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.


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 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.

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