Duggan: ‘Ultimate challenge’ facing Detroit schools

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Mayor Mike Duggan said Tuesday he hopes the state will be a full partner on a developing plan for delivering student services in Detroit public schools, suggesting it could be “one of the greatest government redesigns Michigan has seen.”

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan.

In a talk to more than 400 state employees in Lansing, Duggan sketched the outlines of a “community schools” model that would see a single government entity provide student assistance that would otherwise be the responsibility of various agencies at the city, state or federal levels.

Calling it an “ultimate challenge” that must be faced, Duggan said Detroit teachers “are dealing with children who have no heated home, who haven’t had their clothes cleaned in a week and who may be hungry.”

“They have a whole range of problems” that might be addressed by multiple government and nonprofit agencies, but “the people who have to navigate these bureaucracies are the people who are least able to do it,” he continued.

“So we have to be able to figure out a way to go into these schools as a single entity in government bringing those services to folks so we can support these kids, support these teachers and let them get back to what they’re doing.”

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Duggan, a Democrat, spoke during a “talking reinvention” event hosted by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s new Office of Performance and Transformation at Lansing Community College’s Dart Auditorium.

Snyder spokeswoman Anna Heaton said later Tuesday that the administration has not talked to Duggan about his new schools concept but noted the state has a program called “Pathways to Potential” that puts Department of Health and Human Services caseworkers directly into schools.

“It has been successful in getting kids connected with the state services available to them as well as forming a network of businesses, faith-based organizations and community partners to strategize on how to best help students and families,” Heaton said. “So the concept is something the governor is familiar with — but I can’t say that we have been in touch with Duggan at this point about expanding it in Detroit.”

Top Snyder aide Rich Baird introduced Duggan at the Tuesday forum as “the greatest mayor in the United States,” kind words that Duggan said he does not always hear from Republicans.

“He is a Democrat, but more importantly, he is an issues-driven individual, and I’m proud to call him a pragmatist,” Baird said. “We find we agree on far more than we disagree.”

Partnering on progress

The pair discussed how the state and city have together facilitated Detroit’s burgeoning comeback, largely focusing on events since a state-appointed emergency manager guided Detroit through the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

The state Department of Transportation recently helped the city redesign Michigan Avenue to make it more pedestrian friendly, and now “sidewalk cafes” are popping up, Duggan said. The Michigan State House Development Authority helped the city develop a plan to ensure 20 percent affordable housing in every neighborhood, he said.

Considered a strong candidate should he get in the race for governor, Duggan made a point to tell the mostly management-level state employees who attended Tuesday’s midday event that he is not running in 2018 and will instead continue working with them as mayor.

Duggan told The Detroit News after the event that his administration is in “the talking stages” with various groups about how government agencies and philanthropic groups could help address some of the systemic issues Detroit students face at home.

Concept in early stages

The community schools concept, which has been developed at the national level, “says you bring all of the resources of the community to the school, that the notion you can educate a child in an urban area without addressing the other needs in their lives has not proven successful,” Duggan said. “We’re in the early stages of talking through how that might work.”

State legislators this year approved a $617 million rescue plan to help Detroit Public Schools avoid a costly bankruptcy. The plan created a new debt-free district to focus on education, but Duggan was disappointed in the final package because it did not include an oversight commission he wanted to help regulate the location of traditional or charter schools in the city.

“At this point, what we’re trying to do is in spite of the Lansing legislation,” Duggan said, suggesting the package did little to encourage investment or participation from the philanthropic community, which had also rallied around the education commission plan.

Baird, now helping lead the state response to the Flint water crisis, acknowledged the Detroit schools package “wasn’t everything” the Snyder administration wanted, but said “we’re not giving up. We’re staying at it.”

Baird noted other collaborations between the city and state, including income tax collection assistance and ongoing plans to build a new international bridge connecting Detroit and Windsor.

“Whether we’re talking about the kind of things that facilitate the financial recovery, and creation of both financial capital but also human capital in that city, it is a template for all of Michigan,” Baird said. “Detroit is a gateway city for this state.”