Bankole: Drawing a line between mayor, Detroit schools

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News

Five years ago a Center for American Progress report cited several school districts like Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore — not Detroit — as examples of places where mayoral governance of public schools has had some measure of success improving the achievement gap for students.

“Governance constitutes a structural barrier to academic and management improvement in too many large urban districts, where turf battles and political squabbles involving school leaders and an array of stakeholders have for too long taken energy and focus away from the core mission of education,” the report stated.

Consequently, the report added, “mayoral accountability aims to address the governing challenges in urban districts by making a single office responsible for the performance the city’s public schools. Citywide priorities such as reducing the achievement gap receive more focused attention.”

But the only problem is this belief about mayoral control of schools has not worked well for Detroit. It has done just the opposite since the 1999 state takeover of the schools under former Gov. John Engler, which allowed for the mayor of Detroit to make some appointments to the school board.

Since the state took over governance of the schools, when it was in a surplus, the district has been on a downward spiral with each year returning ballooning deficits under rotating state-appointed emergency managers. The district lost thousands of students to suburban schools as corruption and graft also became a hallmark of a system that took away resources that were meant to educate the city’s kids.

Such history is what informs the resistance to outside involvement with the new Detroit Public Schools Community District that is now under an elected board with Superintendent Nikolai Vitti. His leadership is being received as a breath of fresh air as he implements needed reforms.

That is what is now fueling skepticism and reservation about Mayor Mike Duggan’s bus loop initiative to help stem the tide of some 30,000 Detroit students he says attend schools in the suburbs.

During the State of the City address, Duggan cited transportation as critical to connecting both Detroit district and charter school students and ensuring that students succeed in the city.

Duggan is right that losing students to suburban districts is impacting the district and the urgent need to reverse or tackle this trend. It is also reasonable to expect the mayor to be supportive of the school district. The city can’t fully come back without a functioning school system.

“The district is ready to support the initiative but we need to review additional information to justify cost,” Vitti said in an email response to questions about the mayor’s plan. “The information is related to knowing how many school age students live near the schools and are not attending DPSCD? What percentage is already using our provided transportation lines that attend the schools? If they are not attending schools, where are they attending?”

Under the proposal, it would cost between $90,000-$150,000 to embark on the project involving six Detroit schools, according to Vitti.

But he said concern about outside interference with the school system is not misplaced.

“The district has not been respected by outsiders for decades and children have suffered. This includes policies that have favored charter schools over traditional public schools,” Vitti said. “As a district we need to listen and reflect on the concerns that have been raised. In the end if we move forward with the initiative we need to ensure that it is in the best interest of the district.”

Vitti also said this isn’t about mayoral control of the schools.

“I have no evidence or belief that the mayor is interested in running schools,” Vitti said. “I honestly believe the mayor’s intent is to recruit students back to the city.”

Chris White, a community activist who has watched the district evolve over the years, remains skeptical about anything involving the school district and the mayor.

“I strongly feel the mayor’s priority should be crime reduction,” White said. “His responsibility is managing the city and when you examine the state of Detroit, he definitely has not been responsible.”

White said the district can get back those students they are losing to outside schools by “keeping them safe and making sure the district is a partner to the community. People need stability when it comes to their child’s education.”

Vitti says he is doing just that. And he said the bus initiative would not take away resources from the district.

“As you know, competition with charter schools is not going away and we need to compete. I believe that through a bus loop we can recruit students who live in the area and are attending schools outside of the district and even charter schools,” Vitti said. “We would only support a one-year pilot before extending to future years. This would be a lot easier if fully funded outside of district resources.”

Twitter: @BankoleDetNews

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