Critic: House's DPS debt plan 'gave Detroit the finger'

Jonathan Oosting, Chad Livengood, and Shawn D. Lewis

Lansing — A $500 million debt-relief plan for Detroit Public Schools passed by House Republicans early Thursday morning during a series of partisan votes is drawing bipartisan criticism.

"The House just gave Detroit the finger," the Rev. Wendell Anthony, a Democrat and co-chair of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, said in a statement following the House's 15-hour marathon session.

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, said the House plan was passed “under duress.”

“We don’t do our best work at four in the morning,” he told reporters mid-morning Thursday.

Meekhof favors a Senate-passed plan for the Detroit school district that would provide it with $715 million over 10 years and create a Detroit Education Commission to regulate the opening of traditional public and charter schools in the city.

Democrats and Detroit legislators united against the plan, which would help the district escape crippling debt but impose new limitations on collective bargaining rights and prolong state oversight, leaving House Speaker Kevin Cotter to find at least 55 Republican votes needed for passage.

Cotter secured those votes after various modifications to the six-bill package, including tougher anti-strike policies designed to crack down on the sort of mass teacher sickouts that closed most Detroit schools Monday and Tuesday.

“The sickouts made things far more difficult,” Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant, told reporters. “…There was a desire for accountability, and to say strikes are illegal in Michigan for teachers, but there are no teeth to it. So what we did in this package is beef it up so it can be enforced.”

Meekhof said he's not interested in using his Republican majority to force a solution for Detroit schools onto the Democratic city.

"I think bipartisan is best and I want those thought leaders and opinion leaders in Detroit to buy into the solution because I want them to want it to work," he said. "If we give them something they don't want or can't accommodate, it's likely they'll make sure it doesn't work. And then we'll be back doing this again. I really don't want to do that."

The full House convened at 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday but did not formally take up the Detroit bills until roughly 3 a.m. Voting wrapped up at 4:30 a.m. One of the measures passed by the minimum 55-53 margin, with support from all but eight Republicans and no Democrats.

“I know that this package of bills not only solves the financial problems faced by the district and its families, but it focuses on the students and allows for every tool available to improve their education,” said Rep. Daniela Garcia, R-Holland.

Critics object to the bill’s lack of charter school regulation, limits on union rights and a provision that would allow uncertified teachers in Detroit schools on a provisional basis.

“The House is running a short game. They’re appealing to a small group of corporate donors at the expense of 100,000 children,” said Arlyssa Heard, a Detroit parent who spoke at a news conference called by the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren.

The coalition, a group of business and community leaders, proposed a reform package last year that called for the state to return DPS to local control, pay off the district’s debt and create a panel with the power to open and close Detroit schools.

Coalition co-chairs, members and supporters gathered at the Fellowship Chapel to denounce the House legislation, saying it undermines progress toward meaningful reform of Detroit’s education system.

Some expressed support for a Senate-passed bill that includes $715 million and a Detroit Education Commission to oversee the opening and closing of city schools, including charters.

“They’ve allowed special interest groups, motivated by profit, to gut the only real reform being proposed – the Detroit Education Commission,” said John Rakolta Jr., coalition co-chair and CEO of the Walbridge Company. He said bankruptcy would be a better option for DPS, which carries hundreds of millions of dollars in debt.

Passage of the House legislation followed a teacher sickout Monday and Tuesday that closed most DPS schools. House Speaker Kevin Cotter said the job action motivated lawmakers to include tougher anti-strike language in the measure.

David Hecker, president of the American Federation of Teachers-Michigan, said House Republicans acted more out of a desire to hurt teachers than to help students.

“Cotter rammed this through and it contains absolutely nothing to improve public education,” he said. “They’re talking about hiring non-certified teachers, making all teachers reapply for their job. ... I believe this action is retaliation for teachers standing up for their right to be paid for the work they do.”

Imani Harris, a sophomore at Renaissance High School, read a letter at the coalition news conference defending teachers and criticizing conditions in the state’s largest school district.

“I am disgusted at some of the things that are proposed in this ‘quick fix’ approved by the House of Appropriations,” she said. “Why would teachers have to reapply for their jobs in the new district? So you can fire those you don’t like? So we can lose more teachers?”

The House GOP plan would prohibit the transfer of existing collective bargaining agreements to a newly created debt-free community district. New agreements could not include provisions related to employee work schedules or the school calendar.

Detroit teachers would be moved to a merit pay system, and the legislation would allow non-certified teachers to work in the district in a provisional basis. Anti-sickout provisions would allow the state superintendent or Detroit parents to request strike hearings that could lead to penalties.

Residents would elect a school board in August of 2017 under the House plan, as opposed to the Senate version, which calls for elections this fall. The city’s existing Financial Review Commission would also oversee the school district and have final say on the hiring of a new superintendent.

The proposed funding, which would be drawn from state tobacco settlement revenue, would help the district pay down roughly $467 million in debt over seven years and provide another $33 million to cover start-up costs and avoid potential cash flow problems in coming months.

House Appropriations Chair Al Pscholka, R-Stevensville, noted that the full Legislature recently approved $48.7 million in stop-gap funding for Detroit schools and said the new plan would free up another $50 million in per-pupil funding by helping the district avoid debt payments.

“There’s plenty of money there, and I think there’s enough to not only make them debt-free, but to help them going forward,” Pscholka said. “The math works for me.”

But Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, D-Detroit, said she recently talked to Rhodes and believes the actual need in Detroit schools is closer to $800 million.

“Anything short of that is fiscally irresponsible,” she said. “It’s not going to fix the problem. It’s throwing taxpayer money out the window, and we’re going to be back in this position or in bankruptcy. So let’s cut to the chase, let’s take it to bankruptcy if we don’t want to do anything for the children of the city of Detroit.”

The House plan does not include the Detroit Education Commission called for the in the Senate-approved package and supported by Snyder, Mayor Mike Duggan and a broad coalition of Detroit stakeholders.

“I think they will send $500 million down with no change in teaching in the classroom, and I think it will end up being a waste of $500 million,” Duggan told The Detroit News. “I think that sending money without reform isn’t the solution.”

Duggan met with more than a dozen legislators Wednesday evening in Lansing, urging them to support the Senate plan for Detroit schools and creation of the city-wide education commission. Without it, he predicted, the House plan will not fix Detroit's education woes.

Supporters say the commission would steer schools toward under-served areas of the city and avoid unnecessary duplication. But charter school advocates, including Cotter, fear the commission would ultimately "choke out" charter schools to ensure enrollment in the traditional district.

Under the Senate plan, a charter school operator could only open a school without commission approval if it “replicates” an existing school that received an A or B for three consecutive years under a newly proposed letter-grade system. The House plan provides mechanisms to close failing schools but would not regulate openings.

“A number of people think using $500 million in taxpayer money to bail out DPS is the worst idea they’ve ever heard,” said Gary Naeyaert of the Great Lakes Education Project, a pro-charter group backed by the powerful DeVos family of west Michigan. “But the House plan promotes accountability, supports choice and protects taxpayers much better than the Senate plan does.”

Stark differences between the House and Senate plans mean the Detroit schools legislation could end up in a conference committee, where members would settle on final language to put to an up or down vote in each chamber.

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, said Wednesday that a conference committee is an option. Cotter said it was too early to say what will happen next in the legislative process.

“This is what we were able to get support for, and we’ll make our case to our colleagues in the Senate that this is a good plan,” Cotter said.

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Staff Writer Chad Livengood contributed.