DPS ‘desperate’ for state rescue, City Council told

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

A “desperate” Detroit Public Schools is running out of cash, is unable to borrow and urgently needs the state to approve legislation that will provide financial relief, a district official reiterated Monday.

Marios Demetriou, the district’s deputy superintendent of finance and operations, detailed the district’s dire outlook at City Hall at the request of the Detroit City Council. The presentation comes weeks after the panel approved a resolution opposing legislation being debated by state lawmakers to reform DPS.

DPS, which has struggled for years with declining enrollment and persistent budget deficits, is likely to run out of cash by April. On June 30, the district will need $45 million and, by August, $126 million “in order for us to to survive,” Demetriou said.

“The district is running out of cash. It can’t borrow anymore. We are desperate and need help right now,” he said. “That is the urgency of why this legislation was introduced. It needs to pass.”

Council member Raquel Castaneda-Lopez noted that she called for the presentation in part over concern for the school system’s parents and students, many of who are unaware of the “pending crisis” this spring.

The council does not have authority over the district, which is run by a state-appointed emergency manager, but it doesn’t have the luxury to sit back and do nothing, she added.

“I struggle to see how you informed all of the parents and students at this point,” said Castaneda-Lopez, who urged DPS to implement a more robust effort to publicize the crisis and provide the council with specifics in writing.

Fiscally, the district faces a $515 million debt, and has said it may be unable to make payroll by April.

Gov. Rick Snyder has proposed a $715 million package to pay off that debt and provide startup costs for a new Detroit school district; state lawmakers are debating legislation that includes some aspects of Snyder’s plan.

Demetriou said the district held a presentation for teachers and emailed information to other employees in the system.

Engagement has been ongoing for months, and a new round of parent meetings have begun in the last couple of weeks, added Michelle Zdrodowski, a DPS spokeswoman.

“We are working as hard as we can to get it out right now,” she said. “We’ve started and we’re going to continue.”

The council, through its January resolution, urged the Legislature to immediately restore an elected school board and “remove the remains of emergency management that has done so much to undermine the success of the city’s school system.”

DPS Emergency Manager Darnell Earley is slated to step down from his state-appointed post on Feb. 29.

Earley also served as Flint’s emergency manager from September 2013 to January 2015, a period when the city switched to river water that leached lead into its drinking water, leading to a public health crisis.

Snyder is requesting $72 million in his 2017 budget and for the next nine years as part of his 10-year plan to pay down the school debt and restructure DPS. The money would come from the Tobacco Settlement Fund.

The governor also wants a $50 million appropriation to keep the Detroit school district running while lawmakers debate the legislation to overhaul DPS. His plan also calls for a gradual transition back to control of the Detroit school district by an elected board.

Demetriou said Monday that “we are very hopeful” the Legislature will approve help.

Council member Janee Ayers said the current bills aren’t the best route for DPS and shouldn’t be the only option.

“If we can find money to create a new district, we can have found that same money to repair this one,” she said.

On Monday, Detroit Board of Education representatives, residents and activists filled the council’s committee room to speak out.

In recent months, teachers for the district have held sickouts to draw attention to mold, rodent problems, mechanical failures and other issues.

“The state of Michigan expects me to send my children to a building with these deplorable conditions,” said Wanda Redmond, school board member for District 6. “Emergency management is enslavement. We want democracy and we want it now. That’s all we are asking for.”