Flint scholarship plan gets $2M from Pistons owner, utility

(From left) Palace Entertainment Vice Chairman Arn Tellem, Community Foundation President Isaiah Oliver and Consumers Energy President Patti Poppe. (Photo: Kevin Grigg, Detroit Pistons)

Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores and a major Michigan utility’s foundation each have committed $1 million to cover college tuition for Flint high school graduates in the wake of the city’s water crisis.

The $2 million in combined pledges for a fledgling Flint Promise program are the first to be publicly announced since work began more than a year ago. It is not clear how much more has been promised privately.

Gores, the founder of Los Angeles-based Platinum Equity and a native of Flint, Michigan, previously pledged $10 million to address needs in his hometown and in 2015 partnered with Magic Johnson on a similar scholarship campaign in Michigan’s capital city of Lansing. He said in a statement: “Every student who works hard deserves a chance to earn a college degree. We want to give those kids and their families a reason to dream and provide them the resources to make those dreams come true.”

Consumers Energy CEO Patti Poppe called the foundation’s grant a “down payment on a bright future” for Flint, an economically struggling city of nearly 100,000 residents who used a lead-contaminated water supply for 1½ years.

Local foundations, school districts, colleges and business groups are still determining details such as which high schools’ graduates will be eligible and which colleges will initially participate. Those plans are expected to be announced in coming weeks.

“We still have a lot of work to do, but this commitment from the Gores family and the Consumers Energy Foundation ensures that Flint students will have an opportunity many didn’t think possible,” said Isaiah Oliver, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Greater Flint President, which is helping to spearhead the initiative. “It’s an investment in Flint’s future and a vote of confidence in our children. It will also make our community even more attractive for additional investment.”

A top aide to Gov. Rick Snyder has said that the administration, which has been blamed for the emergency, is hoping to help raise $5 million in private donations for the scholarship program.

Legislative hurdles

Some obstacles still remain.

Advocates so far have been unable to persuade the Republican-led legislature to make Flint the state’s 11th “Promise Zone.” The program — inspired by the anonymously funded Kalamazoo Promise — allows communities that secure enough private funding to also use state tax revenue to pay students’ college tuition. It is limited to 10 high-poverty areas currently.

The programs vary but at a minimum must cover tuition and fees to obtain at least an associate degree from a community college. Some also cover the cost of a bachelor’s degree. The initiatives typically require low-income students to first apply for need-based federal Pell grants or state scholarships.

The Flint legislation overwhelmingly cleared the Senate twice in the last 10 months but has languished in the GOP-controlled House.

“After everything these kids have been through with the water crisis, the least they should have to worry about is finding a way to pay for the next step in their education,” said Senate Democratic Leader Jim Ananich of Flint, the bill sponsor who called the $2 million in commitments “absolutely incredible news.”

Oliver and others involved in structuring the scholarships said while the measure would provide a financial boost on a recurring basis, they will rely solely on private contributions if needed.

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