GOP leaders ask for AG opinion on DPS closures

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — The Michigan Legislature’s top Republican leaders have asked Attorney General Bill Schuette for a formal legal opinion on whether failing schools in Detroit’s newly created debt-free school district are exempt from closure for the next three years.

House Speaker Kevin Cotter of Mount Pleasant and Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof of West Olive sent Schuette a letter Thursday asking for an attorney general’s opinion regarding the authority of the state’s School Reform Office to order the closure of Detroit schools that have been deemed academically failing for at least three years.

Cotter and Meekhof are seeking legal clarity from the state’s top lawyer after Gov. Rick Snyder’s office accepted the opinion of private attorneys at the Miller Canfield law firm that schools in the new Detroit Public Schools Community District can’t be closed until July 1, 2019.

Under state law, the School Reform Office can close schools that have been in the bottom 5 percent in academic performance for at least three years. Fourty-seven of the state’s 116 worst performing schools — or 40 percent — are this year operating in the Detroit school district.

Lawyers at Miller Canfield argued in a memo to DPS Emergency Manager Steven Rhodes that failing schools in the city school system can’t be closed for three years because the new school district hasn’t been in existence for three years.

Meekhof and Cotter said the Miller Canfield memo “attempts to rewrite” the Detroit school reform law and “ignores the Legislature’s obvious intent to immediately address chronically failing schools through closure or reform.”

“In addition, such an interpretation ignores other provisions in the Act and leads to the absurd result that some types of schools (such as urban high school academies or public school academies) can be closed immediately, but traditional schools, regardless of their performance, cannot be closed for at least three years,” Meekhof and Cotter wrote in a letter to Schuette.

Rhodes requested the legal opinion from Miller Canfield, which will be paid for its services, district spokeswoman Chrystal Wilson said.

The new Detroit Public Schools Community District was created on July 1 as part of a $617 million bailout that split the city’s school system in half. The former Detroit Public Schools, or DPS, remains an entity that collects taxes to pay off old debts.

The new Detroit district assumed operational jurisdiction of the old district and is charged with educating the roughly 46,000 students who attend the public school district in Michigan’s largest city.

Of the 47 Detroit schools in the bottom 5 percent of all schools in the state, 22 have been on the list for at least three years. Three schools have spent six years on the list of “Priority Schools” but haven’t been shuttered.

Schuette’s office has received Meekhof and Cotter’s request for a formal attorney general’s opinion and is reviewing it, spokeswoman Andrea Bitely said.

clivengood@detroitnews.com

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Twitter: @ChadLivengood