Snyder adviser: No forced Detroit schools closures soon

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration believes the state’s $671 million bailout of Detroit Public Schools will prohibit it from forcing the closure of any district buildings in the next three years, according to Director of Strategic Policy John Walsh.

The state is also “a couple of months” away from deciding which low-performing schools it may close in other parts of the state, Walsh told The Detroit News in a Wednesday interview.

Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration believes the state’s $671 million bailout of Detroit Public Schools will prohibit it from forcing the closure of any district buildings in the next three years, according to Director of Strategic Policy John Walsh.

The School Reform Office on Thursday will publish a required list identifying the state’s worst-performing schools, but that alone will not determine future closures, Walsh cautioned. State law allows the office to shutter schools that are in the lowest-performing 5 percent for three straight years.

“It doesn’t predict by itself that 10 schools are going to close or that 100 schools or going to close, or even that there’s going to be a memorandum of understanding reached with a school district to improve it,” he said.

But the state is operating under the assumption it will not be able to close any Detroit public schools for at least three years, Walsh said. He cited an Aug. 2 legal memorandum Miller Canfield attorneys sent to district emergency manager Steven Rhodes suggesting the three-year countdown to close struggling buildings was reset when they were transferred to a new debt-free district in July.

The last time there was a school closing in the Detroit district was 2014. The district shut one school that year after closing four in 2013, 19 in 2012, 15 in 2011, 26 in 2010 and 30 in 2009, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan told a legislative committee in February.

The legal memo suggested the state cannot close Detroit public schools until at least July 2019.

The Snyder administration’s interpretation of the bailout legislation prompted a backlash.

Gary Naeyaert of the Great Lakes Education Project, a pro-charter school group that pushed to make forced closures part of the state bailout, said he believes the governor’s office is relying on an incorrect interpretation of the law and questioned who paid Miller Canfield to assess it.

It’s clear the Legislature was not attempting to “create a three-year holiday from accountability,” he argued.

“Legal opinions are not hard to come by, not hard to purchase,” Naeyaert said. “… I would encourage the governor to seek a second legal opinion.”

Language included in the Detroit schools bailout Snyder signed in June specifies the School Reform Office can force closure of any school that appears on the lowest-performing list for three consecutive years. But because the legislation transferred all Detroit schools to a new district, none can be closed until July 2019, according to Miller Canfield.

“We are accepting the legal interpretation,” Walsh said. But he noted the Legislature is “certainly welcome” to revisit the issue in new or amended legislation.

“We think, from the administrative point of view, that it’s best that we acknowledge the language as written, and that the district will now have the opportunity to take a look at schools and decide how they want to move forward with their own closures,” Walsh said.

Snyder’s education adviser said he anticipates Rhodes and other Detroit schools leaders will be taking aggressive steps to fix struggling schools. Walsh noted the state still has the option to apply other intervention models, including appointment of a building-level chief executive officer.

Anticipation for the new lowest-performing schools list has been building for months as School Reform Officer Natasha Baker traveled the state and talked to officials with struggling schools in their districts.

A 2009 state law gives the School Reform Office authority to impose one of four interventions on a chronically failing school, including closures or CEOs, a step the office first took this year in East Detroit Public Schools that prompted a lawsuit.

The new performance list will be based on 2015 data, although 2016 M-STEP results released this week will also inform any future decisions, Walsh said. The meetings have helped Baker learn about any steps districts may already be taking to improve struggling schools.

“At the end of the year, after collaborating with school districts and the department, that’s if and when we’ll announce closures, CEO models or whatever other intervention models might be recommended,” Walsh said.

School groups around the state are nervously anticipating the list, arguing the state’s recent changes in standardized testing have made it difficult to compare year-over-year performance. Michigan phased out the MEAP and has given students two versions of the M-STEP test the past two years.

Chris Wigent, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators, said his group is also “philosophically opposed” to closing school buildings.

“There is not data or research showing that taking a child out of a building and forcing them to attend another building improves anything. It takes the child out of their community environment, away from friends and puts them in situation they don’t know,” he said.