Promise Zone: Retired judge chairs community effort to aid Hazel Park students

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By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

Gene Schnelz, who three years ago retired as an Oakland County Circuit Court judge, has been good about keeping promises during a distinguished legal career. It was incumbent upon him as a member of the bench for 32 years.

Or, more accurately, 36 years if you “count the four that he spent as a football player at Hazel Park High School.”

The crack was made by fellow jurist, Harold Bulgarelli, at Schnelz’s retirement party in the spring of 2007. It was a good line that prompted plenty of laughs, perhaps the heartiest from the target himself.

After all, Schnelz has many a fond memory of his time at Hazel Park High, from which he graduated in 1951. His schooling there propelled him to a degree from Alma College, a juris doctor from the former Detroit College of Law, and to a successful professional career that now spans more than five decades.

It also helped spawn a desire to give back, to repay the community in which he grew up. His latest effort to lend a hand to his former hometown, which has been particularly hard hit by Michigan’s economic struggles, revolves around his involvement with the Promise Zone program for the Hazel Park School District.

His work on the project is no small matter. He is chairing an 11-member board of directors that is principally charged with raising funds for the scholarship program.

“Quite simply, we want to ensure that each Hazel Park graduate is provided scholarship money to help with their college or vocational education expenses,” says Schnelz. “We are committed to making it happen in the years ahead.”

The Promise Zone program was proposed by Governor Jennifer Granholm in her 2007 State of the State address as a “component of her comprehensive plan to grow and diversify Michigan’s economy and to create jobs.” The governor signed the enabling legislation into law in January 2009, later designating 10 communities as Promise Zones. The designations were awarded to school districts in Baldwin, Battle Creek, Benton Harbor, Detroit, Hazel Park, Jackson, Lansing, Muskegon, Pontiac, and Saginaw. Promise Zones are located in communities that “meet or exceed the state’s average poverty level for families with children under age 18.”

Under the legislation, the governing body of each Promise Zone must create a Promise Zone Authority consisting of at least 11 members. The authority must outline the intended educational promise, which at a minimum, must include funding for an associate’s degree, and the methods through which resources will be raised to fund the promise. Promise Zones, according to state officials, may capture one half of the growth in the state education tax (SET) to support the promise. But before the Department of Treasury approves the SET capture, the Promise Zone Authority must show “it has the financial means to fund the first two years of the program.” The recapture will not impact the district’s per-pupil allocation, according to state officials.

“As the name implies, the Promise Zone concept offers hope for students interested in furthering their education,” Schnelz says. “It’s a very worthwhile effort that I’m proud to be a part of, especially in these challenging times.”

Also on board are two other members of the legal profession, Hazel Park City Attorney Arnold Shifman and Nicole Tabin, a Hazel Park resident and recent law school graduate. They are joined by Vice Chairman Walter Roman, Secretary Bill Hitchcock, Treasurer Taylor Cox Jr., State Rep. Ellen Cogen Lipton, Dr. Emad Nakkash, Derek Jones, Hazel Park City Manager Ed Klobucher, and Executive Director Pegg Roberts.

As executive director, Roberts brings more than 20 years of experience in nonprofit management and fund development to her role with the Hazel Park board. She has been involved with such organizations as the Girl Scouts of Metro Detroit, Gleaners Community Food Bank, The Children’s Center of Detroit, and as founding executive director for the Food Bank of Oakland County.

“We have assembled a very active board, and I have been very impressed with their energy and commitment to the work at hand,” Roberts says. “There has been a lot of interest generated in the community about our efforts and we raised approximately $20,000 at a recent alumni gathering. We are in the process of planning more fund-raisers to help get the word out about what we are trying to accomplish for the students of Hazel Park.”

For those who would like to assist with the efforts, Roberts can be contacted at (248) 892-1971. Contributions can be made to the Hazel Park Education Foundation/Promise Zone, P.O. Box 1068, Hazel Park, 48030.

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