Detroit — The educational system for the city's disabled children is in such disarray the state has taken the extraordinary step of withholding federal money from the Detroit Public Schools.
The man in charge of fixing the system — Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb — received a letter from the state Department of Education dated Sept. 2, informing him that the state would block nearly $5 million in cash because of persistent noncompliance with the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act.
Never before has the state instituted a financial sanction for noncompliance involving students with disabilities, state officials said.
"It is completely unacceptable for students not to receive the services" they're supposed to, said Dr. Eleanor E. White, director of the Michigan Office of Special Education and Early Intervention Services. "These children have a constitutional right to a good education. It's an entitlement. We take that very seriously."
In a statement released late Wednesday, DPS spokesman Steve Wasko wrote: "The noncompliance issues cited by the state preceded this administration's tenure in Detroit Public Schools, and since coming on board, Robert Bobb has made the quality of special education and compliance with federal law among his top priorities."
He added: "DPS expects to meet our obligations and receive all funds owed to DPS. The threatened withholdings are standard terms for all districts cited for recurring compliance issues."
According to White, the district has failed to monitor the 7,000 disabled students' progress in the public schools; failed to produce a plan that moves appropriate students into a general classroom setting; failed to offer proof that sufficient and appropriate staff has been trained; failed to provide a list of qualified instructors, therapists and social workers; and failed to compile a list of students who did not receive evaluations or services.
The problems were first identified in a July 2008 report. Because of a lack of progress, the state put the district on increased supervision in July 2009, more than four months after Bobb arrived. More than a year later, the district still had failed to comply, the state said.
The sanctions are the latest allegations of mismanagement of special education in Detroit, a program which comprises more than 20 percent of the $1 billion DPS budget.
Teachers complained that since the current school year began last month, special education children have been placed in their general education classrooms but have received little special instruction. Parents have complained that buses haven't come on a regular basis to take their children to school.
"It is two months into the school year, and my baby has been to school seven days," said Michelle Hammons, the mother of Anthony, a 14-year-old cognitively impaired boy who spent the first two weeks of the school year sitting at home until the bus showed up for one day and then disappeared for another week. A cab came Wednesday and drove him to school.
"I don't understand what Bobb's doing," Hammons said, saying the district did not offer her son an Individualized Education Plan this year, even though he was a special ed student last year. "Last year, he was going to school. This year he isn't. Who would have expected this? They claimed last June they were going to have all this together. Well, they haven't."
Last month, when The News raised questions about special education, Bobb's office blamed the missing teachers on school administrators, claiming that principals decided to reassign special education teachers to general classrooms. Bobb's office said the practice should stop immediately.
"I'm totally shocked," said Carla Scott, a school board member and its former president, when informed of the sanctions.
"It goes to the lack of cooperation the board has been talking about the whole time he's been here. Had there been cooperation, had we been allowed to implement the academic plan this would never have happened. In the end, it's still the kids who are denied what they need."
Scott said the school board has not been given a budget for the current school year.
"They're taking advantage of the most vulnerable members of our community," said Marsha Mack-Bell, the mother of a LaSha, a cognitively impaired 19-year-old who was reassigned to Cody High this year. "They thought we are stupid, uninformed people living in the city. Well, they're wrong. They're entitled to an education and they're going to get one."
Bobb's office issued a press release late Wednesday afternoon, claiming more special education students in DPS are working toward diplomas this year. An attachment that accompanied the release suggested that parents of special education students have reason not to want their children to finish school.
"Parents make $433 in SSI (Supplemental Security Income) per kid each month for special ed," the document said. "Don't want to graduate kids."
DPS officials declined to elaborate.
Mack-Bell was incensed by the suggestion. "How dare them!" she said. "This has nothing to do with a check. It's got to do with teaching our children letters and reading and how to cook."
Several education officials and school board members say they have not received a comprehensive budget for fiscal year 2011. They were given a 21-page summary. DPS officials did not respond to a Detroit News request for a copy of the district's budget.
The lack of transparency provoked state Rep. Jimmy Womack, D-Detroit, to write a law last year requiring emergency financial managers to make public the movement of any public monies totaling more than $10,000.
"There has been no documentation of compliance with at least the intent of the law. In fact, I have not seen a budget," said Womack, a former school board president. "I hold the governor responsible because she is his only boss."
The office of Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who appointed Bobb to the role of emergency financial manager, did not return calls seeking comment.
Wasko said Bobb's appointment was sparked by problems such as those found in special education.
"One of the reasons there is an emergency financial manager is because of significant noncompliance across DPS, not just in special education," Wasko wrote. "Aggressively working on these noncompliance issues has been our major focus since Day One."