Senate leader: EAA set to be eliminated

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Gov. Rick Snyder’s controversial Education Achievement Authority will come to an end as legislators consider a $715 million plan to rescue the Detroit Public Schools, according to Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof.

“It’s gone. We’re not going to do the EAA again,” Meekhof told The Detroit News on Wednesday, a day before his Government Operations Committee was to begin a public debate on the Detroit schools legislation.

Snyder spokesman Dave Murray said Wednesday he could not confirm Meekhof’s comments regarding the potential end of the EAA.

Meekhof, R-West Olive, said moving away from the EAA is one of several “accommodations” that Republicans will make in order to help get Democrats on board with the larger plan.

“We think with the School Reform Office and financial review that we’ll be able to make the improvements that we need,” he said of the 15 low-performing Detroit schools that have been run by the EAA since 2011.

Snyder told The Detroit News Editorial Board last year that he was “open” to disbanding the EAA as part of a deal with the Legislature on Detroit schools.

“There are continuing discussions about the role of the EAA in Detroit Public Schools education,” Murray said.

EAA spokesman Robert Guttersohn declined to comment on pending legislation but said in a statement that “regardless of the governance, the 15 schools the EAA currently operates and the other priority schools in Detroit need continued individualized attention and talented educators in every building.”

“This has been the driving force behind the EAA under Chancellor Veronica Conforme, and it will continue to be,” Guttersohn said.

Detroit schools legislation introduced last month would split the district in two. A new debt-free Detroit Community School District would focus on educating roughly 48,000 students, while the old district would continue to exist as a vehicle to pay down existing debt, much of which the state is liable for.

The bills do not directly address the EAA, formed in 2011 to run 15 of the city’s lowest-performing schools, but they do give a larger role to the School Reform Office, which the Republican governor moved under his own budget department last March.

Specifically, the legislation says the reform office could not close a Detroit school within two years of transfer to the new district but could impose another “redesign plan” on low-achieving schools.

Snyder announced this week that, for the first time, the School Reform Office would use existing authority to appoint a new chief executive officer to run four struggling schools in Eastpointe.

Debate over the Detroit schools package will begin Thursday amid a backdrop of mounting district debt, teacher sickouts that have highlighted poor building conditions and this week’s announcement that embattled Emergency Manager Darnell Earley will leave by month’s end.

Duggan, State Superintendent Brian Whiston and School Reform Officer Natasha Henderson are among those expected to testify Thursday, and Meekhof plans to hold additional hearings over the next three or four weeks.

“I think you’ll see the bills are very reasonable, because several things that the Democrats have asked for, we’ve included,” Meekhof said. “They don’t close any schools, they don’t punish any teachers, the emergency manager’s gone and it doesn’t affect collective bargaining.”

But Democrats in the House and Senate have already spoken out against the bills, as introduced. The minority party, which includes Detroit legislators, wants to see a faster return to local control than initially proposed, and members want charter school oversight to be part of the final product.

“If they want to get something done in a bipartisan way, there’s a few things we’ve been consistently talking about, and I think if those kinds of things are in the bill, and there’s some long-term sustainability, I think there’s a very good chance we would support it,” said Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint. “Until that happens though, they’ve got some work to do.”

Under the bills, Detroit voters would elect a new school board in November, but initial control would rest with an interim board appointed by the governor and mayor. Those members would help select a superintendent and could appoint an advisory board to assess academics and operations in the district.

The legislation does not include Snyder’s earlier proposal to create a Detroit Education Commission with power to open and close any public school operated by DPS or independent charter schools. Republicans supportive of charter schools and the charter school lobby aggressively fought against the new commission.

Sen. Goeff Hansen, R-Hart, lead sponsor on the Detroit schools legislation, called the bills “a good compromise,” but he anticipates additional talks about creation of a “master plan” to identify where school buildings are needed in the city.

“I don’t know if it’s going to be possible to satisfy everybody, but I think that we put in a lot of the things from all sides of this,” he said. “We’re having discussions from all sides of it to make sure we can try to address as many of the issues as we can.”

The bills introduced so far include an initial appropriation of $250,000 to help establish the new Detroit Community School District, but they do not spell out additional funding that would naturally come out of the School Aid Fund. Snyder has said the plan could cost the state roughly $715 million over 10 years.

Detroit Public Schools’ general fund deficit grew from $169.5 million in 2014 to $215.9 million by the end of 2015, according to budget documents, and the deficit is expected to grow to $312 million by the end of June.

As The Detroit News reported in January, the districts debt payments were expected to balloon this month, and the district could run out of cash by April.

All told, Detroit schools has $3.5 billion in combined operating and capital liabilities, according a recent report from the non-partisan Citizens Research Council of Michigan. That includes $1.9 billion in employee legacy costs and cash flow borrowing, along with nearly $1.7 billion in outstanding bonds and state loans.

It’s a “decades-long crisis” that the state must address, Snyder said last month in his State of the State Address.

“Taking prompt legislative action is needed to minimize the fiscal impact on both Detroit and the rest of Michigan,” the governor said. “The time to act is now: avoid court intervention that could cost all of us much more and can be much more detrimental.”