Coalition lobbies lawmakers to assume DPS debt

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing – A leader of a Detroit coalition seeking state assumption of Detroit Public Schools’ operating debt said Tuesday the group has “turned the corner” in convincing lawmakers the district faces a financial crisis requiring state intervention.

“I think the realization is setting in that something must be done and it needs to be much sooner than later and that kicking the can down the road is detrimental to the kids, detrimental to southeast Michigan and quite frankly detrimental to the long-term competitiveness of the state,” said John Rakolta Jr., a co-chair of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren.

Rakolta and other coalition supporters lobbied lawmakers Tuesday on their plan to have the state assume $438 million in debt largely racked up by state-imposed emergency managers who have been running the district for the past six years.

The Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren wants Gov. Rick Snyder and the Legislature to restore Detroit’s locally-elected school board, establish a new Detroit Education Commission to regulate the placement of public schools run by DPS and charter operators and take over paying off the operating debt, which totals about $1,200 per student.

Scott Romney, the son of former Gov. George Romney, was among 80 supporters who met with lawmakers on behalf of the New Detroit coalition, of which he’s a board member.

In an interview, Romney said the DPS debt has “got to be dealt with” by the Legislature to avoid a default.

“The state’s already guaranteed it so if the Detroit Public Schools can’t pay for it, the state’s going to end up paying for it anyway,” said Romney, a partner at the Honigman, Miller, Schwartz & Cohn law firm.

The Legislature left $50 million unappropriated in the state’s $13.9 billion School Aid budget Snyder is expected to sign Wednesday. Lawmakers have said the money could be spent helping DPS wipe out its $53 million in annual operating debt service.

But coalition members emphasized Wednesday they’re not advocating that the School Aid Fund necessarily be the financial source to aid Detroit schools. The $50 million amounts to $33 in state aid for every student in Michigan.

“Our coalition is not saying penalize all of the other kids,” said Rakolta, CEO of the Walbridge construction company. “We’ve not taken a position of where it should come from. Go find it somewhere else.”

Detroiter Francis Kennedy, a mother of five adopted children who have attended DPS and charter schools, visited legislators Tuesday on behalf of the coalition. She argues the group’s plan will help stabilize both DPS and the city’s network of independent charter schools.

“I’m just trying to find a better education for all of my kids,” Kennedy said. “DPS is still a good school and I don’t want to see it go down.”