Detroit schools may take next step without an EM

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

After nearly six years of state control, Detroit Public Schools faces another crossroads as the troubled district’s third emergency manager prepares to step down next week.

Like his predecessors, Jack Martin took office promising to eliminate deficits, attract more students and boost test scores. And while he can claim some successes, the district’s shortfall has risen since he took office 18 months ago, and enrollment continues to fall, albeit at a slower pace.

With Martin scheduled to step down Jan. 15, talk has swirled that the state might try a new approach. Ideas include a common application system for all 176 Detroit public and charter schools and putting Mayor Mike Duggan in charge of some nonacademic functions.

Gov. Rick Snyder, who appointed Martin, indicated a desire for change in DPS last month, saying “we’ve been there too long with an emergency manager.” With Martin’s last day approaching, Snyder spokesman Dave Murray said recently, “What’s to follow hasn’t been determined.”

Yet in his final days, Martin, 74, isn’t acting like a short-timer. Monday, the emergency manager toured Thirkell Elementary — the 78th of 97 schools he’s already visited — and Wednesday he’s announcing a reorganization of the district’s academic structure.

The revamp includes two new administrative positions — assistant superintendent of curriculum and chief academic accountability officer — and the reassignment of some duties to existing officials.

The assistant superintendent of curriculum will oversee core subjects — math, science, literacy, social studies — plus fine arts, health and physical education, and multicultural/multilingual courses. DPS also is moving oversight of all “priority schools” — those in the bottom 5 percent statewide — from several assistant superintendents to the Office of School Turnaround.

DPS spokesman Steve Wasko said DPS leaders don’t expect the changes to cost the district any additional money.

Martin said the changes will help build on academic progress. From 2009 to 2013, DPS fourth- and eighth-graders made gains in math and reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, but less than half of students were rated proficient.

“This reorganization sets the stage for this work to occur with greater accountability in an optimum environment, and to cement DPS’ role in ensuring quality education, college and career readiness and student-focused educational environments in all Detroit neighborhoods as part of the city’s revitalization,” Martin said in a statement.

Martin points to other accomplishments, including a deal last fall to turn over 77 vacant school buildings and lots to the city to erase an $11.6 million debt.

He says the district has avoided closing schools since he took over, and increased its share of Detroit students, compared to its competitors, which include the Education Achievement Authority, a state-run district for failing schools; charters; and private schools. Yet last fall’s preliminary enrollment figure, 47,238, is down more than 2,500 from 2013.

“What we’ve been able to achieve is some stability leading to initial academic progress, for which we have a great deal more work to do,” Martin told The Detroit News.

Despite his efforts, the district’s deficit went up during Martin’s tenure, from $93.9 million in July 2013 to $169.4 million as of last June, according to DPS figures. “The fundamental issues of enrollment, school finances will remain no matter who is in charge,” Martin said.

Three months after then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm declared a financial emergency in DPS, Robert Bobb became emergency financial manager in March 2009. Enrollment stood at 96,000. Bobb, a financial consultant and former city manager of Kalamazoo and Richmond, Virginia, soon realized the district’s deficit was more than twice the estimated $150 million and ordered school closings and layoffs.

Bobb said he would submit a balanced budget for fiscal 2010, but when he left office in May 2011, the deficit stood at nearly $300 million, and enrollment had fallen to 76,000. His last deficit-cutting plan called for a balanced budget by 2013.

Next up: Roy Roberts, a retired General Motors executive. Roberts imposed a 10 percent pay cut on employees in July 2011 and refinanced $245 million in long-term debt that fall, slimming the deficit to $84 million.

Enrollment kept falling, to about 53,000 when Roberts left. Part of that decline resulted because the EAA opened in fall 2012 with 15 ex-DPS schools. Roberts’ last deficit-cutting plan promised a surplus by 2016.

“We changed the culture here,” Roberts said when he announced his retirement in May 2013. “As far as I’m concerned, the district is fixed.”

