DPS member challenges state school board over DPS plan
Lansing — A Detroit Public Schools Board member said Tuesday he plans to seek an injunction to stop a $617 million bailout and district overhaul Gov. Rick Snyder is planning to sign into law, arguing bankruptcy would be a better option for local students.
“We’re very serious,” LaMar Lemmons told The Detroit News. “We’re waiting to see when and if the governor signs it, which he’s indicated he’s going to do. We’re not going to go down without a fight.”
Lemmons on Tuesday asked the State Board of Education at its regular meeting to back the pending legal action, which members did not do. Instead, Superintendent Brian Whiston agreed to provide members with information relevant to the legal questions and potential implications.
Lemmons argued bankruptcy would “most definitely” be a better option for Detroit Public Schools, which continued to rack up debt while under some form of state oversight for 14 of the last 16 years.
In making his final sales pitch last week, Snyder told legislators a costly Detroit schools bankruptcy could jeopardize billions of dollars in funding for districts across Michigan.
“We don’t want Detroit schools in bankruptcy. It would cause billions of dollars of issues and probably seal the fate of Detroit schools,” Whiston said. “Once parents know that they don’t have the financial operations to run a school district. ... I think it would just decimate Detroit schools as parents leave for other options.”
The $617 million, six-bill package will retire $467 million in debt and provide another $150 million for the creation of a new, debt-free district that could add academic programs and address a backlog of deferred maintenance for the city’s school buildings.
The rescue plan would pay off the district’s operating debt but not the larger structural deficit that a bankruptcy judge would address.
Snyder and Emergency Manager Steven Rhodes have argued bankruptcy would have been a devastating outcome for the Detroit district and state.
Lemmons on Tuesday also criticized both the state board and Snyder for the school district’s state of affairs.
He labeled the district “Snyder’s operated schools in Detroit — not Detroit Public Schools.” He also called out the state board for not stepping up to open schools in underserved areas and close low-performing schools.
“You are derelict in your responsibilities and are allowing the Legislature to bully this body,” he said. “You just don’t stand up. I’m sorry if that hurts your feelings.”
Whiston took issue with the criticism, saying, “as far as calling them Gov. Snyder’s schools, it also happened under Democratic governors also.”
When Lemmons tried to disagree, Whiston continued to talk over him, repeatedly saying, “Thank you for coming, LaMar.”
A spokesman for the Michigan Department of Education said it is not its job to open and close schools.
“The state board has no constitutional or statutory authority in the opening and closing of local public schools in Michigan,” Martin Ackley said. “The State Board of Education and state superintendent supported the proposed Detroit Education Commission that was in the Senate bills, and the authority that proposal gave to the DEC.”
A spokesperson for Detroit Public Schools did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Wayne State University professor Thomas Pedroni accompanied Lemmons to the state board meeting.
“I visited the State Board of Education today to ask the state board to join as co-plaintiffs in a lawsuit asking for an injunction against the new legislation restructuring Detroit Public Schools,” he said.
“I argued that the state board should join such a lawsuit because the bill would cause irreparable harm to Detroit's schoolchildren. I foregrounded two components of the legislation as causing irreparable harm — allowing noncertified teachers and preventing teachers from bringing attention to the classroom and school building issues negatively affecting children and their learning.”
Pedroni said there are several “technical and legal reasons” to believe a court would grant an injunction against the Detroit schools rescue legislation, including a provision allowing non-certified teachers to work in the district if approved by the local school board, which he said could constitute “irreparable harm.”
State School Board President John Austin, a Democrat, said he opposed the non-certified teacher provision in the Detroit schools bailout but was hesitant to back potential legal action due to the prospects of bankruptcy.
A bankruptcy could ultimately lead to dissolution of DPS “and open up a total market of charters as a replacement,” Austin suggested.
DPS board president Herman Davis, who was not at Tuesday’s board meeting, agreed with Lemmons the state board should have the power to open and close schools.
“It is not the responsibility of the governor and a select committee he’s trying to support,” said Davis. “But the governor has hijacked so much of education, and he has derailed the state and federal constitution.”