Lansing — State lawmakers said Tuesday the pending resignation of Detroit Public Schools Emergency Manager Darnell Earley could help legislative efforts to rescue the struggling school district from potential insolvency.
Earley’s decision to step down from the state-appointed post, effective Feb. 29, came just two days before a Senate panel was set to begin debating bills that would split the Detroit district in two to help it crawl out from under a mountain of debt.
“I don’t see it as a problem. I think it’s kind of a good clean start,” said Sen. Goeff Hansen, R-Hart, lead sponsor on the rescue package backed by Gov. Rick Snyder, who appointed Earley to run Detroit schools under the state’s controversial emergency manager law.
Earley proved an especially explosive lightning rod in Detroit because of his past work in Flint, where he was emergency manager from September 2013 to January 2015, a period that saw the city switch to river water that leached lead into drinking water, leading to a public health crisis.
His departure from DPS was announced one day before the U.S. House Oversight Committee was scheduled to hold a public hearing on the Flint water crisis. Earley is refusing to testify at the Wednesday hearing, DPS spokeswoman Michelle Zdrodowski said.
Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, questioned whether there was a connection between the hearing and Earley’s resignation, contending the move was “about saving face for politicians who are worried about what he might reveal under oath.”
He called on Snyder to force Earley to appear at the hearing.
“The governor must demand that he testify before Congress tomorrow and be completely transparent in turning over every document related to what happened,” Ananich said.
Still, Earley’s resignation could be helpful in the ongoing talks over DPS’s future, Ananich conceded: “It certainly doesn’t hurt it.”
At DPS, Earley has faced criticism over the district’s ballooning debt and tens of millions of dollars of unpaid vendor and pension bills. DPS officials have said the district could run out of cash by this spring.
In addition, teacher sickouts since November in DPS have raised awareness of potentially unsafe and unsanitary conditions at many buildings within the district.
Earley’s resignation is “helpful,” Hansen said, because it will help focus the Detroit schools debate on the city and its schoolchildren.
“I think the focus needs to be on how we fix the problem and not as much as who’s in that seat for what little time there will be left,” he said. “It was kind of a distraction.”
Earley, appointed to the Detroit schools job Jan. 13, 2015, was expected to work in the city until this summer. He was earning a $225,000 annual salary and, under his contract with the state, is entitled to pro-rated payments through the end of February.
“When I was appointed to this position, Gov. Snyder and I agreed that our goal was for me to be the last emergency manager appointed to DPS,” Earley said in a statement. “I have completed the comprehensive restructuring, necessary to downsizing the central office, and the development of a network structure that empowers the educational leadership of our schools to direct more resources toward classroom instruction.”
Until now, both Snyder and Earley had said he would finish his 18-month term. The governor has said Earley was not to blame for what happened in Flint and has supported his efforts at DPS.
“Darnell has done a very good job under some very difficult circumstances,” Snyder said in a statement. The governor said he would name a “transition leader” by month’s end as part of his plan to restructure the district’s academics and finances.
Asked who might serve in such a position, Snyder spokesman Dave Murray said only that there are ongoing discussions and additional details should be released later this month.
But the transition leader role “suggests there won’t be someone with the title of an emergency manager,” Murray said.
Snyder needs Detroit lawmakers to get on board with his $715 million proposal to rescue and restructure DPS, and Earley’s departure may help garner their support.
State Sen. Morris Hood, D-Detroit, said he was happy with Earley’s resignation but does not think it will directly affect negotiations on the Detroit schools bills, which he opposes as introduced. But the resignation does remove one possible roadblock, he said.
“When you’re looking at sending down $715 million, you want to make sure that it’s done right ... and there’s no incidents of epic failure like we had seen with Flint water,” Hood said.
John Rakolta Jr., a prominent Republican businessman involved in the Detroit school reform effort, said the governor can’t afford to have DPS run out of cash this spring while the Flint water crisis continues.
“They can’t have a two-front fire and that’s what this is going to cause,” said Rakolta, who is co-chair of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, which has lobbied for the state to assume DPS operating debt.
Bob Floden, dean of Michigan State University’s College of Education, agreed Earley was drawing attention away from Snyder’s efforts to rescue DPS.
“Darnell Earley’s connection with the Flint water crisis represented a distraction, which diverted energy from the discussions of the governor’s proposals,” Floden said. “Finding ways to improve the education of all Detroit children requires a focus on that goal.”
But Percy Bates, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Michigan, said it remains to be seen if Earley’s decision makes a difference in Lansing.
“It is not clear as to whether his stepping down will increase the governor’s chances of getting reform through the Legislature,” Bates said. “It may very well be that the Legislature has a very different view of the role of the emergency manager and what his stepping down means.”
Earley is the fourth emergency manager to run DPS since the state took control in March 2009. Since then, enrollment has fallen by half, to about 46,000.
Critics of the state’s role said they are pleased Earley is leaving but want additional changes.
“Earley’s resignation presents a perfect opportunity for state officials in Lansing to pay off the debt their appointed managers have created and return the Detroit Public Schools to local control,” said Ivy Bailey, interim president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers.
Tamika Smith, a preschool teacher at Spain Elementary-Middle School, said staff members celebrated the news.
“We are ecstatic here at Spain that he resigned,” said Smith. “And the governor should be next. It is unacceptable that our schools had to have so much attention paid to the conditions before he resigned.”
Tanisha Murray, whose 9-year-old daughter attends the Foreign Language Immersion and Cultural Studies school, said she is glad to see Earley go.
“I believe if he’s not passionate enough to do his job, the way he’s supposed to, and to do the right thing, he does need to resign,” she said.
Staff Writer Chad Livengood contributed.