Lawmakers to weigh $50M Detroit school rescue

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing – The Michigan Legislature is preparing to consider a $50 million bailout to keep the Detroit Public Schools operating through June to avert the specter this spring of payless paydays and 46,000 children locked out of shuttered buildings.

“We just can’t allow that to happen,” said Sen. Goeff Hansen, a west Michigan Republican leading the charge in the Senate to rescue the state’s largest school district from financial insolvency.

As their own spring break looms, lawmakers have two weeks to act on Detroit school district Emergency Manager Steven Rhodes’ request for the emergency funding, while a larger debate plays out over Gov. Rick Snyder’s $715 million, 10-year plan to relieve the Detroit district of debt piled up by Rhodes’ predecessors and create a new debt-free district.

Rhodes, a retired bankruptcy judge who oversaw the city of Detroit’s historic reorganization, set off alarm bells in the Capitol last week when he told the House Appropriations Committee the district has enough money to pay teachers through April 8. Appropriations Committee Chairman Al Pscholka called Rhodes’ deadline for legislative action a “grenade,” but indicated it may spur action as early as this week.

The $50 million general fund request to keep the district operating and paying employees through June 30 is part of Snyder’s $515 million overall debt relief plan. The Republican governor is seeking another $200 million to provide the new school system with start-up costs and money to cushion the operating budget against continued declining enrollment.

A bipartisan consensus appears to be forming among lawmakers that the state is on the hook for the DPS financial rescue. But disagreements remain over future governance of the district and the city’s network of independent charter schools that educate about 50,000 schoolchildren.

“I’m not hearing from a single individual anything except it’s going to be bumpy for the next couple of weeks, but our intentions are to keep those doors open,” John Walsh, the governor’s strategy director, told The Detroit News.

The latest plan floated in the Senate would revive Snyder’s proposed citywide Detroit Education Commission and empower it to block new charters from setting up shop in Detroit near existing high-performing schools operated by the district or charters.

Charter school lobbyist Gary Naeyaert says the proposed commission is designed to increase the enrollment of the new Detroit school district at the expense of competitors.

“(The proposed bill language) proves the goal of the DEC is to manage and control school choice by propping up the new traditional district at the expense of charters and parental choice,” said Naeyaert, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, a pro-charter school group aligned with the wealthy DeVos family of west Michigan.

Walsh said the governor’s office is seeking “quality choice” for Detroit’s fractured educational landscape.

“It’s not anti-choice at all,” Walsh said. “It’s to help with the market a little bit so we don’t waste taxpayer dollars on schools next to schools.”

Bipartisan support needed

Reaching a legislative deal on governance will likely require Democratic votes.

GOP legislative leaders are working to get support from Detroit Democrats to encourage out-state Republicans to vote for the financial rescue of Detroit’s public schools.

To speed up a return to local control, Snyder now favors letting Detroiters elect a new school board in the August primary.

In a bid to win Democratic support, Snyder has agreed to eliminate his Education Achievement Authority — which has run low-performing Detroit schools since 2011 — and return a locally elected school board to Detroit.

The existing 15 EAA schools in Detroit would be folded back into DPS, but the state’s School Reform Office would retain oversight of turning around the failing schools, Walsh said.

Democrats also have been demanding the legislation include the education commission so the placement of schools in the city can be better managed.

“I think there’s some merit to leveling the playing field, putting some accountability in place,” said Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, D-Detroit.

Gay-Dagnogo said simply regulating the placement of charter schools within the city limits does not go far enough because charters would still be able to set up shop along suburban borders and attract Detroit parents and kids.

“We’ll still have that problem, even if you restrict or cap schools opening in the city of Detroit proper,” Gay-Dagnogo said. “I don’t want to see the oversaturation (of charters) that Detroiters are seeing in other municipalities throughout the state as well.”

“We have to find a way that we can coexist so that both charter schools and traditional public schools can do well, and we’re not continuing to compete for children,” she added.

Timing of vote uncertain

Pscholka, the House Appropriations Committee chairman, wants to vote before the March 24 spring recess on the $50 million emergency appropriation and start moving the overall $715 million rescue package.

“I think that sends the right message and sends the assurances that everything’s going to be OK, we’re willing to work together and try to get things done,” said Pscholka, R-Stevensville.

Gay-Dagnogo said she wasn’t convinced the Legislature needs to rush a $50 million emergency funding bill through the Legislature before lawmakers adjourn for a two-week spring break.

“If we’re really concerned about stabilizing the district, we don’t want to send out these messages that will scare everybody,” she said.

Hansen, the Senate sponsor of the Detroit school bills, is hesitant to hold a vote for $50 million in emergency supplemental funding without taking concurrent action on the overall 10-year funding bill and reforms.

Staff Writer Jonathan Oosting contributed