Emergency Manager Roy Roberts, pictured in a September visit to Ludington Magnet Middle School, says “DPS cannot continue to plan to fail.” (Steve Perez / The Detroit News)
Detroit — School closures, layoffs and debt service payments are the norm at Detroit Public Schools, a district that every year loses thousands of students and millions of dollars.
Although more of the same is in store for the next three years, Emergency Manager Roy Roberts says it's time for the district to play a role in the city's rebirth instead of watching its own education system falter even further.
"We cannot continue to plan to fail by simply accepting a cycle of historically large annual losses in enrollment followed by massive school closures," Roberts said.
To craft a way forward, the district has held strategic planning meetings in recent weeks asking employees, parents, students and residents to identify DPS' strengths — such as it self-governing academic programs — and its weaknesses.
The district educates 42 percent of the estimated 119,000 school-age children living in the city and pays a debt-service bill of $1,000 per pupil every year.
More than 400 people have participated in the debate, which is expected to help DPS leaders design a plan that will improve academic performance, increase market share and stabilize the district's annual budget, district spokesman Steve Wasko said.
At the meetings, DPS officials have released updated forecasts through 2017-18 that project the state's largest school district will continue losing students, closing schools and shedding teachers and staff. In the next three years, DPS is projected to lose 1 in 4 of its staff and students.
DPS has nearly 53,000 students in 100 school buildings, leaving 28,000 empty seats in its classrooms. Enrollment, which has declined steadily from 164,496 in 2002-03, is expected to decline 2,000 to 3,000 students annually until it reaches 37,806 in 2017.
DPS has shut 200 buildings since 2000. It expects to shut 28 in the next three years, with 15 closures next year alone.
In the same period, the district plans to shed 1,688 employees — including 967 teachers — because of student losses.
These moves are expected as DPS tries to eliminate its deficit and make regular payments on its debt service.
The district has an outstanding debt of $356 million. It sold $244.9 million in bonds to spread out its payments, meaning it will not pay off the debt until 2021. Its annual debt service is $53 million.
Keith Zendler, president of the Boston Edison Neighborhood Association and CEO of Peoplemovers.com, an online network for Detroiters, said he attended a meeting and was encouraged DPS is "bottoming out" in its enrollment drops, a leading cause of its financial problems.
Demographers say Detroit's falling population and birth rate as well as the growing number of charter schools in the city have left fewer students for DPS to educate.
The slowing student losses and the cost-cutting mean "it looks like we are finally going to hit the point that it will turn around," Zendler said.
Zendler said DPS must make the schools the center of the community again.
"You need to create small communities where people feel safe and connected. Schools can be the seeds of those communities.
"If the schools became the focal point of communities connecting together, you will get the population. I think the population is waiting for the schools," he said.
Keith Johnson, head of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, which represents nearly 5,000 DPS workers, said the district's sobering statistics are widely known. He attended a district meeting March 9 at Renaissance High School.
"If Detroit is going to become a destination city, a place where people want to raise a family … DPS is central to Detroit's resurrection," Johnson said.
To woo students and families, DPS needs a comprehensive academic plan and must financially support it, he said.
The district also has to enforce an attendance policy, where students with unexcused absences lose credit for missing more than 10 days of school, Johnson said.
"Right now, there are no sanctions against students who don't come to school," he said. "At suburban schools, they have policies… In Detroit, that doesn't happen. Attendance is a major inhibitor to student progress."
Detroit Public Schools will announce its strategies, plus program and school changes for 2013-14 on April 10.