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Building PlanIn Detroit StillOnly a Dream

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Detroit

When voters here approved a plan in 1994 to spend an unprecedented $1.5 billion for school construction and renovation, many Detroiters thought the problems with the Motor City's ancient and crowded schools would soon be fixed.

But nearly 2 1/2 years later, not a lick of paint or trowel of mortar has been applied with the money.

"It's a joke," said Marie Thornton, a parent activist and until recently a member of the citizens' committee overseeing the tax-financed construction program. "We don't have any buildings, we don't have workmen, you don't see a brick laid."

District officials recently promised that work would finally begin at 13 schools and the system's African-history museum this summer.

Meanwhile, explanations for the long delay abound in the district's hulking art deco headquarters on Woodward Avenue. Administrators point to a string of setbacks they say would have been difficult to avoid given the project's massive size.

The bond referendum was the biggest of its type ever in Michigan and, until recently, the largest in the nation by a single school district.

In April, Los Angeles voters set a new record for such projects by approving a $2.4 billion school bond issue. Less than two months later, work on schools there has already begun. ("Voters Approve $2.4 Billion in Bonds for L.A.," April 16, 1997.)

In Detroit, the delays come at a crucial time. Many people here believe the city, long recognized as one of the nation's most deeply troubled, is on the verge of a comeback.

Under first-term Mayor Dennis Archer, Motown's relations with its suburbs have thawed. And several projects, notably construction of two sports stadiums and the purchase by General Motors of a vast office complex for its corporate headquarters, may bring jobs--and people--back downtown.

Yet Detroiters have heard such stories before, and there is widespread recognition that any long-term comeback could founder on poor schools. The perception that the district can't even make improvements to school buildings--with money the voters have already approved--doesn't help.

Critics blame the delays on leaders who can't withstand the school system's stiff political winds to focus on educating the district's 183,000 students.

And just about everyone agrees that the current situation owes much to the district's isolation from the larger community, although the degree to which school leaders have sought the isolation and the degree to which it has been thrust on them is open to debate.

Crumbling Schools

On average, Detroit's schools are more than 60 years old, with a few, as one top official likes to say, going back to the days when William McKinley was president.

"As a whole, our schools are inadequate physically," said John Elliott, the president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers. He ticked off a list of common problems: "drinking fountains where it's unsafe to drink, classrooms not wired for modern technology, inadequate lighting, poor flooring."

Over and over, in the face of skimpy and shifting resources, routine maintenance has lost out to more pressing needs.

Most schools built so long ago now require major renovation, especially given the needs of modern schools to accommodate hands-on learning and computer technology.

Finally, growing enrollment in some areas and new programs have created a space crunch.

In all of this, Detroit certainly isn't alone. The U.S. General Accounting Office recently estimated it would take $112 billion over the next three years to bring the nation's schools up to par.

The program approved by Detroit's voters in 1994 calls for technological upgrades, renovations, and repairs at all 263 existing schools as well as construction of more than a dozen new buildings over a decade. The district plans to raise the money for the work by selling $1.5 billion in bonds in 10 installments.

To make the payments on the resulting 40-year, $3.5 billion debt, the district must raise property taxes, starting next year. Under the plan, taxpayers can expect to see a total hike of $5.65 for every $1,000 of assessed property value by the early years of the next century. That's about a 10 percent jump in the current rate of $55.30.

'Call to Arms'

Superintendent David L. Snead knows firsthand the conditions that spurred the bond campaign.

In his teaching days in the Detroit schools, he saw plaster falling on youngsters' heads and leaks in wet weather that buckled the gym floor. When he was named to the top job in 1993, Mr. Snead made repair of the schools a top priority. His staff estimated the job would cost at least $3 billion.

He says he regrets that he listened to state, city, and business leaders who counseled him to scale back his request. Taxpayers wouldn't stand for more than $1.5 billion, they argued, and other government agencies would be cut off from needed increases. The business climate would suffer.

Mr. Snead acquiesced and launched a campaign that in the end took on most of Detroit's power structure. Media outlets, including the city's two daily newspapers, the Greater Detroit Chamber of Commerce, and the teachers' union lined up against the plan, charging that the school system was incapable of managing such a large construction program.

Mr. Snead and his lieutenants countered with appeals to parents at every school, complete with posters in the hall and coloring books for the children. They touted the program as a boost to the city's economy and pledged that construction jobs would go to Detroiters.

Economic development and educational needs "are tied together," Mr. Snead said. "When you improve the economy of a family, you improve the ability of parents to help their children."

On election day, the measure received 61 percent of the vote.

"We threw everything into it we could think of," recalled Arthur Carter, the deputy superintendent in charge of community relations. "It was a general call to arms."

