Lansing — Long-awaited legislation overhauling Detroit Public Schools introduced Thursday would put an elected school board back in power next year, but abandons an effort to subject charter schools to the same governance as the city school district.
A two-bill package introduced in the Senate contains a $250 million transfer from the state’s general fund to start a new debt-free school district in Detroit. But the bills do not address the 46,000-student school district’s $515 million operating debt.
Under the legislation, Detroit voters would elect a new city school board in November following the appointment of an interim board charged with starting a debt-free school district. The new Detroit Community School District’s board would be composed of seven members elected by City Council districts and two at-large members.
Gov. Rick Snyder and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan would get to jointly appoint the nine-member interim school board with five and four appointees, respectively.
The legislation does not include Snyder’s earlier proposal to create a Detroit Education Commission with power to open and close any public school operated by DPS or independent charter schools. Republican lawmakers supportive of charter schools and the charter school lobby have been opposed to placing charters under the authority of a new commission.
“We had to craft something that would get 20 votes in the Senate and get through the House,” said state Sen. Goeff Hansen, chair of the Senate’s K-12 appropriations subcommittee and sponsor of the DPS bills. “The charters were unhappy with the governance of it.”
Duggan, who holds sway with city legislators, said Thursday he still wants a citywide commission that could “establish a single standard of performance for all public schools in Detroit — district and charter.”
“We will keep working on this issue until we have a framework for an educational system in Detroit that consistently provides our children with the quality education they deserve,” Duggan said in a statement.
The future of the Education Achievement Authority remains unclear in the bills. The controversial school reform district has operated 15 former DPS buildings since 2012.
Under existing state law, the EAA could be reconstituted in a different form to govern Detroit’s lowest-performing schools, Hansen said.
But Hansen said that is not the plan.
“There will be no schools that leave Detroit Public Schools,” Hansen said. “That just exacerbates the problem with the financial part because if you take a bunch of schools out of DPS, that takes all of that money away.”
The interim board would get to hire a new superintendent of the school district. The newly elected school board would take control of the district in January 2017 — a proposal that drew immediate criticism from Detroit leaders.
“There should not be an appointed board for any period of time — that takes away from democracy and local control,” said state Rep. Brian Banks, D-Detroit.
Detroit’s existing elected school board has been largely sidelined since 2009 as the financially and academically troubled district has been under state-appointed emergency management.
Herman Davis, president of the Detroit school board, slammed the legislation, saying it would keep Snyder in effective control of DPS.
“He’s talking about an appointed board with no power and he will hire the superintendent and it’s all about controlling the money,” Davis said.
Banks said Detroit Democrats want to see the creation of the education commission so that charter schools are subjected to the academic standards as the new school district.
“We need to put DPS on a level playing field with charters,” Banks told The Detroit News.
Davis agreed, saying, “As far as these charters, they opened the floodgates some years ago and allowed their friends to make money off of education by opening all these schools.”
Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, a charter school advocacy group, said the proposed commission appeared to be focused on “re-centralizing” Detroit’s network of public schools without any emphasis on raising student achievement.
“The first step is focusing on the financial crisis and that commission, in our minds, didn’t do anything about that,” Quisenberry said.
The initial bills introduced Thursday do not address how to relieve the Detroit school district of operating debt that has piled up since 2009 under the watch of state-appointed emergency managers.
Hansen, R-Hart, said lawmakers are still studying options that wouldn’t involve tapping the School Aid Fund to bail out DPS at the expense of Michigan’s other 1.5 million schoolchildren.
“We’ve got a couple of options we’re working on,” Hansen told The News. “We’re trying to avoid using school aid.”
Snyder has asked lawmakers for $515 million to pay off DPS operating debts, unpaid pension obligations and overdue vendor bills. He also has wanted another $200 million for transition costs associated with creation of the new school district. That figure grew to $250 million in Hansen’s Senate Bill 710. The other DPS bill is Senate Bill 711.
The Republican governor has said some of the startup funding would be used to backfill the new school district’s budget under the assumption that enrollment will continue to decline.
The Detroit News first reported Jan. 4 that DPS is projecting it will run out of cash by April without additional state aid. The state’s largest school district is burdened by repayment of operating debt from prior school years that tops $3,019 of the $7,296 per student.
Hansen said Wednesday that he and other lawmakers are working on identifying a funding source to provide an emergency loan to DPS this spring.
Introduction of the DPS bills has taken eight months since Snyder first proposed debt relief for the 46,000-student district.
“There’s a lot of moving parts in this,” Hansen said. “This is trying to balance all of the different factions or different groups so that everybody gets their voice heard.”
The long-awaited legislation tackling the Detroit school district’s debt and governance comes as many Republican lawmakers are outraged by the wave of mass teacher sickouts that have caused schools to close over the past two weeks.
Sen. Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair Township, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said Wednesday he is drafting legislation that would treat mass sickouts as a form of illegal strike and levy sanctions against teachers, including a possible suspension of their state teaching certification.
State Rep. Harvey Santana, D-Detroit, said he won’t vote for bailing out DPS until philanthropic foundations pushing for the overhaul commit more money to tackling the underlying poverty that affects Detroit schoolchildren.
“I cannot put up a vote for $715 million to send all this taxpayer money to Detroit to deal with this issue, unless I see that there’s going to be a larger, comprehensive plan to deal with the issues that are walking into these schools with these kids,” Santana told The News. “The system will all fall apart. I don’t care how you restructure, reorganize it or who you put in charge.
“It’s all going to fall apart, because the deeper issues are just festering.”
Detroit News Staff Writers Shawn D. Lewis and Jonathan Oosting contributed.