Bills to restructure Detroit K-12 district finally proposed

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Posted: Jan 14, 2016 8:56 PM
Bills to restructure Detroit K-12 district finally proposed

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Long-awaited legislation to overhaul Detroit's troubled school district by splitting it in two was introduced Thursday and could commit state lawmakers to spending up to $770 million over 11 years on the restructuring proposal that faces uncertainty in a bailout-averse Legislature.

The Senate bills, which were finally proposed more than eight months after Gov. Rick Snyder first unveiled the concept, do not yet identify the funding source needed to retire Detroit Public Schools' operating debt and launch a new district in July. The legislation also does not include the Republican's proposal — backed by a coalition in Detroit — to create a commission that would hire an officer to potentially close poor-performing public schools, regardless of whether they are traditional ones or independent charters.

The district is burdened by debt, falling enrollment, inadequate buildings and low morale among employees whose recent absences have closed schools. It has been under state financial management for almost seven years.

The new Detroit Community School District would handle academic operations and other traditional functions. The current Detroit Public Schools would remain intact for tax-collection purposes and to retire the debt.

A commission of state appointees created to review Detroit's finances in the wake of bankruptcy would oversee the new district's budget until the debt is repaid and other conditions are met. Initially, the new district's school board would have five gubernatorial appointees and four mayoral appointees until voters elect a new board this November.

The school board would need the financial review panel's approval to hire or fire a superintendent.

Snyder aide John Walsh briefed the Senate's majority Republicans on the bills Thursday. For now, the main bill includes just $250,000 to help organize and administer the new district while negotiators continue debating Snyder's call to use more than $700 million over a decade from the school aid account — which funds all Michigan public schools.

"This is a lot of money. ... We need to make sure our taxpayer dollars are spent wisely. We need to make sure that kids in Detroit are being educated," said the sponsor, Sen. Goeff Hansen, R-Hart. He said the district could "run out of money" in April, and he hopes hearings will begin within a couple weeks.

Steven Rhodes, the judge who presided over Detroit's bankruptcy, has met with some lawmakers to tell them that bankruptcy is a "bad option" for the district. Rhodes, now retired, said the state would be responsible for millions of dollars in debt that it has guaranteed to pay if the district goes broke.

"Bankruptcy is always a bad idea. It's only better than doing nothing," Rhodes said. "My expectation is the Legislature will come up with a solution to address the problems" in Detroit schools.

While the legislation would return some control of the district to a locally elected board sooner than under two prior versions of Snyder's plan, Democrats still have concerns. Those include continued state oversight, the inability to dismiss a superintendent without approval from the financial committee and the lack of uniform accountability and performance standards for both traditional and charter schools.

"We regret that, at this point, we cannot support these bills as introduced," Democrats said in a statement. "After many hours of negotiations, this legislation is still inadequate and the necessity for substantial change still exists."

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan took a neutral stance, saying he will continue working with Detroit lawmakers on a "single, unified position."

Charter advocates welcomed the decision against creating the Detroit Education Commission, which they have feared would add a layer of bureaucracy and be biased. It "means students and parents will still be in control of their school choices," said Gary Naeyaert, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project.

Many of the students who have left Detroit Public Schools now attend charter academies in the city or suburbs. The schools are authorized by 14 entities — predominantly state universities — that decide where to open the academies and which schools to close. Under the bills, the school board could voluntarily create an advisory committee to make recommendations on school closings and other matters.

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This story has been corrected to remove reference to a proposed $250 million because the bill does not include that proposed amount.

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Associated Press writer Ed White contributed to this report from Detroit.

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Online:

Senate Bills 710-11: http://1.usa.gov/1SkXDV2

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Follow David Eggert at http://twitter.com/DavidEggert00 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/author/david-eggert