Snyder signs $617M DPS bailout

Jonathan Oosting, and Shawn D. Lewis

Lansing — Gov. Rick Snyder on Tuesday signed into law a $617 million state aid package for Detroit Public Schools, saying it marks “a new day” for families in the city.

The plan, approved by the Republican-led Legislature over opposition from Detroit legislators and other Democrats, will help pay off $467 million in operating debt and provide $150 million in start-up funding for a new debt-free district.

The debt relief, along with accountability measures in the legislation, “promises a brighter future for all of Detroit’s children,” the governor said in a statement after signing the bills with little fanfare and without a public ceremony.

Under the law, Detroiters will elect a new school board in November. Members would take office in January and hire a new superintendent.

An existing Financial Review Commission, established after the city’s bankruptcy, would be expanded to provide continued oversight in the district, which has been run by a state-appointed emergency manager since 2009.

The bailout package does not include a proposed Detroit Education Commission, which would have regulated the location of traditional and charter schools in the city.

Mayor Mike Duggan lobbied for the commission, which he said was needed to rationalize school locations and ensure consistent opportunities for students, but the proposal was opposed by the charter school lobby and rejected by House Republicans.

Instead, the law calls for creation of a new advisory council that would produce reports highlighting where schools are needed and study a potential citywide transportation system for all students. The six-member council will include district officials and charter representatives.

Through a spokesman, Duggan declined to comment Tuesday.

Snyder had supported a $715 million Senate package that included the school location commission but told The Detroit News this month that the final product addresses major needs and will help the district avoid an expensive bankruptcy, which could have cost school districts around the state.

“This legislation gives Michigan’s comeback city a fresh start in education,” Snyder said. “Now the residents of Detroit need to engage with their schools and help find good leaders who can provide the best possible chance of success for families in the city.”

Chronically poorly performing schools could be closed under the new law, which calls for the state School Reform Office to create a new A-F letter grade system that will allow parents to review ratings for both traditional and charter schools.

The bills signed Tuesday also strengthen anti-strike provisions to discourage teacher “sickouts,” move educators to a merit pay system and give local officials the option to allow noncertified teachers in the district.

Reaction to the bills’ signing among lawmakers followed partisan lines.

State Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, D-Detroit, said Snyder “missed an opportunity to right history with his signing of the separate and unequal Detroit Public Schools bills.”

“The legislation ... subjects Detroit children to a subpar education, allowing the placement of uncertified teachers, in addition to subjecting teachers to unfair conditions and unfair labor practices, without returning the loans that teachers made to the district,” she said.

State Rep. Daniela Garcia, R-Holland, who sponsored two of the package’s bills, said in a statement that the newly approved plan gives Detroiters a chance to improve their city’s educational system.

“This will allow Detroit students to have the same educational opportunities as every child in Michigan, and put the school district and students on a path of success,” she said.

Herman Davis, president of the Detroit school board, said the legislation “is eliminating the rights of kids in Detroit to an equal education. They’re messing around with things like uncertified teachers and taking technology out of the classroom.”

Skillman Foundation CEO Tonya Allen, one of the co-chairs of a coalition that proposed a reform plan last year, said the final legislation is better than nothing.

“I think the package is insufficient, but I think it made some progress in facing the issues,” Allen said. “Moving forward, this is going to require the governor and the legislature to come back and hopefully, when they return to the issues, they will do it in a different way.”

Former teacher Cristal Bonner, whose child attends DPS’ Detroit School of Arts, said the rescue package is inadequate.

“It’s still not enough money,” she said. “The money will run out because the new district cannot collect property taxes while the old district still is in debt. What the new district needed was the package that was over $700 million, which would allow the old district to pay off the debt and the new district could begin collecting property taxes.”

DPS Emergency Manager Steven Rhodes had sought more funding than what was included in the final legislation, including $65 million for building repairs.

State Rep. Fred Durhal, D-Detroit, said the bills Snyder signed don’t provide enough money or address the root cause of DPS’ falling enrollment, “which is the proliferation of charters in Detroit.”

“Ten years ago, we had over 80,000 students in DPS. Today, there are about 46,000. I am very concerned about this,” Durhal said. “We talked to Judge Rhodes and the (state) treasurer and at one time, a figure of about $800 million was tossed out there, so I don’t understand how this will fix the problems.”

In a statement Tuesday, district spokeswoman Michelle Zdrodowski said: “DPS will implement the legislation and will do the best job that it can for the children of the city of Detroit.”