Snyder to seek $72M in ’17 budget for DPS rescue

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

Gov. Rick Snyder will ask for $72 million in his 2017 budget as part of a 10-year plan to pay down the debt of Detroit Public Schools and restructure the state’s largest school district, which could run out of money this spring, according to a source familiar with the spending plan.

The money will come from the Tobacco Settlement Fund.

Additionally, the governor wants a $50 million appropriation to keep the district running while lawmakers debate legislation to overhaul DPS, which has struggled for years with mounting debt and falling enrollment.

The debt relief funds will free up $1,000 per student to go into the classrooms.

At this point, there is no indication that Snyder’s request will include any funds to deal with an estimated $50 million in building repairs. The district has been roiled by reports of health and safety problems in numerous schools, including water leaks, mold, rodent infestations and heating issues.

Snyder has previously proposed a $715 million plan to rescue DPS and fund the startup of a new Detroit school district, with a gradual transition back to control by an elected school board. The state has run DPS since March 2009.

On the eve of the governor’s budget address, the Senate Government Operations Committee conducted a hearing Tuesday on a two-bill package that includes some aspects of Snyder’s proposal for rescuing and restructuring the financially troubled district.

Panel members heard from teachers union officials, DPS parents and others about the district’s finances and health and safety problems in many of its buildings.

Craig Thiel of the Citizens Research Council discussed the district’s $3.5 billion in debt in a slide presentation. He said the debt is divided into two separate parts: operating and capital.

“The operating is taken from operation dollars in the per pupil fund and the capital is backed by a dedicated property tax,” he said.

“This debt will not self-correct,” Thiel said. “DPS can’t address the lingering legacy debt and DPS students are not receiving the education they deserve.”

Wanda Cook-Robinson, superintendent of Oakland Schools, said legislation shouldn’t focus only on DPS.

“Let’s take this opportunity to improve education in Michigan,” she said. “Think about the consequences this plan will have on other districts. We need to know where the funding is coming from, and at what expense. I suggest you don’t move forward until we know.”

Sen. Goeff Hansen, R-Hart, who chaired the almost 2½ hours of testimony from 17 people, told those gathered that it was a “work in progress.”

He said another committee hearing on the legislation is expected to convene next week.

Among those who addressed the committee were American Federation of Teachers president David Hecker and interim DFT president Ivy Bailey.

They presented slides of deteriorating building conditions including mold, rodent feces on a desk and roaches.

Sen. Morris Hood III, D-Detroit, was appalled.

“We should be ashamed of ourselves, to have to let any kid go to schools under those conditions,” he said. “If there’s a kid in Port Huron, Cadillac or any city, you wouldn’t want your child to have to attend a school like that.”

He continued, “Is what we’re doing going far enough? Is what we’re doing going to help kids 10, 15 years from now or are we doing a quick fix?”

About 30 parents of students in Detroit Public Schools took their concerns about conditions in the district to the city’s streets — and to Lansing — on Tuesday.

Members of the Detroit Parent Network met at their headquarters on Lothrop before marching out of the building with picket signs and heading a few blocks away to rally in front of the state office building at Cadillac Place on West Grand. From there, they rode by bus to Lansing to participate in a hearing before the Michigan Senate Government Operations Committee about the district’s future.

Parent Millicent Austin, 43, has a 5-year-old daughter who attends the Foreign Language Immersion and Cultural Studies school.

“I’m here to support the teachers, students and schools in the city of Detroit so legislators understand we are involved parents,” said Austin. “And they need to know these things matter to us and we will do something about it.”

But Austin said she is troubled by the bills, which include creating a nine-member interim school board, with five of the members appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder and four by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan.

“We wouldn’t be electing this board, and I don’t think most of the legislators have children in this district,” she said. “They don’t have a dog in this fight so they don’t really care.”

Parent Patrina Riley, 43, of Detroit, was among several parents who addressed the committee. She has two grown children and a 9-year-old daughter who attends MacKenzie Elementary-Middle School.

“All the quality schools are downtown and we need the same kind of schools in our neighborhoods,” she said.

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