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To Save Money, Detroit Voters Abandon Model Regional Plan

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While dozens of large school districts around the country have adopted regional plans in the past decade, Detroit appears to be the first to jettison one.

The Detroit school system's 11-year-old experiment with administrative decentralization--one of the oldest and most-emulated in the nation--has been ended by the voters.

Despite opposition from school leaders and the city's popular mayor, Coleman A. Young, Detroit citizens overwhelmingly voted to dissolve the district's regional boards of education and administrative offices.

The referendum was initiated by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Phillip E. Runkel who believed the financially straitened system could save money by abandoning its eight regional offices and a separate board and administrative office for special schools.

May Not Save Much Money

But, school officials say, the move back to a central board and administration, which is expected to take as long as a year, probably will not save nearly as much money as state officers and voters believed. Many services now provided by the regional offices will simply be transferred to the central office, they point out, and the system's authority to lay off staff members is limited by union contracts.

"Figures like $3 million and $4 million [in annual savings] have been bandied about, but that's questionable," says Delores Minor, an assistant to Superintendent Arthur Jefferson. "We're under contract to teachers and administrators. They have tenure. We have to abide by that. If there is to be a savings, it would take many years to see it."

The first step in dismantling the regional arrangement, according to Ms. Minor, will be the abolition of the eight regional school boards, each of which has five members elected from within the region.

The regional administrative offices--each with a superintendent and about 15 staff members--will continue to function through this school year, until the new arrangement is in place she said. Restructuring the central administration to carry out its new responsibilities will take up to a year, Ms. Minor notes. By mid-October, State Superintendent Runkel is to appoint a seven-member panel which will examine the situation and recommend ways to reorganize the 220,000-student system's administration.

Ms. Minor says she knew of no widespread dissatisfaction with the regions, which have been credited with bringing the schools more directly under popular control. "There was involvement, there was commitment, and there were less channels to go through for the community," she insists.

Ms. Minor attributed the outcome of the referendum to misinformation about the potential savings and to the "confusing wording" of the question on the ballot.

"People in Detroit are used to voting 'Yes' to support the schools,'' she says. "This time, the way it was worded, 'Yes' meant 'No'."--P.C.

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