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Revamped DPS looks for fresh start in new year

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

The Detroit Public Schools Community District won’t welcome students to classes for another week, but school officials and Mayor Mike Duggan say the city’s new school system has repaired dozens of dilapidated buildings, beefed up academic programs and tackled other key issues plaguing the state’s largest district.

But work still remains, with teachers worried about class sizes, supplies, and contract talks, and Duggan acknowledges repairs still need to be made to some schools as part of a massive overhaul to bring all buildings up to code.

Duggan said Monday just eight classroom buildings need repairs, months after the discovery of mold, water damage, rodent infestations and other problems triggered public outrage and mass teacher sickouts.

“Enormous progress has been made, and I am satisfied with the diligence and commitment made ... by (Emergency Manager) Judge Steven Rhodes and interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather,” Duggan said at Bates Academy.

Duggan said 86 district schools have certificates of 100 percent compliance with city building codes. The district has spent $2.5 million on repairs, he said.

He also said no DPS schools have elevated lead levels. In April, water test results showed 15 DPS buildings had high lead levels, including one where a drinking fountain recorded 100 times the allowable limit.

The new district, formed when Gov. Rick Snyder signed a $617 million state aid package in June that relieves it of its nearly half billion dollar debt, has been largely overshadowed this summer by a federal investigation that uncovered a 13-year, $2.7 million kickback and bribery scheme by a school vendor and more than a dozen principals.

Parent Patrina Riley said she doesn’t know what to think of the changes as the revamped district prepares to welcome students.

“It all sounds good, but it’s not about what you say, it’s the actions they take,” she said. “We’ll just have to see.”

Riley’s 10-year-old daughter is in the fifth grade at Burton International Academy.

“Hopefully, these change will make it better for our kids,” she said. “My biggest concerns are first safety and having enough teachers for the classrooms.”

Steve Conn, who teaches at Western International High School, said he did not notice anything obviously wrong in the building Monday.

But he said his main concern is the reporting mechanism concerning repairs.

“There should be a public record which anybody can see — teachers, parents, students — about anything that has been reported and what’s been done about it,” the former president of the Federation of Teachers said.

Harry Coakley, principal at Fisher Magnet Upper Academy, during an enrollment open house Saturday, showed an area of ceiling in the school’s atrium that had been damaged by a couple of leaks, “but they’ve been repaired.”

While custodians spiff up the district’s 94 buildings for the anticipated 46,304 students on the first day of classes Sept. 6, concerns are evident.

A fair contract is at the top of the list for teacher Robin Jennings.

“Most of the teachers I’ve talked to are worried, and hope they will have a decent contract,” said Jennings, who taught third and fourth grade at Cooke STEM Academy of North Rosedale last year. “But we’re trying to remain positive, and we’re excited to go back because we love our kids.”

Jennings said the teacher contract expired June 30, but has been extended as negotiations continue.

Beyond the contract, Jennings said she’s hopeful there will be sufficient school supplies and workable class sizes.

Rep. Fred Durhal III, D-Detroit, who voted against the legislation for the district’s rescue plan, said many people in Detroit still are disheartened about what they consider the inadequate funding for the district and the restricted powers of the school board.

“Slapping on a new name does not make a system new,” he said “You have to address the root cause, but I am very hopeful that DPS can come back.”

The state split the school board into two entities, providing $150 million in start-up funding for the new, debt-free district and leaving the old Detroit Public Schools to pay off $467 million in operating debt under a rescue package the legislature approved in June.

Leading up to the vote, union leaders, school reform advocates and Rhodes warned that the district needed more money to ensure it could stay solvent.

The restructuring package does allow the new Detroit district to add academic programs and address a backlog of deferred maintenance for the city’s school buildings. The plan also calls for restoring control to a new school board, to be elected in November.

Durhal said he’s hoping enrollment will increase after years of decline, bringing with it a subsequent increase in per pupil funding from the state. The district gets $7,434 in state aid per pupil, according to the Michigan Department of Education.

“I just don’t think the district has had adequate time to market the new district because we just passed the legislation (in June.)”

He said change will take time.

“Until we get through the elections (for school board), you won’t see any comprehensive change,” he said. “The new board will have more powers, but the board won’t be similar to any other school board in any other district.”

After more than seven years of state control, most powers will be returned to the DPSCD school board, but any monetary decisions will have to go before the Financial Review Commission established during the city of Detroit’s bankruptcy.

Other concerns are safety, academic performance and a teacher shortage.

District spokeswoman Chrystal Wilson said the district will update video cameras in each school, and restore the number of security personnel to levels before budget constraints forced cuts.

The security allocation for fiscal year 2017’s approved budget is $800,000, she said.

Wilson said the district is also looking for more volunteers who will help to safely guide students to and from school and work evening sporting events.

To address the teacher shortage, Wilson said the district has hosted job fairs and offered incentives to recruit teachers to fill “critical shortage areas” including early childhood education, special education, mathematics, secondary science and world languages.

The district is recruiting retired certified teachers and certified teachers willing to work part time, Wilson said. She added that Rhodes and Meriweather said they will not hire uncertified teachers, despite a controversial provision in the rescue package allowing the district to do so.

Among new academic initiatives is a Flying Classroom, focusing on the STEM+ (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics plus English Literacy Arts), which will be implemented in 45 science classrooms in 17 schools.

Longtime education advocate Helen Moore holds the district up to far more scrutiny. She has a 14-year-old grandchild entering the 10th grade.

“There are so many problems at the top where folks don’t know what they’re supposed to do,” she said. “There is confusion at every level, so how can they say they have everything ready?

“How can they say everything will be well when it hasn’t been for years?

“Our children are expecting to get an education when they haven’t gotten one in all these years, and since it was taken over by the state, it has gotten worse.

“There are too many spoons in the soup.”

slewis@detroitnews.com

Informational meetings

Detroit Public Schools Community District will host three community meeting next week to provide an update about the new District and welcome families and students back to school.

■6 p.m. Sept. 7, East English Village High School, 5020 Cadieux, hosted by Judge Steven Rhodes, emergency manager, and Alycia Meriweather, interim superintendent.

■9 a.m. Sept. 8, Earhart Elementary-Middle School, 1000 Scotten. DPSCD will provide Spanish translation services. Hosted by Rhodes and Meriweather.

■6 p.m. Sept. 8 Gompers Elementary-Middle School, 14450 Burt, hosted by Rhodes and Meriweather.