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Detroit Casts a 'No' Vote On Direction of Schools

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Copyright 1988 Detroit voters sent a clear signal of their dissatisfaction with the city's school system last Tuesday by ousting three school-board incumbents and rejecting two requests for additional school funding.

One of the ballot issues defeated was a request by school officials for authority to issue $160 million in bonds to cover the district's current-year deficit, which represents about 23 percent of its annual budget.

The defeat of both the bond issue and a 6-mill property-tax increase marks a dramatic turnaround in a city that has consistently backed requests for additional school funding.

"What it means for the school system is that the public is just not willing to make another investment in that board," said Horace L. Sheffield Jr., a leader of the the Detroit Association of Black Organizations, a federation of 220 groups that is working to improve the quality of life in the city.

"This was a failed school board that had brought about a failed school system," he said. "People just got tired of it."

"The public wants action and wants it promptly," said W. David Adamany, president of Wayne State University in downtown Detroit.

Last week's city elections capped a bitter campaign that has pitted political leaders like Mayor Coleman Young, who, despite his escalating criticism of the schools, supported the board incumbents and proposed funding measures, against business and civic groups that opposed them.

"We saw no evidence in this proposal that ensured a commitment to quality improvements that we could measure," said Frank E. Smith, president of the Greater Detroit Chamber of Commerce, which opposed the three school-funding measures on the ballot.

"Money hasn't turned around the problem, so our position was 'no more money,"' he said.

Business leaders need to be convinced, Mr. Smith said, that any deficit-reduction plan the district implements "is also, in the process, going to produce a more efficiently run system and a much better educational product."

During the election campaign, Mayor Young was openly critical of the Chamber's opposition to the measures, saying that business leaders who reside in the suburbs should not have a role in deciding city issues.

But public-opinion surveys taken before the election seemed to validate community leaders' assessment that Detroit residents had lost faith in the current board.

In one poll, only 14 percent of the respondents agreed that graduates of the Detroit Public Schools were well prepared to enter careers, while 73 percent disagreed.

Only 26 percent agreed that the board of education had been doing a good job and should be kept in office, while 57 percent disagreed, according to the survey by New Detroit Inc., which calls itself the nation's oldest urban coalition.

The board of education defended itself by noting that student test scores in the district had risen substantially in recent years.

But critics of the board have charged it with having failed to effectively deal with the district's high dropout rate, which exceeds 50 percent by most estimates.

And, according to the New Detroit survey, a majority of city residents believe that test-score improvements are not an adequate indicator of the district's performance.

The board's case was not helped, many add, by public reaction to news reports that board members were making free use of chauffeur-driven cars, traveling first class on business trips, and installing a computer network in their homes paid for by the school district.

These issues, while not a significant factor in the district's budget problems, "threw gasoline on the embers" of public dissatisfaction with the board, said Mr. Adamany.

The four new members elected to the board ran as a single slate, backing a platform that calls for the empowerment of local schools and greater parental choice.

They beat by a wide margin the three incumbents who lasted through the primary, a fact considered by many to be particularly significant, given that the four were running for at-large seats.

The six remaining members of the board represent specific districts. The final spot has been vacant since the resignation earlier this fall of the board's president, George Bell, who reportedly quit to protest what he felt were unjustified attacks on the board.

Community leaders, Mr. Adamany said, are optimistic that "some incumbents will read the election results as a mandate for change."

"We think the slate can achieve a working majority on the board," said Alan D. Hurwitz, education director of New Detroit.

Mr. Hurwitz said that school, community, and business leaders expect to convene an "educational summit" within the next few months to "get over the hostile feelings" generated during the election campaign and begin to devise solutions for the school system's problems.

The most immediate of these is the district's budget deficit, which has more than doubled each year for the past few years despite a state law requiring districts to operate with balanced budgets.

Under the law, districts are allowed to carry over a deficit if they provide the state with a satisfactory plan for erasing it within two years, according to W. Kenneth Cool, a finance official in the state department of education.

The Detroit board had counted on the bond issue to erase its deficit, he said, so it will now be required to submit a new deficit-reduction plan for the current year.

A plan to reduce the deficit will be presented to the board by Superintendent of Schools Arthur Jefferson within the next few weeks, a spokesman said. Mr. Jefferson was not available for comment last week.

The state board of education has also appointed a panel of experts to recommend a proposed solution for Detroit's budget woes. It is expected to report next month.

A movement by state leaders to restructure Michigan's system of financing education could also provide more resources for Detroit, but not before next fall--and only if legislators and voters agree to proposed constitutional amendments.

Community leaders insist that Detroit's voters will support tax increases--possibly as soon as next March--if they are assured that the money will be well spent.

"We're going to demonstrate that you can turn things around in an urban district, and we're going to become a national model for school reform," predicted Mr. Hurwitz.

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