New DPS plan would slow local control, limit bargaining
Lansing — House Republicans on Wednesday proposed a plan they said would “put Detroit students first” by pairing academic reforms and prolonged state oversight with debt relief for the city’s public schools system.
The House package, like separate Senate bills now under debate, would codify Gov. Rick Snyder’s $715 million plan to split Detroit Public Schools into two entities, using the old district to pay off outstanding debt while a new debt-free district focuses on education.
But the new plan differs from the Senate version in several ways, including a more gradual return to local control, limitations on collective bargaining rights for teachers, “sickout” penalties and a transition to a 401(k)-style retirement plan.
Under House legislation set to be introduced Thursday, school board members would initially be appointed and the board would not be fully elected for eight years. The Senate plan calls for elections in November, and Mayor Mike Duggan has called for an even faster transition.
“It will be controversial, and I think we look forward to having that discussion,” said state Rep. Al Pscholka, R-Stevensville, one of the sponsors on the new package. “…We will be phasing in the vote and phasing in an elected school board.”
The House plan also would modify the Public Employment Relations Act to curb “certain” collective bargaining rights for teachers, according to Rep. Daniela Garcia, R-Holland, another bill sponsor.
“We’re talking about calendar and schedule and contracting with third-party vendors, work schedules, things that can provide ultimate flexibility to the school district to educate our students to the best of their ability,” Garcia said.
Teacher pay and benefits would still be negotiated through the collective bargaining process, Garcia told reporters during a media roundtable.
“That is our intent,” she said.
The package will include a bill designed to curb “sickout” protests that Detroit teachers have launched to highlight poor building conditions and other workplace issues. Details are not yet clear, but Garcia said the proposal will differ from legislation debated in the Senate.
“We allow for a parent to get involved in the process,” Garcia explained. “We want to make sure there’s a process around this, because it’s unacceptable to have 44,000 students not being educated on any given day because there is a sickout in the district.”
The new proposal was quickly panned by Detroit Democrats, including Rep. Brian Banks, who said it would essentially “dismantle” the local teachers union.
“The plan is woefully short on details of how we are going to improve our crumbling school buildings, decrease class size so that kids aren’t sharing a classroom with 50 other students, and stock DPS schools with the latest books, technology and teaching resources so our students can learn and our teachers can teach,” Banks said in a statement.
Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnono, D-Detroit, said she appreciated the gesture by her GOP colleagues but called it “disheartening to see them offer so many of the same tired ideas.”
Gideon D’Assandro, spokesman for House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant, said his boss was “glad to see a strong focus on real reforms” in the new package but declined comment on specific bills until the package is vetted through the committee process.
The new plan would implement several academic reforms in Detroit that have previously been discussed at a statewide level, including an A-F grading system for individual schools and a third-grade reading initiative, under which more struggling students could be held back a year.
Legislation sponsored by Rep. Brad Jacobsen, R-Oxford, would put new employees into a 401(k) retirement system rather than pension plans currently offered through the Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System.
“I think we’re all aware that’s the way business and industry has been going, as well as other public entities, to try to conserve funds so we can put more dollars back into the classroom to benefit the students rather than going into long-term expenses,” Jacobsen said.
Snyder and Senate sponsor Goeff Hansen, R-Hart, are looking to tap tobacco tax revenue to fund the Detroit debt relief plan and backfill any losses to the School Aid Fund. The House plan, as it will be introduced, would instead use $72 million a year from the state’s general fund, which would be subject to the annual appropriations process.
“We can make this commitment now, and I think it would be very difficult for a future legislators to come in and say I’m going to pull the legs out from the Detroit Public Schools,” said Pscholka, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee and expects to begin hearings next week.
The Senate is still expected to act first on any Detroit schools legislation. The Senate Government Operations Committee, which has already held three public meeting on initial bills, is expected to hold at least one more hearing before any voting.
“I hope that our bills will mesh and complement very nicely with what they end up sending over to us,” Jacobsen said.