Michigan House may vote on $617M for Detroit schools

AP News
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Posted: Jun 02, 2016 2:31 PM

MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich. (AP) — The Michigan House may vote Thursday on a $617 million state bailout and restructuring of Detroit's ailing school district under a proposed compromise circulated to majority Republicans.

The bills, which were being drafted, would retire the state-managed Detroit Public Schools' enormous $467 million operating debt over time and provide $150 million to transition to a new district in July, according to a summary of the proposal obtained by The Associated Press. An agenda showed the legislation on Thursday's schedule, but GOP legislative leaders and Gov. Rick Snyder's administration said no final agreement had been reached.

The House and Senate have passed different restructuring plans and are trying to resolve their differences before a summer adjournment in two weeks. Emergency aid previously approved for the debt-ridden district will run out by June 30.

The Senate had backed $200 million in spending to launch a new district, the House $33 million.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof said Thursday he and some other senators question if $150 million in transition funds is enough.

"We have to go and noodle that out. I want to make sure if we're going to take the vote for that kind of money, we don't have to come back and do it again," he told the AP at the Detroit Regional Chamber's annual Mackinac Policy Conference. He said $150 million is "probably the low end" of what is needed.

The new proposal in the House would schedule a school board election for November. The Senate's call for a commission to make decisions about opening traditional and publicly funded charter schools in the city would be dropped, despite that idea's support from Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, the Republican governor, some GOP senators, business leaders and others.

Instead, an advisory board would issue reports on where schools are needed in Detroit.

Meekhof said it "depends on how much meat" the board would have. "Can it really effectuate change? I hope that it can. It's one of the options."

Detroit's enrollment is a third of what it was a decade ago, and the district, which has been under continuous state control since 2009, is considered the worst of its size in the country. More than half of students living in the city attend a charter school or suburban district, prompting criticism that charters have opened largely unchecked, to the detriment of the district.

Snyder said Wednesday he still supports the proposed Detroit Education Commission but stressed there is common ground on paying down the massive debt and returning control to a school board.

The commission, as called for in the Senate plan, is opposed by school-choice advocates and House Republicans who say it would bolster traditional schools at the expense of charters. It was proposed more than a year ago and is billed as a way to better locate and promote higher-quality schools in a fragmented system with 14 separate charter authorizers.

"I just want to have a standard — that the good ones can grow but somebody actually deals with those that aren't performing. Is that an unreasonable thing to ask?" Duggan said Wednesday.

But Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, said the commission is unnecessary and warned against exposing Detroit's education system to "city politics."

If GOP House Speaker Kevin Cotter holds a vote on the legislation, he may need to round up 55 Republican votes because of Democratic opposition.

House Minority Leader Tim Greimel said the plan being circulated is "completely inadequate," warning that it would not make adequate reforms and the district would be back in fiscal crisis in another five years.

"The plan taken as a whole is terrible by any objective measure," he said.

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Associated Press writer Michael Gerstein in Lansing contributed to this report.

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