EAA chancellor won’t rule out return of schools to DPS

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the time frame for school turnaround.

Could the state-run Education Achievement Authority, home of the state’s lowest performing schools, become part of the embattled Detroit Public Schools?

That is one of the many questions posed by legislators Wednesday as testimony continued before the House Appropriations Committee as lawmakers debate how to rescue and reform the state’s largest school district.

The answer? Maybe.

After discussing the EAA’s severing of ties with Eastern Michigan University, Rep. Earl Poleski, R-Jackson, asked, “Is there a chance that the EAA could become part of DPS?”

EAA Chancellor Veronica Conforme, addressing lawmakers, said she thinks it’s possible, with EMU set to leave its interlocal agreement with the state-run recovery district next year.

“All those conversations are on the table,” said Conforme. “We have less than 18 months — June 2017 — to find a permanent solution for our schools and we are actively engaged in conversations with the (state) School Reform Office and other universities.”

Conforme spent nearly an hour and 15 minutes making her presentation to legislators and then responding to questions.

She said it takes four to six years to turn around a school.

”Schools are better served with the city being more involved,” she said. “If the city had been involved, I don’t think the buildings in DPS would be in the shape they are in.”

Skillman Foundation CEO Tonya Allen said it is time for a change after seven years of state oversight of DPS.

“There has been a ton of debate about whether Detroit is ready for management of their schools,” said Allen, co-chair of a coalition that has proposed a plan to rescue DPS, split it into two districts and restore local control.

“The state has been helping to manage the schools, and as far as the charter schools, most authorizers are not anywhere near Detroit. The district is being led by an emergency manager who is leading at the local school level. There’s no place for Detroiters to engage in how they want high quality schools in the city.”

The group Allen is part of, the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, proposed last year that the EAA be folded into a new Detroit school district as part of an overhaul plan. The EAA has 12 direct-run and three charter schools that were part of DPS until 2012.

The coalition’s plan also calls for the state to pay off DPS’ debt, fund creation of a new, locally-controlled Detroit district and create a citywide education commission with the power to close and open schools, including charters.

Gov. Rick Snyder has proposed a $715 million plan to pay off $515 million in DPS debt and fund startup costs for a new, debt-free district. The House and Senate are considering bills with some elements of Snyder’s plan, though the House version delays a return to full control by an elected school board for eight years.

Another coalition co-chair, Walbridge CEO John Rakolta Jr., said that not educating students properly is a moral injustice, an ethical injustice and a legal injustice.

“If a student can’t read, they can’t get into trade schools or an apprentice program, or even the armed services,” he said. “We are failing kids. It will cost $1 million per child for the rest of that child’s life if we don’t educate him.”

District officials have warned that DPS could run out of money next month.

Rep. Mike McCready, R-Bloomfield Hills, asked about the possibility of the district declaring bankruptcy.

“No, because the state of Michigan simply is not insolvent — it has land,” Rakolta said. “It may be in a budget deficit, but it is not insolvent. Nobody sees a credible path to go through bankruptcy and by the way, you only have about seven weeks.”