Future of DPS hinges on GOP Capitol showdown

Chad Livengood, and Jonathan Oosting

Lansing — A yearlong debate over the future of Detroit Public Schools is headed for a showdown between Republican lawmakers over the proliferation of charter schools and the amount of money needed to help the state’s largest district survive.

The $500 million rescue plan for the Detroit district that House Republicans passed around 4 a.m. Thursday contains controversial provisions curtailing union rights and imposing tougher anti-strike measures in response to school-closing teacher sickouts earlier this week.

The plan is squarely at odds with the Republican-authored Senate package endorsed by Gov. Rick Snyder that would pay off $515 million in DPS debt and give a new debt-free school district another $200 million to cushion against continued declining enrollment.

Rhodes blasts Detroit teachers union for sickout

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, said Thursday the House plan was passed “under duress” and suggested it wouldn’t get out of his chamber.

“We don’t do our best work at 4 in the morning,” Meekhof said.

The Senate Republican plan establishes a Detroit Education Commission to regulate the opening of traditional public and charter schools in the city — something community leaders have requested.

“We need Detroit to buy-in. This has to be Detroit’s solution,” said Sen. Goeff Hansen, the west Michigan Republican who has led the charge to overhaul Detroit’s fractured educational landscape. “Lansing solutions have not been successful.”

If the House or the Senate fails to vote on the other chamber’s DPS package, legislative leaders would likely send negotiations over the Detroit school overhaul to a conference committee.

Steven Rhodes, the interim emergency manager of DPS, called the House plan “an important step in the right direction for Detroit and Detroit’s children.” But he suggested the Senate’s plan would be better for the 45,786-student school system’s long-term viability.

“In order for the new district to be set up for success, it will need the $200 million that was originally advanced in the Michigan Senate’s bill package,” Rhodes said in a statement.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan told The Detroit News that the House plan would “end up being a waste of $500 million” without restraints on the number of charter schools in the city.

Duggan said Thursday the House GOP plan continues the state’s track record of “abysmal results” for Detroit children following seven straight years of emergency management.

“Instead of sitting down and working on a transition plan this time, last night was basically ‘throw up your arms and send it back,’ ” the Democratic mayor told reporters. “No reforms in place, not enough money. It’s disappointing.”

House Republicans did not include the commission in their plan after charter schools advocates lobbied heavily against it.

The Great Lakes Education Project, a pro-charter group backed by the powerful DeVos family of west Michigan, contends the commission is part of a broader effort by Duggan and Detroit’s City Council to hinder school choice.

A 2014 City Council resolution prohibited the city’s land bank from selling any of 77 vacant former school buildings to charter operators that directly compete with traditional public schools.

“The proposal requires the DEC to serve the interest of the traditional district above charters, and (Duggan’s) own City Council will not sell former DPS buildings to charters,” said Gary Naeyaert of the Great Lakes Education Project. “That’s not a pro-charter stance.”

Duggan said Thursday he’s told lawmakers to add a provision to the legislation that would make the vacant buildings available to all charter operators and DPS.

“That is not an issue,” he said. “I think those buildings should be available to everybody.”

Question of funding

Democrats and Detroit legislators united Thursday against the House plan, which would help the district escape crippling debt but impose new limitations on collective bargaining rights and prolong state oversight.

“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.

Sen. David Knezek, a Dearborn Heights Democrat who represents parts of Detroit’s west side, said the House plan is a short-term solution.

“I don’t think we want to be in a situation where we pass a sum of money and then two or three months later we’re right back in front of the Legislature asking for more,” Knezek said.

The House’s 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 annual 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.”

One prominent Republican donor said the House plan is “flawed.”

“They can’t in any way shape or form show how that logically gives the district sufficient funds to be able to provide an adequate education,” said John Rakolta Jr., CEO of the Walbridge Co. and co-chair of the schools coalition.

As part of the $200 million in start-up costs, DPS would spend $75 million making immediate improvements to schools after city inspectors found mold and other dangers lurking in occupied buildings, Rakolta said.

“No reasonable person would send their kids to some of these buildings,” he said. “I wouldn’t, the governor wouldn’t and neither would any of those House members who voted for this.”

‘Desire for accountability’

House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant, secured a minimum 55 GOP votes Thursday to pass the bills by including tougher anti-strike policies designed to crack down on the mass teacher sickouts that closed most Detroit schools Monday and Tuesday.

“There was a desire for accountability, and to say strikes are illegal in Michigan for teachers, but there are no teeth to it,” Cotter said. “So what we did in this package is beef it up so it can be enforced.”

House Republicans have been tracking Detroit teacher sickouts since last April when 18 schools were closed while educators protested outside the Capitol as Snyder unveiled his plan to bail out the district in Detroit.

All 97 DPS schools have been closed at least two days over the past year due to the sickouts, amounting to 1.4 million hours of lost instruction time, according to data from House Republicans. Three schools were closed seven to eight days.

In a Thursday open letter to district employees, Rhodes called the sickouts an “unnecessary strike” that “puzzled, angered and alienated state legislators of both political parties at the very moment that they are considering lifesaving legislation for DPS.”

Snyder sees the House plan as a sign of “positive progress,” but believes “there is still more work to do,” spokesman Ari Adler said.

“Clearly, there’s less money in the House package, and there were some changes made in terms of operations that we’ll want to review and discuss with them,” Adler said.

Meekhof signaled Thursday he’s not interested in using his Republican majority to force a solution for Detroit schools on the predominantly Democratic city.

“If we give them something they don’t want or can’t accommodate, it’s likely they’ll make sure it doesn’t work,” Meekhof said. “And then we’ll be back doing this again. I really don’t want to do that.”


Conflicting proposals

How the Michigan House and Senate plans differ for Detroit Public Schools:

House plan

■ $500 million for DPS over 10 years. $33 million of it would be for start-up costs and cash flow aid.

■ School board elections in August 2017. Existing Detroit Financial Review Commission would also oversee schools, have final say in hiring of new superintendent.

■ Existing labor contracts would not transfer to the new school district, but teachers would retain their jobs. Administrators and principals would have to reapply.

■ Teacher pay would be based on merit, not seniority. Non-certified teachers could temporarily work in the district.

■ Would make it easier to begin strike hearings leading to penalties in a bid to prevent sickouts.

Senate plan

■ $715 million over 10 years. $515 million for paying off past debts. $200 million for new school district’s start-up costs, including $75 million for building improvements.

■ School board elections in November 2016. Detroit Financial Review Commission would also oversee schools, review contracts.

■ Creation of a Detroit Education Commission to regulate the opening of new traditional public or charter schools in the city. Only high-performing charters could “replicate” without approval of the mayor-appointed commission.

■ A-F letter system to grade all traditional and charter schools in Detroit. Consistently failing schools could face intervention or closure.

Source: Detroit News research