Detroit schools rescue plan stalls

Dec 9, 2015

The Legislature is set to recess next week for the balance of 2015 with some big jobs left undone. Primarily, Governor Rick Snyder was hoping lawmakers would address what he says is the next stage of the Detroit turnaround -- and that is doing something to fix the city’s schools.

Instead, the governor, Detroit’s parents, and school kids will have to wait until next year.

Snyder laid out his plan to revamp Detroit’s schools back in April. The CPA governor focused on the district’s finances, specifically a debt burden of more than 500 million dollars.          

“Detroit Public Schools has crushing debt on it,” he said. “It’s accumulated over many years that takes away from resources from the education process.”

His plan was to create a new district that would focus on educating kids, and the old district and its elected school board would exist solely for the purpose of collecting taxes and paying off that debt. The state would pick up the costs of the new district with the money coming from the School Aid Fund. The new district would be run initially by an appointed commission and a schools czar with sweeping authority to make changes, including closing school buildings, and that would include closing charter schools.

The response was nearly unanimous. Almost everyone found something to hate.

That includes a group of about 80 Detroiters who marched from the city to the state Capitol in Lansing this week.

“Stand up! Fight back!” they chanted at a rally in front of the Capitol steps.

“There’s right now no community input and that’s really what we’re fighting for because our communities have no voice,” said Ke’li Coleman says. She said families living in Detroit’s neighborhoods want to be consulted about the makeup of the new plan, and things like schools opening or closing, and the services they’ll offer.                      

Detroit lawmakers also dislike the fact that the plan would not immediately return control of the city’s schools to an elected school board following years of emergency management.

Also, charter school operators are unhappy with a local schools chief with a lot of authority over them. Outstate lawmakers see at least the potential for their schools to lose money if the School Aid Fund is raided to pay for Detroit schools.            

And, after the “grand bargain” that allowed Detroit to exit bankruptcy, the Flint water crisis, the roads package, a lot of lawmakers, especially Republicans, suffer from “bailout fatigue” – meaning there’s little interest in new projects that will cost big bucks.

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekof (R-West Olive) says it will not be fast or easy to work through all those objections.

“I don’t have a timeline in this, except we’d like to solve this issue,” he said, “and we’d like to solve this issue with our friends on the other side of the aisle, as well.”

“In order to get Democratic legislators on board to support, we’ve at least got to get the bills to a level of comfortability,” said state Representative Brian Banks (D-Detroit), who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus.

In fact, finding lawmakers of either party willing to sponsor any portion of a Detroit schools rescue package has been tough. No bills have been introduced, so the discussions are still conceptual at this point.

Governor Snyder says the debt crisis facing Detroit schools is building, and if the district defaults on its obligations, taxpayers across the state are on the hook for a lot of that. And litigation could make that even more expensive to the point of threatening the stability of the School Aid Fund.

Snyder says the cost of a Detroit schools bailout is big, but the cost of doing nothing is even bigger.