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Schuette: State can shut down Detroit schools

Jonathan Oosting and Michael Gerstein
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Poor-performing Detroit schools are subject to closure by the end of the current academic year if they ranked among the state’s worst in the past three years, Attorney General Bill Schuette said Wednesday in an official legal opinion.

Schuette’s opinion contradicts a third-party legal analysis that Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration had said would prevent the state from forcing closure any Detroit public schools until at least 2019 because they had been transferred to a new debt-free district as part of a financial rescue package legislators approved this year.

Michigan law gives the School Reform Office power to shutter schools that perform in the lowest five percent for three consecutive years. Legislation enabling the state’s $617 million district bailout specified Detroit closures should be mandatory unless they would result in an unreasonable hardship for students, Schuette noted in his legal opinion.

“The law is clear: Michigan parents and their children do not have to be stuck indefinitely in a failing school,” Schuette said in a statement. “Detroit students and parents deserve accountability and high performing schools. If a child can’t spell opportunity, they won’t have opportunity.”

Snyder’s School Reform Office will ultimately decide whether to close any number of struggling schools around the state, and the administration has said those decisions are likely “a couple of months” away. The office last month released a list of 124 schools that performed in the bottom 5 percent last year.

Of the 47 Detroit schools on the latest verion of the list, 22 have been on it for at least three years. Three schools have spent six years with “Priority Schools” status but haven’t been shuttered.

The Legislature’s top two leaders this month asked Schuette for an official opinion on how soon the state could shutter Detroit schools.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof of West Olive and House Speaker Kevin Cotter of Mount Pleasant said legislators intended to require additional accountability in Detroit schools when they approved the $617 million district bailout, including provisions directing the state to close perpetually failing schools.

“I encouraged the speaker and majority leader to go ask the attorney general to get an opinion given that we had advice from Detroit Public Schools on one answer, they believed it was different,” Snyder said Wednesday.

“So I appreciate the attorney general coming out with an opinion, and it just came out today. So we’ll have to go through the review process of looking at that, and we’ll be looking at that diligently.”

John Walsh, Snyder’s director of strategic policy, had told The Detroit News the state could not immediately close any Detroit schools, citing an Aug. 2 legal memorandum Miller Canfield attorneys sent to district emergency manager Steven Rhodes.

The Miller Canfield memo suggested that transferring Detroit schools to a new-debt free district had essentially reset the three-year countdown clock allowing the state to close them.

But that argument “misreads the text, structure, and purposes” of existing state law, Schuette wrote in his opinion. A school “need not be operated by the community district for the immediately preceding three school years before it is subject to closure.”

Schuette’s legal opinion did not sit well with Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, D-Detroit, who called it a “confession” the Republican-backed Detroit schools package was “a tool to placate special interest groups that want to see the city’s public school system decimated.”

“The entire point of creating a new Detroit school district was to allow time for schools within the new district to re-evaluate their performances and integrate best learning practices for their students,” she said in a statement.

But Cotter thanked Schuette for his prompt reply.

“Children are falling behind every day in failing Detroit schools, and we cannot afford to lose another day to uncertainty,” Cotter said in a statement. “Detroit students need a final decision, and this opinion provides one. This opinion is also the right decision to put those students back on the path to success and address the crippling problem presented by the worst of the worst schools in the city.”

joosting@detroitnews.com