Duggan: ‘State control of local schools doesn’t work’

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Detroiters need to control Detroit schools if the state wants to see them turn around, Mayor Mike Duggan said Thursday as state legislators began debating Gov. Rick Snyder’s $715 million debt relief plan for the struggling district.

In 30 minutes of spirited testimony before a Senate panel, Duggan questioned the performance of state-appointed emergency managers who have run the Detroit Public Schools and the Education Achievement Authority, which took over 15 of the district’s worst-performing schools in 2011.

“The problem is that state control of local schools doesn’t work,” he said.

He asked legislators to restore authority to an elected school board, calling for an August election, and urged them to reconsider Snyder’s call for a Detroit Education Commission that could open or close traditional or charter schools in the city.

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The charter school lobby has fought aggressively against the proposed commission, which was not included in the Detroit schools bills introduced last month.

“We’ve seen how the state has done in taking control of the schools in the city of Detroit,” Duggan told reporters after testimony before the Senate Government Operations Committee. “It’s been seven straight years of enrollment decline, deficits and school closings. It’s time that Detroiters retake responsibility for the schools in our community.”

Sen. Goeff Hansen, a Hart Republican and lead sponsor on the legislation, told Duggan he wants to continue working with him but stopped short of saying the commission idea could become part of the package.

Speaking with reporters after the hearing, Hansen said the “challenge has always been trying to make sure that we have enough support to get things done,” suggesting Senate Republicans would be unlikely to vote for a plan with charter oversight.

The lack of standardized oversight has led to haphazard decisions and inconsistent academics in Detroit, Duggan said. More than 160 schools have opened or closed in Detroit in the past seven years, he told legislators, and while district academics are the worst in the state, 24 charters schools have performed even worse.

“I’m not supporting any plan that doesn’t have local standards and accountability,” Duggan said after the hearing. “We have to have a single standard for all the children. I’m going to push really hard to get that.”

Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, said Duggan’s plan sounds simple but would create a “huge city-wide central school district” that wouldn’t work.

“The reality is the schools that are working have some power at more of a local level than he’s talking about,” Quissenberry said. “There are charter boards of Detroiters running their own neighborhood schools. What we need to do, that I think there is agreement on, is a statewide accountability system.”

Hansen’s bills would split Detroit Public Schools into two entities to help it avoid looming insolvency. One district would pay off existing debt while a new Detroit Community Schools would be free to focus on operations and academics.

The plan would cost the state about $715 million over 10 years. Without action, the district could run out of cash by April, and the Snyder administration has said that a potential bankruptcy could cost taxpayers much more.

“The gravity of this situation is dire, and the consequences of inaction are very real,” said Hansen. “The sheer size of this debt far exceeds any other financially struggling district across the state.”

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, which would select a superintendent.

A financial review commission would have final say on most district decisions, including new contracts and collective bargaining agreements approved by the school board. The district would have to meet several requirements to gain full autonomy, including deficit-free budgets for three consecutive years and ability to borrow in the municipal securities market.

The state School Reform Office would also play a large role in Detroit if outgoing Emergency Manager Darnell Early is not replaced and the Education Achievement Authority is disbanded, an idea that Hansen said he is committed to.

There are currently 58 Detroit schools that would qualify for the state’s “priority list,” according to School Reform Officer Natasha Baker, who said the office could appoint a chief executive officer to manage low-performing schools that fail to make academic improvement.

Duggan said he supports an expanded role for the financial review commission, which was initially established to oversee city finances as Detroit emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy in late 2014, but would otherwise like to see the state step aside.

“If we could do this, give parents choice, give locals control of the public schools with the state making sure the budgets are balanced, I think we could have a quality system,” he said.