Snyder: Detroit school fix could be addressed in steps
Lansing — Gov. Rick Snyder said lawmakers could first tackle the Detroit school district’s debt and possibly leave until later his call for a new commission to close or reconfigure poor-performing traditional, charter and turnaround schools in the city.
The Republican governor said in a year-end interview that pending legislation to split the district in two to retire $715 million in debt and to empower a chief education officer to hold schools accountable could go on “parallel or somewhat separate tracks.”
“The more urgent in terms of timing are the financial issues, the NewCo/OldCo kind of opportunity,” Snyder said. He warned that if lawmakers do not address Detroit Public Schools’ finances, creditors could sue the state-run district over unpaid bills — leading to financial repercussions for the state and other school districts.
“Over time … let’s address the whole concept,” said Snyder, who had wanted his bills to be introduced in the GOP-controlled Legislature in October. But after being unable to find consensus due to pushback from Republicans and Democrats over different parts of the proposal, he now expects the legislation to come in early 2016.
“I like to solve things all at once as quickly as I can with quality, but again I have legislative partners on this particular issue and I want to be a good partner,” Snyder said.
Detroit schools were among three major legislative priorities left unfinished in 2015 and that Snyder said he will prioritize next year. The others are updated energy laws and criminal justice changes. A fourth agenda item is enacting a plan to combat worsening problems to painkiller and heroin addiction.
Snyder said the enactment of a long-elusive $1.2 billion road-improvement plan dominated legislators’ attention for much of the year, delaying his other priorities. Increased fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees will begin in 2017. Additional funding also will be redirected from general funds unless future lawmakers change course, a move that has drawn criticism for straining other government spending in the future.
“It was great to get a positive outcome. There were compromises as part of the process. That’s not a negative, that’s actually part of the legislative process,” he said. “Here’s a solution that gives us the largest opportunity for roads in over a half a century. That’s huge.”
Asked to name a misstep or something he should have done differently this year, Snyder said he does not “think in a negative fashion” but then pointed to Flint, where a local public health emergency was declared because of problems with lead in water after the city switched to a cheaper, more corrosive water supply while under state emergency financial management.
His administration is under scrutiny in part for initially downplaying concerns raised by outside experts who flagged lead contamination and elevated levels in children.
Lead poisoning can be irreversible and cause developmental delays and learning disabilities.
“That was obviously a concern and we tried to respond very promptly and effectively,” said Snyder, who is awaiting an independent report and recommendations due early next year. The state committed $10.6 million to reconnect Flint to Detroit’s water system and to buy filters, conduct testing and provide health services. But the bill could rise.
While Snyder and legislators unveiled energy proposals in March, no bills won approval from the full House or Senate despite utility interests running ads urging votes. Another contentious issue is criminal justice, particularly a House-passed “presumptive parole” bill backed by Snyder but opposed by prosecutors and Attorney General Bill Schuette, who have safety concerns. It appears stalled in the Senate for now.
The Michigan Parole Board would have less leeway to keep certain prisoners locked up past their minimum sentence — those deemed to have a high probability of release, meaning they have a low risk of reoffending and do not pose a high risk to public safety.
“It’s evidence-based parole,” Snyder said. “It’s an opportunity to potentially save us a lot of money. I don’t view those savings as simply saying we’re doing it to save money. Let’s take those savings and reinvest them in other public safety initiatives.”
He mentioned “smarter” spending on programs designed to keep criminals from returning to prison or jail, such as specialty courts that address underlying substance abuse and mental health issues.
“Just locking the people up longer is not a smart solution,” Snyder said. “There’s no evidence to show it has value.”
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