Snyder warns of crisis in Detroit Public Schools
Lansing — Under the cloud of the Flint water crisis, Gov. Rick Snyder issued a new warning during his State of the State address about the perilous finances of Detroit Public Schools and urged lawmakers to take action.
The Republican governor renewed his call for the GOP-controlled Legislature to relieve the Detroit school district of $515 million in debt and create a new debt-free school district in the state’s largest city.
“Detroit’s schools are in a crisis,” Snyder said. “... The time to act is now and avoid court intervention that could cost all of us much more and be much more detrimental.”
Without a financial rescue, state and DPS officials have warned the 46,000-student school district may run out of money in April, The Detroit News reported earlier this month.
“The challenges we face in Flint, Detroit and beyond are serious, but solvable,” Snyder said.
Snyder also said he’s forming a commission to conduct a year-long study of Michigan’s K-12 education system and examine whether the funding and education model still meets the state’s long-term needs. The latest huge reform of the state system was in 1994 under GOP Gov. John Engler.
“We have a 19th century education system in the 21st century. It’s time to ask why,” Snyder said.
After eight months of talks, legislation creating a new school district in Detroit was introduced last week in the state Senate. Sen. Goeff Hansen, R-Hart, sponsored the two bills.
The legislation includes a $250 million one-time appropriation to cover the start-up costs of the proposed Detroit Community School District, but the two-bill package doesn’t address the operating debts.
The DPS bills were assigned to the Senate Government Operations Committee.
Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, the West Olive Republican who chairs that committee, said he expects to begin holding hearings as early as next week.
Detroit Democrats and Mayor Mike Duggan have been critical of the legislation as introduced because Hansen scrapped Snyder’s proposed Detroit Education Commission, which would have been empowered to close failing DPS and charter schools.
“You just cannot have a city as large as Detroit have a willy nilly-style school system where folks can just decide where they’re going to be, on their own, with no input from stakeholders or people who really need to see the system serve them,” said state Sen. Bert Johnson, D-Highland Park.
In response to the charter school lobby, Senate Republicans don’t want to subject the independent public schools to another layer of government.
“I believe that charters are owned by someone else, so if they’re not doing their job, the authorizer should shut the charter,” Meekhof said.
Snyder urged his fellow Republicans to reconsider the education commission concept, which was recommended by a coalition of Detroit civic, education and business leaders last spring.
“We should keep looking at this key element to help Detroit’s kids,” Snyder said.
After the speech, Snyder’s strategy director, John Walsh, said the Detroit school district faces “astronomical amounts” of debt that can’t be resolved without state intervention.
“If we don’t address it sooner rather than later, then there will have to be some sort of court intervention, perhaps just to keep the schools open while we deal with it,” Walsh said. “We would much rather deal with it through the Legislature.”
Johnson said lawmakers should be deliberative as they consider their options for overhauling public education in Detroit.
“Because it’s sort of like a hurry-up offense, you either win and score touchdowns and (win) a Super Bowl, or you fail miserably and you start a rebuilding process,” Johnson said. “Detroit’s been in rebuild mode for a long time with its schools. We don’t need that problem going forward.”
Rep. Al Pscholka, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, also used an analogy alluding to Detroit’s lackluster profession football team in giving his assessment of getting the DPS bills passed.
“I’m a Lions fan, so I’m an optimist,” said Pscholka, R-Stevensville.