What DPS rescue means for city’s education future

Jonathan Oosting, and Chad Livengood

Lansing — Gov. Rick Snyder has committed to signing sweeping Detroit Public Schools legislation that Republicans hailed as a lifeline for the financially faltering school system and Democrats assailed as a sellout to charter school advocates.

The $617 million, six-bill package will retire $467 million in debt and provide another $150 million for the creation of a new, debt-free district that could add academic programs and address a backlog of deferred maintenance for the city’s school buildings.

But the legislation has prompted questions about what it could mean for the long-term future of Michigan’s largest school district and the 46,000 students it educates.

■Is $617 million enough?

Money was initially an issue between the GOP-controlled House, Republican-led Senate and a Detroit coalition. The Senate approved a $715 million package with $200 million in transition costs for a new debt-free district, while the House passed a more-than-$500 million plan that allotted $33 million for startup.

The new $617 million plan builds on $48 million in state funds already appropriated to help keep the district solvent through the end of June. It includes $150 million for transition costs, capping district spending on deferred building maintenance at $25 million, down from $50 million anticipated under the earlier Senate plan.

“Where we’re coming up short with this $150 million is the area of building repairs,” DPS spokeswoman Michelle Zdrodowski said Friday.

DPS emergency manager Steven Rhodes had said the district needed $65 million to replace leaky roofs, old boilers and windows that are not energy-efficient.

“Obviously, over the years, putting money into the debt and making sure we have enough money to put in the classroom has caused us to defer maintenance on our buildings,” Zdrodowski said.

Rhodes has secured a commitment from Snyder that the governor will try to “identify additional money to help us meet these needs,” she said.

The $467 million for debt relief nearly matches the $470 million the Michigan Treasury said last month was necessary. The state will devote $72 million a year in tobacco settlement revenue to help Detroit schools cover long-term bonds, short-term note payments and deferred payments into the state’s retired school employee pension system. Freed from that debt, the district would have an extra $1,100 per pupil that could be put into the classroom annually.

“It’s going to give the district a fresh start,” Zdrodowski said.

Rhodes did not respond last week to repeated requests for an interview with The Detroit News.

Will a voluntary board help the district’s underserved areas and stem the flow of students out of Detroit?

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, a Detroit school coalition and a bipartisan group of Republican and Democratic senators wanted to create the Detroit Education Commission to get traditional and charter schools located in parts of the city where there are no schools. They noted the district has lost 100,000 students or about half of its total in the past decade, leading to financial instability.

Rhodes said such a commission would help stem the outflow of students, but a voluntary board was put in the final plan.

“My fear is that the serious lack of coordination related to school site planning decisions will continue,” said Sen. Goeff Hansen, R-Hart, who sponsored the Senate package that included the commission and opposed the final version without it. “By not truly fixing these systemic problems, are we not furthering the confusion and chaos that negatively impact parents’ ability to seek stability and positive educational options for their children?”

Commission opponents said a new voluntary board could still identify areas of the city that are underserved and put pressure on charters to move there without thwarting competition or the opening of new charters. Rhodes said enrollment losses declined to 1 percent to 2 percent during the past three years “compared to historic 10-11 percent declines.” He projected in April the enrollment drop in the fall will be less than 0.7 percent, a figure that charter school advocates say shows stabilization.

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

What will allowing the hiring of uncertified teachers do to the district?

Opponents, including Detroit Democrats, argue it could expose DPS students to inferior instruction. They say certification ensures that the district gets properly trained instructors in the classroom, but the legislation would treat Detroit differently than other districts around the state.

“Some districts have the best and brightest teachers, but we’re now allowed to have uncertified teachers,” said Rep. Brian Banks, D-Grosse Pointe Woods. “Don’t our kids matter? Our school kids deserve the same things as kids in Holland and any of these other Republican districts.”

Deal supporters counter that the state has allowed heavily regulated alternative certification in public schools for decades that lets nonteachers who are knowledgeable in their fields fill specialized teaching positions such as math and science where there are shortages. Detroit students are still among the lowest-performing in the country despite having certified teachers, they say.

The legislation would only allow uncertified teachers in Detroit if an “appropriate” local official determines that an individual’s combination of education and experience renders the hire “in the best interest” of district students.

“What is the issue with that? Because it’s going to be your locally elected school board making that determination,” Snyder told The Detroit News. The Republican governor said he is open to the larger conversation about extending the policy to districts around the state.

Can the Detroit school plan succeed if most Detroit leaders oppose it?

Detroit legislators were furious with the package and process after they were not included in final negotiations. They argued that unless local leaders, educators and parents buy into the plan, the financial bailout will not work.

“To take up legislation that impacts Detroit and Detroit only is a slap in the face to the citizens of the city of Detroit, a slap in the face to democracy, to our educators, to our parents and to our school children,” Banks said. “These bills do nothing to deal with the issues that we are dealing with in Detroit Public Schools.”

Snyder said the final package addressed the two issues he heard about most from Detroiters: Eliminating the district’s debt and restoring local control of the school system. His original proposal called for a years-long phase in of an elected school board, but the new package results in members being elected this fall and then hiring a new superintendent.

“Their future success, whether it was the House plan or the Senate plan, the best determinate wasn’t anything that was happening here, it was electing the best school board possible,” Snyder said.

■What happens to the Education Achievement Authority?

Snyder’s controversial school reform district that operates 15 schools in Detroit will be dissolved and folded back into the DPS after the upcoming school year.

Since it took control of 15 DPS buildings in 2012, the EAA has been dogged by questionable spending, declining enrollment, high teacher turnover and the recent sentencing of a former EAA principal for taking bribery kickbacks from a contractor.

The legislation calls for a June 30, 2017 end date for the interlocal agreement Snyder’s emergency manager forged in 2011 with Eastern Michigan University to establish the EAA. That means the 6,000-student EAA will continue operating for the next school year until the schools are returns to DPS.

“Our plan is to work with the governor’s office to sit down and develop a plan to ensure that the good work that is happening at our schools continues,” EAA Chancellor Veronica Conforme said Friday in a statement. “Our goal is to work closely with the School Reform Office, the governor’s office and DPS to forge a path forward that is in the best interest of students, staff and families.”