GOP House OKs DPS rescue package over Dem opposition

Jonathan Oosting, and Chad Livengood

The state of Michigan would help pay off Detroit Public Schools’ crippling debt and provide more transition aid under a $617 million rescue plan the Republican-led House approved late Thursday following intense talks between legislative leaders and Gov. Rick Snyder.

The main bill in the package, approved by the narrowest of margins in a 55-53 vote because of uniform Democratic opposition, calls for school board elections in November but does not include a Senate-approved education commission, backed by Snyder and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, that would regulate where traditional and charter schools can locate in the city.

The six-bill package heads to the Republican-controlled Senate, where it faces likely passage as early as next week.

“The Senate majority leader needs to talk over the details with his caucus members,” said Amber McCann, spokeswoman for Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive. “He thinks this latest plan is a realistic compromise between the House and Senate proposals.”

Added House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant: “I wouldn’t have put them up for a vote if I didn’t have confidence” of Senate passage.

During the House debate, Cotter said the compromise plan achieves the twin goals of returning the district to local control and relieving district debt, which would free up more money for classrooms.

“This is a plan put forward to save education in Detroit, not just an entity ... and at the same time avoid what would be a disastrous bankruptcy,” Cotter said during the often spirited debate.

Sponsoring Rep. Daniela Garcia, R-Holland, added the bills will free up money that can go back into Detroit classrooms and provide oversight to taxpayers in other parts of the state.

State Rep. Adam Zemke, D-Ann Arbor, criticized House Republicans for rejecting a bipartisan Senate plan that included the commission to control charter school proliferation in the city, suggesting opposition was driven by the powerful DeVos family of west Michigan.

“This is a result of some folks on the west side of the state who were born with silver spoons in their mouths who want to screw over a city with young black boys and girls,” Zemke said.

Snyder embraced the House package as he indicated earlier Thursday he would, even though it lacked the commission that Detroit Democrats deemed vital.

“This is a good step toward a compromise that sets in motion positive progress for the families of Detroit to have a sustainable and successful educational system,” Snyder spokesman Ari Adler said.

Democrats attack Snyder

But House Minority Leader Tim Greimel, D-Auburn Hills, said the Republican governor showed a lack of guts.

“The governor had an opportunity to stand up for principle and to support and insist on a good bipartisan approach,” Greimel said after the votes. “Unfortunately, as he’s done time and time again, the governor showed that he has no backbone.”

The House and Senate have been at odds over how much money DPS needs for transition costs to stabilize enrollment after the state assumes the $467 million in debt. The Senate originally approved $200 million and the House budgeted $33 million for transition aid.

The amended House package includes $150 million in transition aid to restore academic programs and fix school buildings.

Instead of the commission, vehemently opposed by the charter school lobby, the plan calls for an advisory council that would produce reports highlighting where schools are needed and study a potential city-wide transportation system to serve all students. The six-member council would include district officials and charter representatives.

Poor-performing traditional public or charter schools could be closed under the legislation, which would require the School Reform Office to develop an A-F letter grade system to evaluate schools. Three years with a failing grades would prompt closure.

A state-appointed transition manager would run the new debt-free Detroit district until the elected school board took over in January. The manager could appoint an interim superintendent and adopt an initial budget.

EAA would end

The legislation would effectively end the governor’s Education Achievement Authority, requiring the new district to withdraw from the interlocal agreement that facilitated its creation.

The school board would appoint a new superintendent but would need approval from the city’s existing Financial Review Commission to hire a chief financial officer, fire a superintendent or fund out-of-state travel for board members or district officials.

The deal includes several reforms previously approved by the House, including increased penalties for teacher “sickouts,” merit pay and the option for the school board to hire non-certified teachers to fill vacancies.

The House approval came after former Gov. John Engler, who marshaled through the mid-1990s laws that created charter schools, told The Detroit News that the House was correct to oppose the proposed Detroit Education Commission that could regulate the growth of competing charter schools.

“People have chosen to leave, they weren’t forced to leave. So it’s to the great credit of the House of Representatives that they politely turned down the idea of some commission,” Engler told The News.

Speaking at the Mackinac Policy Conference, Snyder said earlier Thursday a lack of financial stability in DPS this summer could cause more students to leave the school system, which has seen its enrollment plunge from 150,000 students a decade ago to about 46,000 this spring.

“So we have to get an answer in the next couple of weeks,” he said.