August 29, 2014 at 1:00 am

OUR EDITORIAL

Editorial: No end in sight for Detroit Public Schools' money struggles

As school district continues to grapple with financial problems, a longer-term solution is needed

DPS Emergency Manager Jack Martin's plan to cut teacher pay did not last. (Brandy Baker / The Detroit News)

It’s been a tumultuous past week at Detroit Public Schools. After announcing a 10 percent pay reduction for employees among other cutbacks—and getting that deficit elimination plan approved by the state — district officials abruptly changed course just days later.

With the start of the school year quickly approaching, DPS Emergency Manager Jack Martin announced the reversal of the planned cuts. The financial problems haven’t disappeared, however, and point to the need for broader solutions.

The pushback from teachers, who are already bearing the brunt of a previous 10 percent cut, was expected. And they, along with parents and students, were not pleased about the inevitable prospect of larger class sizes.

As the district is intent on improving student achievement, these aren’t the kinds of decisions that encourage the best teachers to stay.

Add to this displeasure very public criticism of the cost-cutting plan from Michigan Superintendent Mike Flanagan. The school chief took to Twitter early this week to call out DPS officials and demand a better plan that didn’t penalize teachers and ultimately students.

Yet Flanagan signed off on the district’s deficit elimination plan days after receiving a copy. It seems the time to discuss the plan’s merits with the district would have been before approving the measures. Flanagan justified his contradictory actions by saying he doesn’t have the authority to veto specific elements of a deficit plan.

DPS is facing a stubborn $127 million deficit, despite three emergency managers and years of working to reduce it.

The district originally felt it had to take more drastic measures to reduce its deficit after a county-wide millage that would have raised an estimated $18.5 million for DPS failed to pass earlier this month.

DPS spokesman Steven Wasko says the district will compensate for the savings it would have realized from the cuts by extending the length of time it has to pay off its deficit and by counting on additional revenue from sales of vacant school buildings. The district is now proposing that its deficit elimination plan be extended through 2021, instead of 2019.

“There is no rational way to cut the way to progress,” says Wasko, although he couldn’t explain why Martin proposed the cuts in the first place if other options were available.

The district is also banking on the stabilization of its enrollment—and even enrollment increases. Given the pattern of significant student loss over the past years and the unstable school market in Detroit in general, that’s a risky bet. It’s also unclear how these measures to save money will compensate for the estimated $35 million that would have come from the pay cut and larger class sizes.

DPS’ continued financial shortfalls call for a more sweeping answer. Since the competition for students in Detroit is growing, it will be only harder for DPS to hold on to students. Right now, more than half of the students in the city attend charter schools.

Recently, the school advocacy group Excellent Schools Detroit released a proposal that would streamline operations such as enrollment and transportation in Detroit. The proposal also suggests placing all schools—including charters—the under the purview of the mayor’s office.

A more centralized approach could help direct students to the best-performing schools in Detroit, including DPS schools, and work on weeding out the ones that aren’t doing a good job.

Flanagan still has to approve the new deficit elimination plan from DPS. Given his criticisms of the former plan, he likely will. Yet the district’s problems require far more work.