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Detroit Ends Decentralized School Governance

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Detroit--Seeking to trim $6 million from its ailing budget, the Detroit School District last week ended its twelve-year experiment with decentralization.

The 200,000-student district "recentralized" under a plan drawn up by Superintendent Arthur Jefferson. The new organization abolishes Detroit's eight regional school boards and eliminates 213 jobs--including 87 administrative posts.

The plan also significantly increases the superintendent's authority. No longer will he have to deal with regional boards and regional superintendents to set districtwide policy or to hire and fire mid-level managers. Mr. Jefferson now reports to an 11-member central board and exercises broad control over personnel.

The Detroit school system was decentralized in 1971 after black parents argued that their complaints were being ignored by a predominantly white school board. In recent years, however, as black representation on school boards and in student bodies increased, many Detroit residents said they believed that the need for decentralization had passed.

In September 1981, voters decided nearly 2-1 to recentralize despite the school board's opposition to the plan. The Michigan legislature approved the recentralization last April, saying it would save the district millions of dollars. (See Education Week, Oct. 5, 1981, and April 21, 1982.)

Those savings are likely to come largely through staff cuts. Under the reorganization, for example, Mr. Jefferson's office staff will shrink from 201 to 104 positions. Additional cuts will be made at the local levels that served as regional offices.

Mr. Jefferson said the cuts should save Detroit about $6 million a year, a small fraction of the district's $50-million deficit for 1982-83. An additional benefit, he said, will come through clarity "in terms of who is responsible for what, and therefore people can be held much more accountable."

Meanwhile, staff members braced for the reshuffling. Under provisions of their union contract, school administrators facing layoffs can instead accept teaching positions. That could result in more members of the Detroit Federation of Teachers being laid off. Three hundred union members have already lost their jobs this year.

And Mr. Jefferson did not rule out more layoffs at all levels. "We still have severe economic problems," he said. "I cannot say that future staff reductions are out of the question."

Other changes included in the reorganization plan are:

Establishment of a citywide department designed to improve the quality of Detroit's 22 high schools and five vocational-technical centers. The department will be headed by an area superintendent reporting directly to Mr. Jefferson and will include the principals of each of the schools involved.

Establishment of the district's first long-range planning department, which is charged with studying economic trends with an eye to teaching students marketable skills.

Employment of a full-time general counsel to head the office of legal affairs. Previously, Detroit used various lawyers as needed, but Mr. Jefferson said increased litigation is forcing the district to strengthen its legal ability.

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