Duggan: Detroit school issues threaten city’s progress

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Mayor Mike Duggan is pushing for a prompt conclusion in the debate over the future of the city’s school system, an issue he says remains one of the largest threats to Detroit’s progress.

The mayor is urging leadership in the Legislature to reach a conclusion in March to pave the way for an elected school board as soon as August.

Duggan, during a wide-ranging discussion with The Detroit News’ editorial board on Wednesday, also stressed that he’s advocating for a Detroit Education Commission to regulate where and when Detroit’s public and charter schools can open — and he wants to appoint its members. The schools, he added, can’t improve without it.

“Schools are opening and closing in the city with no rationality. You can’t function that way,” said Duggan, who plans to testify before the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday afternoon. “Somebody has to say, ‘Here are the standards.’ We need to address this situation. I’m doing everything I can.”

Gov. Rick Snyder, meanwhile, has renewed his call for the GOP-controlled Legislature to relieve the Detroit school district of $515 million in debt and create a new debt-free school district. Without it, state and DPS officials have warned the 46,000-student school district may run out of money in April.

The mayor on Wednesday pressed for action with the schools and also stressed the need for answers over a massive shortfall anticipated in the city’s pension funds in 2024.

The looming $491 million deficit in the city’s pension system has the city evaluating legal options based on outdated assumptions that he calls “inconceivable.”

The city’s court-approved bankruptcy plan set out a forecast where pension obligations were 100 percent funded. Yet, months later, the actuary for the pension funds revealed it was way off base, he said.

“We aren’t going to make a judgment until everything is done,” said Duggan, noting he and other city staff have been pressing for answers for about a month without any plausible explanation. “It is really hard to believe that you could have a $491 million hole.”

The mayor revealed during his annual address Tuesday that the city will contribute $20 million between the current and next fiscal year toward the deficit. He added that he’s confident Detroit will end up with a rational approach to head off the issue before the city must begin making payments to the pension plans in 2024.

“If you deal with the problem today, it’s solvable,” he said. “We are going to deal with it.”

The mayor, during a moderated discussion at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s annual Detroit Police Conference Wednesday, noted that the city’s chief financial officer, Duggan and others were not included in the analysis.

City officials, he said, aren’t doubting the data used by the actuarial firm for the city’s pension funds that uncovered the anticipated shortfall.

Detroit’s former emergency manager Kevyn Orr, through his office staff, declined to comment on Wednesday.

The issue could affect funding for city services, but Duggan says that right now, property tax revenue is giving the city a cushion. If the trend grows, it will enable Detroit to sustain its services and make contributions to the pensions.

Despite the challenges, Duggan says there is some good news; population loss in Detroit is slowing. As he took office in 2014, Detroit was losing 1,000 people each month. His first year, census data released that May showed the city was losing 500 people per month. The next report will be out in May.

“We believe we’ve turned the corner, and we believe the census data released in next year or year and a half will show we’ve made an historic change. I’m going to leave it to the federal government to declare that.”

The mayor on Wednesday also reiterated the city is heavily focused on initiatives to curb violent crime and homicides.

Among them, an effort to go after some 1,000 violent offenders with outstanding warrants for gun crimes. He also is having the department take aim at scrappers, bumping it from a ticketed offense to an arrestable act.

Duggan told attendees of the policy conference that while violent crime is down, it is “way out of whack.”

“It’s not true that people in every urban city experience this level of violence,” he said.

The mayor also weighed in on the presidential primary, noting that Donald Trump is the “inevitable nominee” for the Republican party.

Trump is “the natural consequence,” he said of the changing focus of the Republican party. The mayor has been a strong supporter of Democratic contender Hillary Clinton and believes she will do well in Michigan.

For his own political future, Duggan, who has previously dismissed suggestions that he will pursue a gubernatorial bid, made clear that he intends to hold his current office as long as Detroit residents will have him.

“Right now, it seems like the city is enormously supportive of me,” he said. “If people want me to run again and they support me, I’m probably going to do it.”