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Detroit school closure plan draws objections

Shawn D. Lewis and George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit educators and lawmakers said Monday they want the state to toss out any plan to close failing Detroit public schools and work with them to create a better solution.

In January, the state identified Michigan public schools that have ranked in the bottom 5 percent for 2014, 2015 and 2016. As many as 24 of 119 Detroit schools could be shuttered as soon as this summer, with another 25 in 2018 if they remain among the state’s lowest performers another year.

The possibility has alarmed Detroit officials. So members of the Michigan House Detroit Caucus, some Detroit Public Schools Community District school board members and Wayne RESA Superintendent Randy Liepa, among others, gathered at the Brightmoor Community Center to share proposed solutions to address schools on the state School Reform Office closure list.

The possible school closures also were addressed Monday night during a spirited “Education Town Hall Meeting” at the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center auditorium, which was organized by City Council President Brenda Jones and attended by about 150 people.

Earlier Monday at the Brightmoor meeting, state Rep. Sylvia Santana, D-Detroit, said closing schools could create an unnecessary hardship on some parents due to lack of transportation.

“Michigan should conduct closing impact studies to see how this would affect the students, staff and neighborhood before any closings,” she said.

The possible closures come on the heels of a $617 million bailout package for Detroit’s schools that was signed into law by Gov. Rick Snyder in June to rescue the district from financial ruin.

“$617 million was just invested in rebooting Detroit Public Schools Community District,” said state Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo D-Detroit, a former educator who now chairs the House Detroit Caucus. “Do we need to be fiscally irresponsible with taxpayers? No!”

The plan, approved by the Republican-led Legislature over opposition from Detroit legislators and other Democrats, was created to help pay off $467 million in operating debt and provide $150 million in start-up funding for a new debt-free district.

“We need to have a dialogue that says: Let’s look at how we do adequate funding,” Gay-Dagnogo said. “We have to do the work. We have to work in a united front. We can’t have 36 students in a classroom.

“What does it take to provide a quality education to children? That should be the first question we ask. When we put children first, we all win.”

Wayne RESA ISD Superintendent Randy Liepa said he was “proud to be partnering with DPSCD as it relates to meeting the needs of the students.” He discussed research that he said shows improvement comes from local control.

The state has increased education spending for the past four years. Snyder last week proposed that higher-spending district receive a $50-per-pupil funding increase while lower-spending districts, such as Detroit, receive a $100-per-pupil boost.

During Monday’s town hall meeting, audience members were repeatedly chided for interrupting aides to Snyder as they discussed the proposed school closures.

Snyder aide Rich Baird said the term “school closure” does not necessarily mean a school building will be shuttered.

“There is no way in the world that 38 schools are going to be closed,” he said.

Vanessa Dawson, a teacher at the Paul Robeson Malcom X Academy 6th Grade, who also sits on the union’s executive board, expressed dismay that Snyder’s school reform officer Natasha Baker did not attend the town hall meeting, as was expected.

“She’s the one I wanted to talk to,” Dawson said. “I wanted to know what her strategy is. She came from New Orleans, which chartered their entire district. I want to know: Is that her intent for Detroit Public Schools?”

Baird said too much focus has been on the schools closing, rather than the needed educational reform.

“We have to think about closure in terms of closing out failure, not closing out buildings, and not closing out effective educational offerings,” he said.

“They don’t need Lansing to tell them what needs to be done.”

His statement was met by a smattering of applause.

Detroit resident Arthur Edge said: “Go around the city and look at these schools that closed, look at the devastation around it. Closing schools is not the answer.”

Councilman James Tate said to Snyder’s aides: “If the governor’s intention is not to close schools ... I would like to hear the governor say that. It’s always good to hear it from you … but hearing the governor say it would go a long way toward establishing trust.”

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