Lesson Plan

In a study of perseverance and determination, Bob and Ellen Thompson outlasted labor unions and built up one of the most successful charter school operations in the nation.


Published:

(page 1 of 6)

 In 2003, when former Gov. Jennifer Granholm and Detroit city officials, in lock step with local and state teachers unions, snubbed Bob and Ellen Thompson’s gift of $200 million to build charter schools in the city, the couple from Plymouth found themselves staring at a vast abyss.

The refusal of the offer by a cash-strapped city, burdened by a dysfunctional and underperforming school system, made Detroit the target of national news stories ridiculing local incompetency.

Critics from coast to coast skewered Granholm and then Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, along with their respective administrations, for caving to opposition of charter schools by the Detroit Federation of Teachers and the Michigan Education Association, among other labor unions. After union members staged a rally in Lansing in 2003, Kilpatrick and Granholm turned down the Thompsons’ offer in spite of the fact that, earlier, they had welcomed it with open arms.

The political controversy and the fallout the offer ignited was bewildering to the humble, unassuming couple. Only a few years earlier, they had been widely acclaimed when another example of their generosity came to light.

In 1999, Bob Thompson, who owned Michigan’s largest asphalt road-building business, Thompson-McCully Co. in Belleville, sold his holdings to a firm from Ireland for $422 million. He then informed his 550 workers of the sale by letter, and spelled out a special caveat for each of them.

Not only would they keep their jobs, but the Thompsons would share the windfall with all of them. The couple set aside $128 million after taxes for bonuses for their employees. The 80 workers with the most seniority became instant millionaires. They received awards of between $1 million and $2 million each. Hourly workers received $2,000 for each year worked.

Four years later, when the unions and politicians slammed the door on the Thompsons by refusing to work with them, anyone who thought the couple would go quietly into the night misread their determination. To get past the controversy, Bob, a former F-86 Sabre fighter jet pilot, says he constantly harked back to his training days when his instructors taught him to “buy into the mission” and “carry out the mission.” 

Today, their dream of boosting Detroit by educating its children is alive and flourishing as more than 4,000 students answer class bells each morning in nine charter schools operating from three different campuses, all funded by the Thompson Education Foundation. Since 2007, the couple has poured more than $126 million into new buildings, retrofitted historic old ones, installed high-speed Internet lines, and outfitted classrooms with equipment and furniture, with more to come.

The foundation has plans for two more elementary schools, and Thompson says he envisions adding at least two more K-12 schools within the next three to five years. Another $100 million was set aside so the foundation could underwrite the charter schools.

Edit Module
Edit Module Edit Module
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Related Articles

Financial Reservations

The Westin Book Cadillac Detroit hotel downtown has been outperforming most of its national peers, but behind the scenes, the city and pension funds used for its redevelopment nearly 10 years ago may now take a huge loss.

Foreign Correspondent

From Bloomfield Village to Tiananmen Square, ABC News’ Bob Woodruff covers the world.

From the Middle East to the Motor City

More than 500,000 people of Middle Eastern descent live in metro Detroit, and, combined, they generated $36.4 billion in economic activity in 2015. While the road to self-reliance can take years due to language and cultural barriers, the influx of refugees has been a boon to the regional economy.

Open Our Arms and Trust, But Verify

From an economist’s perspective, each legal immigrant holds the potential for augmenting “human capital,” the ultimate source of growth and prosperity for a region or nation.

2016 Champions of the New Economy

For the seventh straight year, Junior Achievement of Southeastern Michigan, in partnership with DBusiness magazine and News/Talk 760 WJR, selected six regional executives who are driving growth in highly competitive industries.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Most Popular

  1. Indiana-Based AM General Opens Technology and Engineering Center in Auburn Hills
    South Bend, Indiana-based global mobility solutions provider AM General today announced it has...
  2. Walsh College Launches Automotive Cybersecurity Concentration
    Walsh College in Troy today announced the creation of a new academic concentration in automotive...
  3. Former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer Releases Memoir
    Former Detroit Mayor and Michigan Supreme Court Justice Dennis W. Archer today announced the...
  4. Wayne State University Creates Sports, Entertainment Management Class for Winter 2018
    Detroit’s Wayne State University has unveiled a new course on sports and entertainment...
  5. Lovers Only Restaurant to Open in Capitol Park in 2018
    After opening seafood-centric restaurant Voyager in Ferndale in March, proprietor Eli Boyer...
  6. Warren-based Art Van PureSleep Partners With Bedgear for New Shop Experience
    Warren-based Art Van PureSleep has collaborated with Bedgear, a performance bedding company, to...