Detroit school district cancels staff pay cut, larger class sizes

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Detroit Public Schools’ emergency manager announced Tuesday the district is rescinding its plan for a 10 percent districtwide pay cut and class size increases that would have allowed up to 43 students in a classroom.

In place of the pay cuts, Jack Martin will ask the Michigan Department of Education to extend the district’s current five-year deficit elimination plan to seven years, consider layoffs for non-classroom employees and look to revenue growth from future property sales and enrollment increases.

Facing a backlash from teachers, parents and even the state school superintendent, Martin announced the reversal of the planned cuts as part of the district’s proposal to eliminate its $127 million deficit.

Its deficit elimination plan, submitted to the the state education department and approved last week, was intended to make up for the loss of a projected $18.5 million in revenue from a countywide school tax that voters rejected Aug. 5.

The pay cut, to be imposed on all teachers and administrators starting Oct. 1, would have delivered $21.1 million in savings to the cash-strapped district.

Martin described the district’s deficit elimination plan as “a living, breathing document that is subject to change” and said he “agonized” over the pay cuts before and after putting them into the plan.

“We did have to make a definitive statement about how we were going to reduce the deficit. ... But we were actually planning to not have to make those cuts,” Martin said. “I think we have the support to roll it back.”

Martin said the district is proposing that its deficit elimination plan be extended through 2021, instead of 2019. He said the deficit would be eliminated by then, and that the district also would be free of its legacy debt, which he said is now $53 million a year.

The district is considering several ways to make up its financial shortfall, including cutting staff through restructuring; selling more unused buildings and land owned by the district; seeking other expense reductions, and seeking additional grant funds.

The changes to the debt-cutting plan would have to be approved by state education officials. On Monday, state Superintendent Mike Flanagan urged on Twitter that the district cancel the pay cut and find another way to fix its fiscal problems.

The state has allowed some school districts more than the traditional five years to eliminate a deficit. Pontiac Schools in Oakland County was given 10 years. Detroit Public Schools has been under state control and operating under a deficit elimination plan since 2009.

Responding to the DPS announcement, Michigan Department of Education spokesman Martin Ackley said: “We won’t speculate on what the district may put in its actual revised deficit elimination plan other than to say we are committed to working with every district that finds itself in a deficit budget situation.”

Martin said he is hopeful the new plan will be approved. DPS officials are still formalizing the plan and expect to send it to state officials as soon as possible.

“I think they want to see this district survive,” Martin said. “They haven’t explicitly said they would approve it but I’m cautiously optimistic they will approve it. I’m hoping they will fast-track it.”

Martin, whose contract with Gov. Rick Snyder expires in January, said class sizes will remain at 25 for grades K-3, 33 for grades four and five, and 38 for grades six through 12. According to Martin, based on average daily attendance, DPS’ class size last year averaged 16 students.

“While we developed strategies to mitigate any potential negative impact, the only sure way to avoid impacting students’ learning environment is to keep class levels the same as last year,” Martin said. “It is my hope that any parent that was considering taking their child out of a DPS school will reconsider.”

The district’s deficit-cutting plan also called for closing 24 schools between 2016-19. A DPS news release did not address those planned closures but reiterated the district will not close any schools in 2014-15.

Keith Johnson, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said Martin’s decision brought a sense of relief, but there is still a lot of work to be done to attract more children to DPS. The district, which once had 300,000 students, has seen enrollment shrink below 50,000.

“As good as this news is today, we have to think long term to build capacity in the district so there isn’t even consideration of closing 24 schools, which would devastate the district,” he said.

“This is a positive step. It will help boost morale among all employees. ... We want to give a big round of thanks to those in the community who rallied behind their teachers and DPS employees around this and say this is not the way,” the union president said. “As I’ve said, you can’t cut your way to prosperity and maintain program integrity.”