LANSING, Mich. (AP) — The Michigan Legislature narrowly approved a $617 million bailout and restructuring of Detroit's debt-ridden school district early Thursday, two years after the state spent money to help the city government emerge from bankruptcy.
The legislation will soon reach Gov. Rick Snyder for his expected signature. The Republican-controlled Senate passed a main bill 19-18 late Wednesday, and the GOP-led House followed with the bare minimum 55-54 vote.
The financially and academically ailing 46,000-student Detroit Public Schools has been managed by the state for seven years, during which it has continued to face plummeting enrollment, deficits and, more recently, teacher sick-out protests.
Under the bills, the district would be split in two and control would be returned to an elected school board. A commission of state appointees would oversee the district's finances, similarly to how it now reviews the city's budgeting as part of a $195 million state rescue in 2014
The new debt-free district would educate students. The old district would stay intact for tax-collection purposes to retire $617 million in debt over 8½ years, including $150 million in transition costs to launch the new Detroit Community Schools.
Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, a West Olive Republican, called it a "realistic compromise" despite fierce opposition from Democrats, including those who represent city residents.
"I know many will weigh in with opinions on how we could have done better, and (we) all hear criticism about this compromise. But at the end of the day, our responsibility is to solve the problem," he said. "There are more than 45,000 students who depend upon DPS and deserve a stable, quality education option."
In unusually pointed floor speeches, furious Democrats accused Republicans of bowing to the politically influential school-choice lobby instead of passing a bipartisan measure that would have stabilized the district long term.
Sen. Morris Hood III of Detroit called the GOP majority a "coward" and questioned why not even one Detroit legislator was part of the negotiations on the deal.
The vote came more than a year after the Republican governor proposed an overhaul. He said debt was crushing Detroit Public Schools and warned that insolvency would leave the state with billions of dollars in liabilities and stifle Detroit's recovery post-bankruptcy.
Before Wednesday's action, there had been fairly broad agreement on the need to help the district.
But Democrats united against the bills, expressing concerns that the money would fall short of what is needed to adequately help a district decimated by declining enrollment — both due to population loss and many students in the city attending publicly funded charter schools or suburban schools.
Some Republicans were reluctant to offer taxpayer support to the state's largest school district that for decades has grappled with mismanagement and corruption, while others joined with Democrats in contending the deal failed to include a commission to regulate the opening of new schools, including charters that have drawn students away from traditional neighborhood schools crucial to city's long-term revival.
Sen. Bert Johnson, a Highland Park Democrat, said the legislation is "paternalistic" and "unethical."
"If you do this, you are systematically spelling the end of the Detroit Public Schools system," he said. "Parents are already concerned that what they hear about their school district is enough that I think it's going to drive enrollment further into the ground."
But GOP legislative leaders persuaded just enough Republicans to pass the measure, fearing bankruptcy if the district ran short of money this summer.