Bankole: Next governor’s task for Detroit schools

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News
FILE -- Detroit Public Schools Community District Superintendent Nikolai P. Vitti said the district  is transforming its culture with a new student code of conduct focus on progressive discipline instead of expulsion, which allows for in-school suspension and reduces student absenteeism, which is connected to poor student performance.

The next governor will have to fix the roads, push for Flint reconstruction, ensure Medicaid continues for those dependent on the health care program and more.

But Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told me he has a list for the state’s incoming chief executive, as well. The list resonates with Detroiters, who have followed the near implosion of the district under years of state control. Because the fact remains as it was under emergency management for the most part that the public school system incurred a $2.5 billion legacy debt, which Vitti still has to deal with under a reconfigured district. 

“The new governor must work with the Legislature ‎to develop a weighted student funding formula where districts and schools receive additional funding for students who face poverty and/or are English Language learners and/or have special needs,” Vitti said. “In addition, there must be a statewide effort to assist urban districts with school infrastructure.”

According to Vitti that means, “Working with the legislature to allow the district to finance capital projects or restructure the legacy DPS debt, which was mainly the product of emergency management, to free local property tax revenue for capital improvement. Lastly, there needs to be a statewide effort, with funding, to dramatically increase teacher pay and develop pipelines for more undergraduates to enter the teaching profession.”

I asked both Democrat Gretchen Whitmer and Republican Bill Schuette if they would support restructuring the legacy debt of Detroit schools.

“If the restructuring of legacy debt for DPS is responsible for both the district and taxpayers, I would certainly consider it,” Whitmer said. “I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and fight to make sure our public schools have the resources they need to help our students and educators get ahead.”

Schuette in his response blamed the district’s financial troubles on the years that Democrat Jennifer Granholm served as governor, calling them the lost decade. But it was under Republican Gov. John Engler that Detroit schools were first placed under state control in 1999.

“No school district can make the academic accomplishments our children deserve and our state needs when they’re saddled with overwhelming legacy debt,” Schuette said. “The ‘lost decade’ caused financial hardship for our families, businesses and schools alike and, in some cases, there is still work to do. Fortunately, under Republican leadership over the past eight years, Michigan has made great strides in helping school districts manage their finances.”

He added, “As governor, I’ll direct the Department of Treasury to continue this important work, on behalf of all our school districts including Detroit, to ensure financial stability for all our students and families.”

On funding for districts in poverty-stricken areas like Detroit, the candidates offer different answers.

“My administration will convert to a weighted foundation allowance for school funding — one that accounts for every student’s needs — and change the financing system to address the higher costs of special education, at-risk pupils in urban, suburban and rural communities, and English language learners,” Whitmer said. “We can get these priorities done by ending raids on the School Aid Fund and eliminating legislative pet projects, which siphon hundreds of millions of dollars away from our public schools each year.”

Schuette countered: “The Michigan School Finance Research Collaborative has produced a very good examination of what our school funding levels should be, for students in all our districts — whether urban or rural, large or small. They’ve also looked at differentiated funding levels to compensate for certain students’ added needs, like poverty or other factors that put students at risk.”

He said he plans to work with the Legislature to structure the K-12 budget in a way that benefits Detroit and other districts across the state.

But Whitmer said the emergency manager law has to go.

“During my time in the Legislature, I fought against the emergency manager law — voting against it twice as a legislator, and once as a citizen,” Whitmer said. “I will work to replace state emergency management with meaningful investment, support, and assistance, and make sure that we’re putting the people of Michigan first.”

The Rev. Gregory Guice, senior pastor at Detroit Unity Temple, said support for the district is crucial.

“Our children need to have an equitable chance to compete with other school districts and we need to address our aging infrastructure because the water issue is just the tip of the iceberg,” Guice said.

Twitter: @BankoleDetNews

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