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Published in Print: July 20, 2016, as Detroit District Splits to Shore Up Schools

Split of Detroit District Is Latest Bid to Shore Up Troubled System

Steadily falling student enrollment in Detroit's public school system has forced the closure of some buildings, including Southwestern High School. The campus, which closed in 2012, has been a target of scrappers and looters.
Steadily falling student enrollment in Detroit's public school system has forced the closure of some buildings, including Southwestern High School. The campus, which closed in 2012, has been a target of scrappers and looters.
—Carlos Osorio/AP-File
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One of the nation’s most troubled school districts is now two.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation this summer that divides the Detroit school district into two separate systems: a new district tasked with educating the city’s 46,000 regular public school students; and the old district left intact solely to pay off hundreds of millions of dollars in debt.

Detroit is probably the first school system in the nation to adopt the approach, said Michael Griffith, a senior school finance analyst with the Education Commission of the States.

The change allows the new district to devote more of its money to educating students. Under the old system, nearly $1,100 per student in state funding went toward retiring the district’s crushing debt. In the new district, educators will have that money, around $50 million in the coming school year, at their disposal for use in classrooms.

While Snyder, a Republican, is touting the move as a “new beginning” for Detroit’s public schools, not everyone sees it that way, because many of the district’s old problems persist: hemorrhaging enrollment, dilapidated schools, low teacher morale, and constant administrative turnover among them.

Sticking the old district with nearly $500 million in operating debt allows the Detroit schools to avoid bankruptcy, but potential pitfalls abound.

The credit rating agency Standard and Poor’s downgraded its credit rating for two series of Detroit school bonds, casting doubt on whether the old district can repay the bondholders, because it no longer captures state property taxes, the primary funding source for schools in the state. Money from the state’s $250 million annual payment from tobacco companies will help pay off the old district’s debt. The agency also warned that additional downgrades are a possibility.

Profound Problems

Researchers and people inside the district also wonder if the split is merely a cosmetic fix for a school system that has been re-branded as the Detroit Public Schools Community District, but still faces many of the same catastrophic problems.

The legislation “addresses the structure, but not the substance of schooling in the district,” said Camille Wilson, an associate professor of education at the University of Michigan. “There’s nothing that addresses the dilapidated facilities, high teacher turnover, high principal turnover, the lack of basic resources in schools, safety … the issues that families and students grapple with.”

The number of students enrolled in Detroit’s public schools has been on the decline for decades, fueled by the city’s plummeting population, sinking graduation rates, financial mismanagement, and corruption probes.

A decade ago, the district had 131,000 students. This year, that number was 46,000—a 65 percent decline.


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Amid the enrollment drops, the district’s leadership has been a model of instability. A revolving door of at least seven superintendents and state-appointed emergency managers have led the district in recent years. Federal indictments from vendor kickback schemes, tutoring scams, and other crimes have thinned the administrative ranks.

“There’s blame enough to go around. They’ve tried everything—and ran into the exact same problem,” said Griffith, the school finance analyst. He monitored the state’s K-12 education budget as a policy analyst for the Michigan state Senate in the mid-to-late 1990s.

‘Fresh Start?’

The package of bills, backed by the Republican-led legislature, would help pay off $467 million in operating debt and provide a $150 million loan for start-up funding to help get the new, debt-free district off the ground. But critics maintain that the new district has been shortchanged. Its leaders requested almost double the amount in startup costs and the district’s current school board has filed a lawsuit in an effort to refuse the funds and reverse the split, arguing that the interest rates on the state-issued loan to make up the difference are too high.

But the current board has little, if any, influence. The Snyder-signed legislation stripped the panel of its responsibilities. Under the law, Detroit residents will elect a new school board in November, returning the district to local control with some state oversight retained.

To keep tabs on the budget, a finance review commission, established after the city’s bankruptcy, has expanded to provide oversight of the school district, which has been led by a series of state-appointed emergency managers since 2009.

The legislation also strengthens anti-strike provisions that may discourage, or even prevent, teacher sickouts. A series of coordinated sickouts last winter during which teachers called in sick en masse to protest their working conditions and compensation helped shine the national spotlight on the district’s fiscal troubles and dilapidated buildings.

“This legislation gives Michigan’s comeback city a fresh start in education,” Gov. Snyder said in a prepared statement after signing the legislation.

“Now the residents of Detroit need to engage with their schools and help find good leaders who can provide the best possible chance of success for families in the city.”

The current transition manager, Steven Rhodes, is the federal judge who oversaw the city’s historic bankruptcy case. Shortly after Rhodes came on board, he appointed Alycia Meriweather, a longtime Detroit schools administrator, as interim superintendent to oversee academics in the district.

Meriweather is working with district staff and a citywide academic advisory council to launch a new academic plan for the district, which routinely scores the worst among big-city school districts on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in math and reading.

“We’re optimistic because we get an opportunity to start new, but we have a huge challenge before us,” said Detroit schools spokeswoman Chrystal Wilson. “Right now, the parents are trying to figure out what’s going on. It’s our responsibility to engage them so that they feel like this is [their district].”

It’s a move to help the district restore trust and stem further enrollment losses. Unsatisfied parents have increasingly turned to charter schools, which now educate a majority of the public school students in the city.

Chartered Course

About 52,000 of the city’s public schools students, roughly 53 percent, attend charters, according to a report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. That percentage is second only to New Orleans, where nearly every public school in the city is a charter.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Detroit’s delegates in the state legislature hoped to gain more sway over city-based charters, especially on where the schools are allowed to locate. They expressed concerns that large swaths of the city have no schools, while some neighborhoods are overrun with education options. Charters in the city are almost exclusively run by for-profit charter management organizations.

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But the bailout package nixed plans for the Detroit Education Commission, a panel of political appointees that would have regulated the location of traditional and charter schools in the city. Charter sector leaders, which lobbied heavily against the creation of such a commission, feared the panel could have created a de facto cap on charter growth in the city, said Dan Quisenberry, the president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, a statewide charter school organization.

“This is about improving student outcomes and we shouldn’t be about protecting particular systems or particular schools,” Quisenberry said. Instead of the commission, the law calls for creation of an advisory council that would produce non-binding recommendations on where schools are needed and study a potential citywide transportation and common enrollment systems for all students.

“Our hope is that more kids are in good schools whether that’s [Detroit public] or a charter,” said Todd Ziebarth, the senior vice president for state advocacy at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Vol. 35, Issue 36, Pages 1,18

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