August 15, 2014 at 11:47 pm

More power over schools sought for Detroit mayor

Todd McInturf / The Detroit News)

An influential nonprofit is floating a plan to give Mayor Mike Duggan oversight of all public schools in Detroit, including charters.

Officials with Excellent Schools Detroit, a coalition heavily funded by foundations, shared with its board Friday a proposal to give Duggan oversight of charter school operators and management of Detroit Public Schools. The group sees the mayor — or his appointee — as a portfolio manager who controls such things as planning, transportation and enrollment, but not academics or most purchasing.

Excellent Schools Detroit CEO Dan Varner said the plan would regulate education competition by allowing children anywhere in the city access and transportation to the best schools, no matter where they live.

“We have a lot of education drivers in Detroit, all well-meaning, but no rules of the road,” Varner says. “The consequence is that folks are getting hurt.”

The plan would require legal changes and perhaps new funding. DPS spokeswoman Michelle A. Zdrodowski blasted it as “over-simplistic.”

“It is unfortunate that ESD chose to advance this idea at such a critical juncture in back-to-school efforts,” she wrote in an email. “Talk of this nature, especially when it would not come to fruition in the near future, and likely would involve multiple changes in state law and city ordinances, is confusing and misleading for parents and takes their attention away from the important work of choosing the best school for their child.”

DPS has been under state control since March 2009 and is struggling to eliminate a $127 million deficit. The state’s largest district has been plagued for years by declining enrollment and low state and national test scores.

The plan would give the mayor oversight of long-range planning and the powerto close underperforming charters and traditional schools. Schools would set their budgets.

“Currently, low quality (school) operators are able to expand as quickly as high quality operators. And operators can locate wherever they want,” Varner said. “The portfolio manager would say, ‘We need a school in this part of town’ and then take proposals from both DPS and charter operators, and select the one that works best.”

Varner said the plan has been sent to Duggan and Gov. Rick Snyder, but neither has responded. It comes as Snyder is studying what to do with DPS after Emergency Manager Jack Martin’s term ends in January.

Duggan is aware of the proposal but it’s “not on his radar right now,” his spokesman, John Roach, wrote in an email.

“He has his hands full dealing with the upcoming bankruptcy trial (and) the fact that he has just assumed control of the water department and will assume responsibility of the police department in the next month or so,” Roach wrote.

Snyder has not yet examined the plan, spokeswoman Sara Wurfel wrote in an email.

“The governor has not been involved with or yet had a chance to receive/review the Excellent Schools Detroit proposal,” Wurfel wrote. “But we certainly appreciate people in the community looking at innovative ways to improve education for Detroit students and families.”

Union officials who represent DPS employees did not return messages seeking comment.

Excellent Schools Detroit hopes to roll out a proposal in the next few weeks to “spark public debate,” Varner said.

“We have a concept that we think has merit but in order for it to get legs, we need the mayor to get behind it,” he said.

Detroit Board of Education President Herman Davis said, “Duggan is a great guy but he is part of the problem.” He said Duggan was a board member of the state-run Education Achievement Authority, which took over 15 failing DPS schools.

“He would not be good for education because he has no plan to improve performance,” Davis said.

Lamar Lemmons, another Detroit school board member, said the idea of mayoral control is perpetually floated during “honeymoons” of newly elected mayors. Duggan took office in January.

“Whenever they have a new, fresh mayor, they always say, ‘Let’s get rid of the school board,’ ” Lemmons said.

'Full of foundations'

“Excellent Schools Detroit has an agenda. They are full of foundations, and foundations are an extension of corporations. Like any politician, (Duggan) is going to say, he can’t do it because his hands are full, but this isn’t happening without his knowledge.”

In 2010, the City Council killed a plan for a ballot measure to ask voters if the mayor should have power to appoint the DPS superintendent. Six years earlier, former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and the business community backed a plan to share power between the mayor and board. Voters soundly defeated the plan.

Excellent Schools Detroit’s board receives substantial funding from the Skillman Foundation. Its board includes representatives from the United Way, Detroit Regional Chamber, McGregor Fund, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Foundation.

Last year, the group assessed more than 200 Detroit public, charter, parochial and EAA schools and recommended just 25 percent of them to parents.

Its plan differs from others because it includes charters. Varner acknowledged concerns that the mayor would bow to union pressure and not allow charters in Detroit, but he said, “I think with this mayor, he believes charters are part of the solution.”

He added that charter operators would have an appeal process if they felt unfairly treated.

Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, an advocacy group for charter schools, said his group is open to a discussion. Education choices are complicated in Detroit, but there’s no clearinghouse for parents, so they enroll children in multiple schools and move them from one to another until they find the right one.

“We are interested in knowing more about the proposal and the ideas behind (it),” Quisenberry said.

The proposal emerged hours after the Detroit Board of Education rejected a bond measure that, officials say, could lead to payless paydays.

The school board on Thursday rejected Martin’s request to float $111 million in bonds to cover bills until the district receives funding payments from the state of Michigan. That’s a common practice among districts statewide, but the Detroit board asserted the district needed $81 million and authorized that amount instead.

Now, there’s a possibility that bonds won’t be issued for months, prompting payless paydays to start Aug. 19, said board member Jonathan Kinloch. The district can’t levy more than one bond per year and $81 million isn’t enough, said Kinloch, who sides with Martin.

School board criticized

The action prompted a blistering statement Friday from Martin to Davis, the board president.

“Thanks to your action (or lack thereof), there is a possibility that services critical to the opening of schools will not be available until much later in the year,” the letter read.

“... I cannot fathom how, as a body, you could so cavalierly act to harm the children of the district in this manner.”

Davis said the threat of a payless payday is “rhetoric” and countered that Martin failed to supply information justifying borrowing $111 million. The board relied on information from two accounting firms to determine $81 million would be enough, he said.

“They must think we are a bunch of dummies,” Davis said. “It’s about time we put our foot down.”

DPS issued a statement saying the board received plenty of information and the district will “continue to work closely with (the state of Michigan) to complete its cash flow borrowing for this year.”

jkurth@detroitnews.com
Kim Kozlowski contributed.