Detroit schools rescue plan heads to Gov. Snyder

Jonathan Oosting, and Chad Livengood

Lansing — Michigan legislators worked late into the night Wednesday to approve a $617 million plan to help Detroit Public Schools pay off debt and avoid a bankruptcy filing officials fear could be even more costly for the state.

Gov. Rick Snyder hailed the bailout and restructuring as an “unprecedented investment” in Detroit’s children.

Gov. Rick Snyder hailed the Detroit Public Schools bailout and restructuring as an "unprecedented investment" in Detroit's children.

Senate Republicans put up the minimum 19 votes to pass the main bill in the six-part rescue package after 11 p.m. following hours of debate, a closed-door caucus visit from Snyder and scathing criticism from Democrats who said it would not save the district from collapse.

The House signed off on Senate modifications after midnight despite protest from Democrats who chanted “shame, shame” when they were not afforded to opportunity speak on the floor. Republicans said they did not observe a proper motion for a request to speak.

The package now heads to Snyder for a signature, which would provide the district with an influx of cash before the new school year begins.

“This work represents a fresh start with more money in the classrooms for Detroit’s students, career stability for Detroit’s teachers, and fiscal accountability for all Michigan taxpayers,” Snyder said in a statement early Thursday. “This is a new day for education in Michigan’s comeback city."

Democrats blasted the latest plan, which does not include a proposed commission to regulate traditional and charter school locations in the city, a provision Mayor Mike Duggan lobbied for but charter operators vehemently opposed.

Critics also questioned House provisions to crack down on teacher “sickouts,” implement a merit pay system and allow the local school board to approve non-certified teachers in Detroit schools.

“This arrangement is little more than a stay of execution,” said Sen. David Knezek, D-Dearborn Heights. “Once the money runs out, and it will run out, the district will plunge back into debt and jeopardize the future of Detroit children.”

Local control, local input

Under the plan, Detroit voters would elect a new school board in November. Members would take office in January, and a state-appointed transition manager would run the district until that time.

The board would hire a new superintendent, but the city’s post-bankruptcy Financial Advisory Commission would be expected provide oversight on district finances and have final say on some employment decisions.

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof called the plan “a realistic compromise for a path to the future,” but he acknowledged that many members had preferred the bipartisan Senate version approved in March but never put up for a vote in the House.

“At the end of the day, our responsibility is to solve the problem,” said Meekhof, R-West Olive. “There are more than 45,000 students who depend on DPS and deserve a stable, quality education option.”

But Sen. Bert Johnson, D-Highland Park, bemoaned a lack of local input on the plan, saying “policies don’t work when they’re jammed down the throats of the people” in urban communities.

"If you do this, you are systematically destroying" Detroit Public Schools, he told Republicans before the vote.

Rep. Brian Banks, D-Detroit, said the legislation would create an uneven playing field for Detroit schools and pits the district against others around the state.

“Some district have the best and brightest teachers, but we’re now allowed to have uncertified teachers,” he said after the vote. “Don’t our kids matter? Our school kids deserve the same things as kids in Holland and any of these other Republican districts.”

Charter debate

Sen. Goeff Hansen, the Hart Republican who crafted the original bipartisan Senate plan, ended up opposing the compromise version on Wednesday night.

His legislation had included the school location commission opposed by the charter school lobby, but he argued the new plan would continue to pit public and charter schools against each other in Detroit.

“We should be focused on creating an environment where good schools of all type have an opportunity to flourish and provide the education services our children truly deserve,” Hansen said.

Instead of the mayor-appointed commission, the new package 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.

“We fought (the commission) because it would have injected city politics into quality decision that needed to be made,” said Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, which hailed passage of the new plan.

“What the advisory board will do is shine a bright light on decisions that are going to be made about openings and the information about where they need to be placed, and that’s a good thing.”

Senate changes adopted Wednesday would ensure the School Aid Fund would be “held harmless” for any long-term liability the state would have on interest payments associated with the plan.

The final package also removed “reconstitution” language Democrats feared could allow poor-performing charter schools to avoid closure.

The Associated Press contributed