be able to communicate with the leaders of all organizations that receive or benefit from our funds.

When the Mott Foundation refers to “culture change” at FCS, here’s what we mean: We want all students, parents, guardians and every person who works at FCS to feel a sense of excitement about what the district has to offer. We want to make sure staff have the resources they need to excel at their jobs. And we want kids to know that their community believes they deserve the very best in educational opportunities — from buildings, to curriculum, wraparound services and outstanding staff.

The Mott Foundation wants to work in partnership with FCS and community members. There are those who are angry that Mott tried to lead progress on the MOU, and that may have been a mistake. We did so only because we wanted to keep progress moving, even as there were multiple transitions in leadership of the school district. We have been talking about the opportunity to apply major resources to strengthening FCS for four years, and things aren’t yet any better for our kids.

The door is still open. We hope to resume dialogue with the district soon. Flint kids deserve the best, and we need to come together as a community to support them. We hope students, community members, the Flint Board of Education, and FCS leadership and staff will tell the Mott Foundation how they want us to help.