Michigan governor wants overhaul of troubled Detroit schools

AP News
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Posted: Apr 30, 2015 5:55 PM
Michigan governor wants overhaul of troubled Detroit schools

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder on Thursday outlined a sweeping overhaul of Detroit's troubled state-run school district, proposing to divide its operations to address the "crushing" debt he said is hurting education in a city just months removed from bankruptcy.

The plan, which needs approval from bailout-fatigued lawmakers and prompted Detroit teachers to skip school on the same day it was being unveiled, would create the new City of Detroit Education District to handle the academic operations of all public schools under what initially would a board appointed by the governor and mayor.

Detroit Public Schools would remain intact for tax-collection purposes, charged with paying off $483 million in debt over approximately seven years. Because existing local school taxes would go toward the debt, Snyder will ask the Republican-controlled Legislature to direct $72 million more annually to the new district's operations during those seven years— a tough sell less than a year after legislators committed $195 million to help end Detroit's bankruptcy.

An education manager would determine whether low-performing schools should be closed; all traditional and charter schools would be put under an umbrella group; and a centralized enrollment system would be established so parents could enroll their kids in a wider variety of schools.

"We're just not seeing the results these students deserve," Snyder, a Republican, said at a news conference at his Detroit office, noting that two-thirds of high school students are not proficient in reading and 94 percent are not proficient in math.

The district's "crushing debt ... takes away from resources for the education process," he added.

Detroit Public Schools, which has been under state oversight since 2009, faces a $170 million deficit and is labeled the country's worst academically performing urban district. It would continue to have an emergency manager until July 2016, when the shift to the new district would occur.

Snyder's announcement was pre-empted by the cancellation of classes in 18 Detroit schools after 500 of 2,800 teachers took personal days to protest the plan.

"As teachers, we need reduced class sizes, books, supplies — all the things (Snyder) never addresses," Steve Conn, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, told reporters during a demonstration outside Snyder's Lansing office near the Capitol.

The walkout drew the ire of GOP legislative leaders, who said the teachers let down students. Detroit Public Schools emergency manager Darnell Earley called the move "seriously misguided." Spokeswoman Michelle Zdrodowski said the district can "investigate instances of suspected abuse of leave."

The one-day closing of Nichols Elementary-Middle School on Detroit's east side did more to inconvenience Lavetha Thomas than to upset her. Nearly an hour after the start time, she received a call from one of her six grandchildren saying she needed to pick them up.

"Teachers have to make a living," Thomas said. "I just wish they would have given us better notice."

Declining enrollment has contributed to the district's money troubles. About 47,000 full-time students were enrolled last fall, at least 100,000 less than a decade ago.

Allocating an additional $72 million a year to the district could cost other Michigan districts about $50 per student in annual funding, according to the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council of Michigan.

Snyder said he expects "yelling ... from all sides" but that the state should be proactive because it ultimately is legally responsible for much of Detroit's debt.

But Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, who would initially help appoint the school board until elected members are phased in and also name appointees to a separate oversight commission, opposes the plan.

It also drew concerns from Republican House Speaker Kevin Cotter.

"While there may be a need for some financial assistance along with a lot of reforms, I am at least at first blush opposed to taking money out of the school aid fund because we're taking it away from every other district in the state," he said.

Democratic lawmakers also had reservations, particularly because the new district's board wouldn't be fully comprised of elected members until 2021 and a separate board would oversee finances.

"We stand by the need to have local control and a level of representative democracy," said Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, a former Detroit teacher.

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Associated Press writers Corey Williams in Detroit and Alisha Green in Lansing contributed to this report.

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