Duggan to fight ‘irrational’ school closings

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Mayor Mike Duggan on Saturday vowed to “fight the irrational closing” of a number of public schools in the city.

Duggan, who kicked off his bid for a second term during a campaign launch at the Samaritan Center on the city’s east side, said this won’t be a “victory lap campaign.” He vowed a changing focus for his run toward “creating a city where people want to raise their families.”

The mayor vowed to work hand-in-hand with the Detroit Public Schools Community District School Board in the wake of the Michigan School Reform Office’s recent decision to close low-performing public schools in Detroit and another elsewhere in the state.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan announced on Saturday that he is seeking re-election. The mayor kicked off his campaign in the gym of The Wellness Center on the Samaritan Center campus on Detroit’s east side.

As many as 24 of 119 city schools could potentially be shuttered as soon as this summer, with another 25 in 2018 if they remain among the state’s lowest performers for another year, based on state rankings released in January that mark consistently failing schools for closure.

Teachers, families protest school closure threat

The mayor said he called Gov. Rick Snyder on Friday to tell him the closure is “wrong” and that the school reform office efforts are “immoral, reckless ... you have to step in.”

“Reform means first you work with the teachers in the school to raise that performance at that school. Second you don’t close the school until you’ve created a quality alternative,” Duggan said. “Neither one of those has happened here.”

DPSCD Interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather in a statement issued Saturday thanked Duggan for standing with the district as it fights to keep the schools open.

“As stated multiple times, we do not agree with the methodology, or the approach the (state school reform office) is using to determine school closures, and we are cognizant of the fact that all of the data collected is entirely from the years the district was under emergency management,” Meriweather said.

“Closing schools creates a hardship for students in numerous areas including transportation, safety and the provision of wrap around services” Meriweather continued. “As a new district, we are virtually debt free, with a locally elected board and we deserve the right to build on this foundation and work with our parents, educators, administrators and the entire community to improve outcomes for all of our children.”

Ivy Bailey, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, which represents about 3,000 city educators, added she’s glad Duggan is publicly taking a stand.

"The bottom line is this is his city," Bailey, who did not attend the campaign event, said on Saturday. "We don't want the schools to close."

Bailey said the newly elected school board just took over and needs to be given an opportunity "to turn things around."

Duggan said he’ll meet with the school board leadership Sunday and has pledged his support. Snyder, he noted, originally took the position that closure of the schools would create a legal issue. For sure, Duggan added, “you do not have a legal right to have no schools when the children have no reasonable alternative nearby.”

“I’m going to be working with the Detroit public schools,” he said. “We want to start by sitting down together with the governor and coming up with a solution. That’s going to be the first order of business.”

A representative for Snyder could not be immediately reached Saturday, nor could Detroit School Board President Iris Taylor.

On Tuesday, Duggan picked up petitions to run for re-election, joining 14 others, according to records provided by the city’s Department of Elections. None of the prospective candidates have turned in signatures yet for certification. The filing deadline is April 25. The primary is Aug. 8.

The mayor, when asked who his biggest competition is in the race, said only “this is Detroit, there’s always an opponent.”

“There will be a campaign,” he said. “This is Detroit.”

About 650 supporters attended Saturday’s event at the center where Duggan announced his first mayoral bid in 2013.

Among the supporters taking the stage was Shirley Burch, the founder and coordinator of Dequindre Good Neighbor Block Club, who praised Duggan’s efforts.

“He has an ear for the people. He has a heart for Detroit,” Burch said. “We must work together with this man who has leadership.”

The event included 10 speakers ranging from pastors to a small business owner, community group leaders, labor representatives and Wayne County Executive Warren Evans. Also attending was Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon, who ran against Duggan in 2013.

In his first bid, Duggan was kicked off the ballot after it was ruled he hadn’t lived in Detroit for more than one year when he turned in his petitions. He ran as a write-in candidate, receiving 45 percent of the primary vote. In the general election, he defeated Napoleon, garnering 55 percent of the vote.

In his first term, Duggan points to major service improvements. Among them, the installation of 65,000 new LED street lights, improved police and EMS response times and new city buses as well as added and expanded routes. He also launched the Detroit Promise, a program to provide two years of free college to graduates of any city high school.

The city has deals welcoming several major automotive manufacturing centers and suppliers and a new Little Caesars Arena will be the future home of the Detroit Red Wings and Detroit Pistons. On Friday, officials announced Microsoft Corp. will relocate a regional technology center from Southfield to downtown Detroit in the One Campus Martius building early next year.

The Duggan administration has also undertaken a massive blight demolition program that’s taken down nearly 11,000 houses, primarily with federal funding, since spring 2014.

But the effort has also been the subject of a federal criminal investigation and other state, federal and local reviews after concerns were raised in the fall of 2015 over soaring costs and bidding practices.

Officials with the city and Detroit Land Bank Authority, which oversees the program, have defended the effort and said they are fully cooperating with all investigations.

On Tuesday, Duggan said an ongoing state review of the program’s billing practices turned up $7.3 million in what the state contends are improper costs. The city will pay back $1.3 million of that total, but the remaining $6 million — mainly tied to a controversial set-price pilot in 2014 — will be settled in arbitration.