Local officials at odds over DPS plan

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

Detroit Public Schools’ emergency manager is open to most of the provisions in a House-passed plan to rescue the financially troubled district and return some power to an elected school board, but other district stakeholders remain fiercely opposed to the $617 million package, which could face a Senate vote this week.

Retired bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, who took control of Michigan’s largest school district three months ago, believes the plan approved Friday by the House in a 55-53 vote is a step toward saving DPS from running out of money by month’s end, spokeswoman Michelle Zdrodowski said Monday.

Judge Steven Rhodes, Detroit Public Schools’ emergency manager, is open to most of the provisions in a House-passed plan to rescue the financially troubled district and return some power to an elected school board, but other district stakeholders remain fiercely opposed to the $617 million package, which could face a Senate vote this week.

The House bill contains less money for startup costs for a new, debt-free Detroit district than a $715 million plan approved by the Senate, but is larger than a $500 million bill initially approved by the GOP-controlled House.

“The $617 million allocated in the bill will greatly assist in our efforts to create a sustainable and successful new school district,” Zdrodowski said. “We plan (on) working creatively with the governor’s office, the state superintendent and the Michigan Department of Education to identify the remainder of the resources necessary to educate our students.”

The new House legislation includes $150 million in transition costs, up from $33 million in the chamber’s initial bill. The Senate version authorizes $200 million for those costs.

Restoring local control of DPS quickly also is crucial, Zdrodowski said. The House legislation calls for electing a new school board this November and giving the panel control of the district’s academics, through a superintendent it would appoint, starting in January.

“Returning DPS to local control in as timely a manner as possible is in the best interest of the students of DPS and the residents of the city of Detroit,” Zdrodowski said.

However, the House bill would give Detroit’s Financial Review Commission, which helped the city exit bankruptcy, oversight of DPS. The school board would need commission approval to hire a chief financial officer, fire a superintendent or fund out-of-state travel for board members or district officials.

“It returns local control in the same way that the settlement of the municipal bankruptcy returned control,” said House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant. “The city (council) is in place, however, there is financial oversight from the (review commission). The same is true here.”

DPS finance control

Zdrodowski said Rhodes, who oversaw the city’s trip through bankruptcy, supports giving the review commission oversight of DPS.

“Judge Rhodes is in agreement with Speaker Cotter on this point,” she said.

But withholding final say over the district’s finances from the school board is a deal-breaker, said its current president, Herman Davis.

“That is a bunch of garbage,” Davis said Monday. “It can’t really be called local control because they’d still be controlling the money. We expect to be able, as we regain governance — to regain neighborhood schools and charters will fall by the wayside anyway.”

The American Federation of Teachers said Monday it was launching a weeklong broadcast and digital ad campaign in favor of the Senate bill. The union, which oversees the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said TV spots would air in Detroit, Lansing, Grand Rapids/Kalamazoo, Flint/Saginaw and Traverse City/Cadillac.

“The Senate plan has bipartisan support and backing from business, civic, public and private sectors, the ad says, and offers ‘a real plan for long-term fiscal stability and academic accountability,’ ” the AFT said in a statement.

“By contrast, the ad notes, no legislator from Detroit supports the House version of the bills. The ad urges the state Legislature to pass the Senate legislation ‘for all of Michigan and for all our kids.’ ”

Commission contentious

The House bill omits a proposed Detroit Education Commission, included in the Senate-passed measure, that would have the power to open and close schools, including charters. Supporters of the panel, including Rhodes, have said DPS needs restraints on the opening of new charters to halt a long-running enrollment slide and give a new, debt-free district a realistic chance of success.

Instead of the DEC, which is part of the Senate version, the House bill would give the state School Reform Office the power to close schools that receive failing grades for three years under a new letter-grade system. Critics say the provision would make it easier for charters to avoid closure than traditional public schools.

Asked if the School Reform Office should decide on closures, which could give charter schools a potential way out, Zdrodowski said, “Detroit Public Schools and charters need to be treated equally and held to the same standards.”

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, an advocate of the Detroit Education Commission, has indicated a willingness to accept the House measure. Gov. Rick Snyder said Friday he still supports the Senate bill but doesn’t want the fate of the Detroit school system to hinge on one issue.

Mayor Mike Duggan called Friday for state business and civic leaders to oppose the House bill because it lacks the citywide education commission, warning that any aid package would be wasted unless DPS gets help stabilizing its enrollment and finances.

Davis said the commission was left out of the the House bill at the behest of conservative interests such as west Michigan’s influential DeVos family and Koch Industries, a large donor to Republican causes.

“Lobbyists for charters have been spending big and it’s all been about the money,” said Davis. “They’re fighting to keep charters alive. But we’re going to make sure kids get a good education.”

Leanne Kang, a visiting professor at Grand Valley State University who is writing a book about the history of Detroit’s schools, said the House plan, if it becomes the final rescue package, amounts to a less-centralized system of control over the city’s education system.

“The big question is whether this governing model will be conducive to political consensus and cooperation,” she said. “Will Detroiters be OK with gaining control of their traditional schools much sooner, getting money to pay off debt and improvement programs, while the charter industry largely remains autonomous and separate from local decision-making?”


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