Duggan: Detroit school chaos ‘driving people away’

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan on Wednesday shared his high hopes for Detroit’s revival, but stressed that the chaos surrounding its school system is why “we’re driving people away.”

During a key note address at the 37th Mackinac Policy Conference, the Democratic mayor argued for a citywide commission that would decide school placement in the city as the Republican-controlled Legislature debated the shape of a financial bailout for Detroit Public Schools.

The speech came as House Republican leaders on Wednesday afternoon pushed for a $617 million compromise in the proposed bailout of Detroit Public Schools with $150 million in new start-up funding. But it didn’t include the commission supported by Duggan, Senate leaders and Gov. Rick Snyder.

Duggan, who this week recruited about 20 charter school operators and a DPS official to support the controversial Detroit Education Commission, noted legislators are “trying to pass the bill right now” and implored the crowd “the odds are still against us.” The state House adjourned Wednesday without taking up the proposed compromise, but could vote on it as early as Thursday.

“Is there anyone else here that feels in your heart that these are your children? If you do, don’t stay silent,” Duggan said, telling attendees that in the next couple of days at the conference they can lobby senators and the Republican governor.

“Bringing back the riverfront and all the houses and buildings in Detroit isn’t going to mean a damn thing if we leave the children behind,” he added.

House Democrats have advocated for including the education commission in the rescue of DPS, which would entail paying off $467 million in operating debt racked up under the control of state-appointed emergency managers.

A summary of the House Republicans’ compromise plan said an advisory board would be created to study where schools are needed in the city, but it would not have the regulatory powers that had been sought.

The mayor raised the schools issue Wednesday after detailing plans to build up neighborhoods and business corridors, attract new residents and employ city youth and to press on with Detroit’s massive demolition program.

In Detroit, about 46,000 students attend DPS schools, 50,000 kids go to charter schools and another 27,000 children attend public schools in neighboring cities.

The Senate plan would create a citywide report card system for all DPS and charter schools that could be used to close failing schools after three consecutive years of receiving a “D” or “F” grade. The state’s School Reform office would be empowered to close persistently failing schools.

The potential plan comes after a legislative conference committee on Tuesday added $72 million for Detroit schools to a 2017 budget bill heading to the full House and Senate for consideration. The one-year funding would go to a new debt-free district that would be created under the larger DPS plan still up for debate.

Lawmakers are mostly in agreement that the state needs to pay off $467 million in debt DPS racked up, mostly under the watch of state-appointed emergency managers since 2009.

“Every mayor in America who has touched this (schools) has been badly hurt politically,” Duggan said. “But you get to a point where you just can’t turn a blind eye.”

Duggan said he’s “100 percent pro-choice between DPS and charter schools.

“We want schools of choice, but we want quality choice,” he said. “I just want to have a standard that the good ones grow, but somebody actually deals with the ones that aren’t performing.”

In the opening of his address, Duggan talked about affordable housing opportunities and plans to reinvent city neighborhoods with transportation, converting vacant lots to wildflower meadows and revitalized housing.

He also touted the latest infusion of $88.2 million in federal dollars being directed toward demolition projects in the city and reiterated plans to take down about 11,000 more homes by the end of next year. The Michigan State Housing Development Authority earlier Wednesday announced giving the money to the city.

“Over and over, the neighborhoods are coming back,” he said. “This is transforming this city every single day. It’s getting a little bit cleaner and a little bit better. We’ve got to reshape the landscape.”

So far, 9,102 homes have come down, he said, adding “we had bumps,” but “pure hearts.” The mayor did not delve into scrutiny over bidding and costs associated with the demolition effort and pending federal and city reviews.

He also touted the city’s iconic office buildings, the planned 2017 opening of a light rail along Woodward and development projects along Detroit’s east riverfront, in Eastern Market and the Dequindre Cut.

“We’re going to build the kind of community that we think people will want to live in,” he said.