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Meekhof, Cotter willing to bargain on DPS rescue plan

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing – The Senate majority leader and House speaker signaled Wednesday they are willing to compromise on competing plans to rescue Detroit Public Schools from crippling debt, including a controversial commission that could limit charter school expansion in the city.

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, said he still supports the proposed Detroit Education Commission, which is opposed by House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant, as an unreasonable restriction on charter school competition with existing traditional schools. But he said he is flexible.

“There can’t be three people in a room saying I won’t budge, or nothing’s going to get done,” said Meekhof spokeswoman Amber McCann, referencing negotiations with Cotter and Gov. Rick Snyder. “…He’s not going to allow one issue to be the reason that doors don’t open for Detroit children.”

The Senate passed a $467 million debt relief bill and provided $200 million in start-up funding for a new debt-free district. The House approved a $500 million package with $467 million for debt elimination but $33 million for start-up costs, with Cotter arguing some proposed spending wasn’t fair to other school districts across the state by subsidizing building repairs.

A spokesman for Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant, said Wednesday House leaders are willing to consider more than $33 million in transition costs. Removing the commission from the final package and Cotter’s willingness to consider approving more transition aid could help break a Republican legislative stalemate but jeopardize Democratic support as the district approaches insolvency.

The commission of mayoral appointees, which would oversee new school openings in Detroit, is widely opposed by charter school advocates and Cotter, who said last week that the final package cannot be about saving the public school district at the expense of charters.

“It makes it really difficult, but we’ve got to find a way for almost 50,000 kids to get an improved educational environment,” Meekhof said, “and despite any other plans or people clamoring, that’s my goal.”

Meekhof, Cotter and Snyder met Tuesday at the state Capitol to discuss the state budget and Detroit schools.

The talks were “very productive,” said Cotter spokesman Gideon D’Assandro, who indicated House Republicans may consider more than the $33 million in district start-up costs.

Cotter disagrees with Senate plans to send the district start-up aid for building maintenance and educational programs, but D’Assandro said the Snyder administration has provided more information about the need to finance other transition costs, including payroll, vendor contracts and information technology.

In a briefing two weeks ago to legislators, the state Treasury said $125 million is needed to help the new debt-free Detroit school district get off the ground.

“We’re still working on it and getting more detail, but we’ve been getting better information about how much it’s actually going to cost,” D’Assandro said. “…I don’t know we have a complete picture yet, but we’re getting close.”

The Detroit Education Commission would allow existing high-performing charter schools to replicate without review. But critics say appointees could prevent new operators from entering the city and would have an inherent motivation to favor traditional public schools when reviewing applications for new openings.

Supporters, including Snyder and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, say the commission would ensure schools are rationally distributed throughout the city to ensure all students have access to higher-quality local options.

Sen. Goeff Hansen, lead sponsor on the Senate package, was part of Tuesday’s meeting with the governor and said legislators continue to discuss the commission and whether there may be another mechanism to achieve similar goals.

“We have nothing that is solid yet,” Hansen, R-Hart, said Tuesday. “First of all people have to understand what’s in the bill. It’s challenging when you have different groups that are putting out false information. It makes it really hard.”

Snyder and legislative leaders are hoping to finalize a DPS debt-relief plan before legislators break for summer in mid-June.

Without action, the governor has warned the district may end up in bankruptcy, which could cost Michigan taxpayers more than a bailout because the district’s debt is either secured by state aid revenue or guaranteed by the state through bonds and a statewide school employee pension fund.

Cotter said last week the House will meet for session next week Thursday despite a conflict with the Detroit Regional Chamber’s annual Mackinac Policy Conference, which many members typically attend.

“We’re staying in town to keep working on it, so hopefully we get some good work done,” D’Assandro said.


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