Coalition opposes DPS deal without school-limit group

Chad Livengood, and Jonathan Oosting

Lansing — Leaders of a coalition of Detroit business and civic leaders are lining up against any potential deal to save Detroit Public Schools from massive debt that does not include a mechanism for closing academically failing schools.

House and Senate Republican leaders have signaled they are close to a deal to pay off about $500 million in school district’s debt, but doing so may require sacrificing a long-sought citywide education commission that could limit the expansion of charter schools in Detroit.

“I do think it’s a recipe for disaster,” said Tonya Allen, CEO of the Skillman Foundation and a co-chair of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren.

Allen and coalition co-chair John Rakolta Jr. said the Detroit school district needs at least $200 million in transition aid to improve academic programs and buildings under what Allen called a “managed bankruptcy” outside of a federal courtroom.

They remain adamant that any legislative resolution must include a commission or legal mechanism for closing failing schools and stopping the spread of charter schools by operators with poor academic records at other schools.

House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant, has fought the creation of a commission that is favored by the schools coalition, Senate Republicans and Democrats, House Democrats, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Gov. Rick Snyder.

“If we don’t do that, it’s over,” Rakolta said Thursday. “If they give up on that idea and they just keep the status quo, then all our political guys have done is kick the can down the road and DPS will have start borrowing again.”

Cotter said Thursday he is open to some type of alternative to the commission in a final package while indicating that leaders have made “progress toward a deal” but not finalized one.

“I think there are probably different definitions of what a Detroit Education Commission is, so I’d be open to that,” he said. “I’m not going to be hung up on the title so much as what it would effectively do.”

Cotter remains concerned the commission could be used to “unfairly” target charter schools. While the Senate plan would allow high-performing charters to replicate without review, he said new operators could be kept out of the city.

The House plan includes $33 million in startup costs for the proposed new, debt-free Detroit school district, but Cotter said House Republicans have received additional information that may justify a larger investment.

“I would put my willingness somewhere between $33 million and $200 million,” he said.

Cotter remains opposed to providing the Detroit district with $63 million for building maintenance and upgraded security equipment, as anticipated under the $200 million Senate start-up plan.

That funding would provide DPS with an advantage over the “competition,” he said, including other public school districts that pay for building upgrades through local millages or charter schools that pay for it themselves.

“To me, I can’t get past how this is fair for the taxpayers to be on the hook for capital improvements in DPS,” he said.

Republican legislative leaders have not settled on how much money to give a new debt-free Detroit school district, said Amber McCann, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive.

“I don’t believe it’s a done deal yet,” said Rakolta, an influential Republican businessman.

The coalition’s opposition came as Duggan put on a full-court press for the education commission.

The Democratic mayor planned to meet with charter school operations Thursday night at the Manoogian mansion following negotiations with unnamed House Republican members Thursday morning in Lansing and other meetings Wednesday with unspecified “political interests.”

“We need to have a single authority that says we’re going to have the same rule for charters and DPS,” he said at a Thursday news conference for Detroit’s youth jobs program. “We want to grow charters and DPS. But we also want to shut down the poor-performing schools no matter who they are.

“I’m a great believer in school of choice, but with choice you have to have some kind of accountability.”

In recent weeks, Cotter questioned the need for $200 million in transition aid. DPS and Snyder administration officials have said the money is needed for cash-flow purposes and to help turn around the state’s largest school system.

“We have a bankrupt district and that district is going to require some investment,” Allen said.

She said a final resolution that leans toward the House plan and doesn’t include regulations of where schools are placed in the city will not be welcomed by Detroit business, civic and political leaders.

“No one would want a group of legislators from Detroit to come and talk what should happen in Mount Pleasant solely without ever talking to people in Mount Pleasant or engaging them in the solution,” Allen said, referencing Cotter’s hometown.

Staff Writer Charlie Ramirez contributed

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Twitter: @ChadLivengood