But winning approval from the city's largely black electorate, which has traditionally supported school tax hikes, proved easier than getting the program into gear. Delay followed delay as school officials sought to deliver the fruits of the program to various constituencies and the initial planning came up short:

  • A blueprint for spending the first $89 million in bond money snagged on objections from parent groups and officials in the district's physical-plant department. The school board refused to sign off on the draft and ordered the planning process to begin again.
  • Now, more than two years later, school officials say the revised plan for the first round of work must be revamped because the engineering survey it drew on contained "dated, incomplete, and erroneous data."
  • The selection of a manager for the program slowed when the school board quashed Mr. Snead's first recommendation. Eventually the job went to two Detroit-based, black-owned businesses with records of campaign contributions to school board members and to Mr. Snead's wife, a former mayoral candidate.
  • The state, which has been asked to back the bonds, balked last summer at approving a second installment. State officials have questions about how the money from a $162 million 1986 bond issue was spent and want to make sure adequate controls are in place. Last fall, workers turned up 36 boxes of records from that bond issue that had been forgotten at a warehouse.

The construction program has also been plagued by the departure of at least four key administrators since 1996, including the chief of accounting, who cited the school board's interference with her department's work as a reason for quitting. The latest to go is physical-plant chief Michael Bohannon, a former Ford Motor Co. executive, who will leave after less than a year on the job.

Mr. Bohannon declined to be interviewed for this story, but his boss, William E. Aldridge, the district's deputy superintendent for finance, said Mr. Bohannon had found the job overwhelming. "He thought there was more staffing, more help, more expertise," Mr. Aldridge said.

A School Waits

Van Zile Elementary School in the city's northeast corner was built in 1921, when capital spending per pupil peaked in the Detroit schools. Almost 30 years later, on the eve of another school building boom, Van Zile got an addition while schools in the city's core were largely left to decay. Today, though, the tan-brick school looks as if its time has come and gone.

Paint peels around the windows of the 1921 section, and two of the panes over the main entrance are patched with plastic and tape. Inside, tall windows fill classrooms with light, but the halls are dingy. And the building, with an ideal capacity of about 500, bulges with some 850 students.

The overcrowding means that two kindergarten classes share one large room; the teachers have dispensed with desks to save space. The music teacher holds classes in the auditorium, which doubles as a gym and recreational space when the weather is bad.

Teachers complain among themselves about the 75-year-old building, but they aren't sure of whom to blame for the grime in the corners, the scabby walls, the crowding.

School officials "made a lot of promises to us on how our building was going to change and be upgraded, and we haven't seen anything," says one teacher, who did not want to be identified.

Fourth grader Ryan Martin would like doors on the stalls of the boys' room, and a mirror, and a locker that isn't so hard to open. His mother, Rose Martin, agrees that the school "needs renovation bad." She doesn't think funds are available, though. "I've talked to the different teachers and the principal," she said.

In fact, Van Zile was originally scheduled for health and safety renovations in the first round of the construction program. More renovation, upgraded telecommunications, and an addition, including classrooms and a cafeteria, were to come later. Yet nobody can say exactly when that will be.

Bad Choices

In many ways, school officials here and elsewhere are left holding the bag for problems that have been decades in the making. In the 1950s and '60s, their predecessors faced no-win choices between building new schools in growing, largely white fringe areas or fixing up crumbling structures in the inner city. They also faced shifting levels of funding, which then and now tend to heat up political conflicts.

Nobody knows the fiscal facts better than the finance chief, Mr. Aldridge, who has the job of pulling the school system's operating budget out of the red while pushing forward the giant construction program. A lean, seemingly inexhaustible man, Mr. Aldridge took the top finance job less than a year ago and has been running ever since.

He acknowledged that "every year of delay adds to the cost" of the bond program, as inflation and a construction boom in Detroit eat up the available money. But he insists that time invested now in making sure the right people and procedures are in place will pay dividends later.

"We must build an infrastructure that will stand the test of time," he said.

Armed with a long list of ideas varying from public relations help to a preventive-maintenance plan to taking away some decisions from the school board, Mr. Aldridge hopes to win the confidence of state officials, the public, and at least some business leaders.

But there are those who doubt he has enough resources or enough support from a fragmented board and an increasingly beleaguered superintendent to get the construction program back on track. Neither board President Irma Clark, who has been openly critical of Mr. Snead, nor April Howard Coleman, a board member and Ms. Clark's predecessor as president, responded to several requests for interviews.

Meanwhile, conditions in many schools aren't getting better. "Teachers say the kids cannot be ready for the 20th century," laments Ms. Thornton, the activist, "because the teachers don't have what it takes to get them to that level."

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