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Published in Print: December 1, 2004, as Detroit Schools Facing Massive Cuts, Layoffs

Detroit Schools Facing Massive Cuts, Layoffs

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Leaders of the Detroit public schools may be forced to lay off as many as 4,000 employees and close 40 schools in the face of a continuing decline in enrollment.

The district’s plummeting student population, brought on by the city’s own loss of residents and exacerbated by competition from charter and private schools, has been a concern for several years. But Detroit lost more than 9,300 students at the beginning of this school year alone, a drop larger than the district expected. Enrollment has declined by 35,000 students since 1996, to 140,700 students, or a decrease of more than 20 percent.

The numbers mean that Michigan’s largest school district faces a $198 million shortfall in its $1.5 billion budget for fiscal 2004, a gap that must be closed by next June. The district is working on a deficit-reduction plan that will be submitted to Michigan’s state superintendent of public instruction in the next 90 days.

Kenneth S. Burnley, the chief executive officer of the Detroit schools, is expected to announce options in the next few weeks that could include closing 25 to 40 of the city’s 255 schools at the end of the school year; a reduction of up to 4,000 staff positions through early retirements or layoffs; and plans to work with the Michigan legislature to win approval for the use of “deficit-reduction bonds” to address the shortfall.

Mr. Burnley, who strongly advocated the sale of the bonds during a Nov. 18 television address on the state of the schools, said they would not require voter approval or additional tax money from either the state or the city. A portion of the district’s state aid would go directly to repay the bonds, he said.

Although other Michigan districts have used such bonds to pay off deficits, a statewide initiative approved in 1994 made them illegal. The legislature would have to make an exception to allow Detroit to use the bonds.

Because the school system receives state funding based on enrollment figures, the cumulative financial impact of student losses since 1996 now exceeds $250 million per year, according to Mr. Burnley. A decision to slash several thousand jobs would come on top of the 2,100 jobs cut last year from the workforce, which now stands at 23,000.

While several other urban districts—including Baltimore, Cleveland, and Minneapolis—have experienced a substantial loss of students, grappled with budget shortfalls, and been forced to make big reductions in their workforces, some observers view the problems in Detroit as especially acute.

“I don’t know of any other district that is in such a dire situation as Detroit,” said Henry Duvall, a spokesman for the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools, which represents large urban districts. “I’m not sure if the district can do it on its own. Everyone has to rally around this system if it’s going to stay afloat.”

Low Morale

The district’s proposal to use bond money to help close the deficit is likely to face an uphill fight in the state legislature. Republican leaders, and some Democrats, have openly expressed reservations about the idea, with some fearing that it would set a bad precedent for other cash-strapped districts.

District leaders have not announced what positions would be targeted for layoffs, although Mr. Burnley said 150 teaching positions would be closed to align staffing with enrollment.

“We have tough decisions to make, and we will make them now,” he said during his address.

If the legislature does not approve the bond proposal, and unions do not agree to some labor concessions, he added, layoffs would be impossible to avoid. He predicted under a worst case scenario, that could mean up to 5,000 layoffs—or about one out of every four employees in the system.

“Such cuts would destroy our district, severely harm the city, and have a profound negative impact on neighboring school districts,” Mr. Burnley said.

Janna Garrison, the president of the 12,000-member Detroit Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, said teachers should be protected from layoffs because of an agreement reached with the district on an early-retirement incentive that more than 2,000 teachers are eligible to receive.

Ms. Garrison worries about the net effect of charter schools’ enrollment of students from the regular public schools, as well as suburban public school districts’ and private schools’ competition with Detroit for students. There are 51 charter schools in the city of Detroit, and another 29 in two surrounding counties that make up the metropolitan Detroit area.

“Other districts are recruiting our students because everyone is in a crunch here in Michigan, because our state aid has not gone up in three years,” she said. “Morale is pretty low.”

In addition to severe budget problems, the district is facing a shift in governance that is likely to shake up its school board and top administration.

This past summer, the legislature passed and Gov. Jennifer Granholm signed into law a measure that ended the state takeover of the Detroit public schools that began in 1999 with the appointment of a “reform board” that gave the mayor a hand in running the city’s schools. ("Mich. Lawmakers Approve Takeover Bill for Detroit," March 31, 1999.)

On Nov. 2, Detroit voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure returning the city to elected school board members in 2006, rather than giving the mayor a voice in school affairs. Mr. Burnley called on the legislature to continue to give Detroit the $15 million annual grant that accompanied the 1999 reform measure, even though its provisions will be moot.

Vol. 24, Issue 14, Page 5

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