Roberts could not be reached for comment for this story. Martin, for his part, says his predecessor made improvements, but he wouldn’t say the district was fixed then, or that it’s fixed now.

The district now estimates its fiscal year 2014-15 deficit at $164.5 million, and its latest deficit elimination plan — yet to be approved by the state — calls for a balanced budget by 2022-23.

“It’s not an issue of an emergency manager,” Martin said. “There needs to be a global fix for education and education funding in the city of Detroit.”

Last month, a group of 31 education, business and community leaders announced a study aimed at developing recommendations for ways to improve Detroit’s schools, including those in DPS, the EAA and charter schools. One of the group’s co-chairs is Tonya Allen, president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation.

The foundation is a major funder of Excellent Schools Detroit, a nonprofit that publishes an academic score card for all city schools. In November, a report it commissioned urged that Duggan lead a common enrollment system for all city public and charter schools.

The idea drew support from the EAA’s chancellor, criticism from the Detroit school board’s president and noncommital reactions from Martin and charter advocates.

In August, Excellent Schools Detroit proposed giving the mayor oversight of all public schools in the city, including charters. A DPS spokesman blasted the idea. Duggan said in November he did not think the mayor should run the schools but was open to a common enrollment system.

Snyder has said he wants talks between Duggan, City Council members and other community leaders about how to improve all of the city’s schools.

District stakeholders appear to be ready for a new approach.

Keith Johnson, who’s retiring this month as president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, suggested a global deal with DPS creditors like the one used to settle the city’s bankruptcy.

“They need to get the creditors to take a reduced amount because the district never will climb out of the hole with declining enrollment and declining revenue,” Johnson said. “I don’t think we need to go into bankruptcy, but the bottom line is, a fourth emergency manager is not the answer.”

Percy Bates, a professor of education at the University of Michigan, said DPS should revert to local control, like the city of Detroit post-bankruptcy.

“For many years, school districts have operated with a leader who is usually the superintendent and a local school board. I see no reason why Detroit should be any different than many other school districts within the state,” he said. They can and should be more successful than they have been in the past.”

DPS’ journey under state control

Here are some of the key events in the state’s largest school district since the state took over nearly six years ago:

March 2009: Robert Bobb named emergency financial manager, pegs deficit at $150 million.

April 2009: Bobb says unbudgeted employees, excessive overtime and other costs will boost the deficit to more than $300 million.

May 2009: DPS says it will close 29 schools.

June 2009: Bobb plans to lay off more than 1,700 employees. The number is later reduced to 1,510.

November 2009: Detroit voters pass a $500.5 million bond issue to revamp or rebuild 18 schools.

March 2010: Bobb projects a $319 million deficit by June 30 but says the district will be in the black by 2013.

May 2011: Roy Roberts named emergency manger.

July 2011: Roberts overrides union contract and imposes 10 percent pay cut on DPS employees.

October 2011: DPS refinances $245 million in long-term debt, cutting its deficit to $84 million.

September 2012: The Education Achievement Authority opens with 15 schools transferred from DPS.

January 2013: DPS files financial plan calling for deficit to be eliminated by 2016 through school closings and job cuts.

July 2013: Jack Martin named emergency manager. He vows to fix finances by attracting new students.

November 2013: DPS leaves “high-risk” status and federal oversight — in place since 2008 — after fiscal conditions improve, state officials say.

March 2014: The district’s deficit jumps to a projected $120 million.

August 2014: DPS proposes a 10 percent salary cut and class sizes of up to 43 students. The state approves the plan, but the district cancels it after protests from teachers and parents.

October 2014: The district agrees to transfer 77 vacant school buildings and lots to the city to erase an $11.6 million debt.

December 2014: Gov. Rick Snyder says the state’s emergency manager law has failed to fix DPS. A state report says the deficit has grown to $169.4 million. The district submits a revised plan calling for it to get out of the red by 2022-23.

Source: Detroit News archives