Mich. superintendent: No forced school closures in ’17

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing – Michigan is unlikely to force closure of any academically failing schools this year, according to state Superintendent Brian Whiston, but he said his new “partnership” plan will lead to some “tough conversations” asking districts to close schools themselves.

Whiston outlined the partnership model last week in a letter to school districts running most of the 38 schools originally targeted for closure by the state School Reform Office, including 24 in Detroit.

“I do suspect some schools will close, but the decision will be made at the local level when we have conversations and we look at right-sizing districts,” Whiston told reporters Tuesday in Lansing.

The partnership plan would allow a district to retain local control but require it to work with its elected school board, Intermediate School District and outside support groups in order to meet academic improvement goals within 18 months or face possible closure.

Districts must forge a partnership agreement with the state by the end of April in order to avoid forced closures this summer.

Whiston anticipates participation by eight districts with schools that have performed in the bottom 5 percent of the state for at least three years. The School Reform Office has already appointed a chief executive officer in a ninth district, East Detroit Schools.

Whiston estimates four to six schools may still close this summer in Michigan, “but the decision would be made at the local level,” he said.

“I do think that we can’t have failing schools,” he told reporters. “We can’t put children in schools that are not meeting their needs for a long period of time.”

Closed schools could be “reconstituted” and re-opened, Whiston said, suggesting some could be reconfigured as specialty STEM, STEAM or five-year program high schools where students can earn some college credits.

Reconstitution would allow students to continue attending a school near them, rather than being forced to find transportation to a new option farther away. But it could also require the overhaul of school staffs, including the firing of principals and teachers.

“If the principal is brand new or only been there for a year, you can’t hold them responsible, but if they’ve been there all 10 years, then yeah, we have to have that conversation,” Whiston said. “If the teachers have been there all five or seven years, then yeah, we have to have that conversation.”

Detroit school board member Lamar Lemmons said he “supports the general concept” of the partnership model and thinks the city district should explore the option. “But the devil always hides in the details.”

Lemmons argued the state’s announcement of the potential closures in January has already hurt the district by scaring parents and driving down potential enrollment next year.

“People can’t wait on what the state may or may not due, so parents with means, which also seem to have some of the best students, are making alternative choices to DPS, which will affect our bottom line.”

Rep: New plan “circumventing the law”

The Snyder administration and Michigan Department of Education are “circumventing the law” by backing off planned school closures, according to state Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Saginaw Township, who chairs the House Education Committee and the appropriations subcommittee on school aid.

Last year’s $617 million bailout of Detroit’s public school district required the School Reform Office to order closure of academically failing schools unless it determined the closure would result in an unreasonable “hardship” for students.

The School Reform Office, which Snyder moved under his executive branch in 2015, has conducted hardship reviews for the schools it had targeted for potential but has not made any results public.

Snyder last month delayed any school closure decisions and brought the Michigan Department of Education to the table. The governor told Whiston to move ahead with the partnership model a couple of weeks ago, according to Whiston.

Kelly said he thinks the administration is “skirting” requirements of the Detroit schools bailout and an older law that created the School Reform Office and empowered it to close struggling schools.

“But right now, I think everybody is just giving them some leeway to do this because it’s a popular thing,” Kelly said. “Nobody wants to close schools, I get that, but what’s the point of having accountability in the law if you don’t enforce it?”

The Republican-led state Legislature is considering its own plans for a new school accountability law, and Kelly said he anticipates “some sort of legislative answer by summer break that may or may not align the governor and MDE.”

Whiston said Detroit Superintendent Alycia Meriweather has expressed initial interest in forging a partnership agreement with the state in order to avoid forced school closures. Their offices are scheduling a meeting, he told reporters.

“I’m interested in engaging in the partnership model and having the local district make decisions about what needs to be closed or not,” Whiston said. “If that’s in conflict with the Detroit legislation, we’ll have to square that off during the conversations.”

Kelly said he thinks Snyder’s move to delay any school closures is indicative of a “leadership issue,” noting the governor moved the School Reform Office out from under the Michigan Department of Education but is now giving the department the lead.

“I think regardless of what people think of the current law — and it could be probably better, more pragmatic, more practical — in the end it comes down to this: are we going to allow continually to operate bad schools at the detriment of thousands of kids simply because we don’t have the will to do something about it?” he said.

Nine of the schools identified for possible closure had been flagged for poor academic performance for more than a decade. Denby, Ford, Mumford, Pershing and Southeastern high schools in Detroit — all moved into a turnaround district created by Gov. Rick Snyder in 2011 — have been identified as priority schools for more than 15 years.