Detroit Officials See Belt-Tightening Moves As First Steps Along the Road to Recovery

By William Snider — August 02, 1989 7 min read
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The Detroit school board has embarked on the first stage of a financial-recovery plan that requires drastic belt-tightening next year and could result in layoffs for 1,600 employees, including up to 900 teachers.

In addition to the workforce reductions, the budget approved by the board in late June calls for closing five schools and six area administrative offices, eliminating varsity athletics, ending busing for 9,500 students, and cutting spending on textbooks, adult education, and school maintenance.

At the same time, the district appears on6the verge of undertaking a major education-reform initiative that would grant new authority to teachers and focus more of the available resources on preschool and elementary-grade improvements.

Detroit teachers are currently considering a new contract whose provisions have not yet been made public but which is believed to embody a significant move toward teacher empowerment and school-based management.

John W. Porter, who became the district’s interim superintendent on July 1, also is developing a comprehensive educational improvement plan expected to be in place by the start of the coming school year.

The developments mark a significant turnaround from last fall, when voters strongly expressed their dissatisfaction with the district by rejecting a request for more money and electing four new, reform-minded board members.

The austerity measures, which were required by state officials, have provoked both the threat of a boycott from angry citizens and an outpouring of new support by business leaders.

Many community members express confidence, however, that a combination of factors--new leadership, the adoption of a balanced budget and a long-term fiscal recovery plan, and indications that substantial educational improvements are in the offing--mean that the school system has weathered the worst of its crisis.

“Definitely, the most important thing happening is that there is a growing sense in the community that the corner has been turned,” said Alan D. Hurwitz, education director of New Detroit Inc., a coalition of urban leaders formed in the wake of rioting in the city that attracted national attention in 1967.

“I can’t say there has been a shift of public confidence in the schools from negative to positive,” Mr. Hurwitz added, “but there has been a shift from pessimistic to optimistic.”

Response to Deficit

Both community leaders and state officials insisted throughout much of last year that the Detroit school board adopt a financial-recovery plan and begin to reduce a deficit that has grown over several years to more than 20 percent of the district’s annual operating budget.

Observers attribute the deficit to a combination of less-than-adequate increases in state aid and the Detroit board’s inefficient use of resources, particularly its unwillingness to close facilities while student enrollments were dropping by a third.

But the $50 million in cuts adopted by the board in June provoked outrage in many sectors. Several board members called for tighter security at board meetings after repeated disturbances, and a new group called Detroit United for Education has called for a boycott of classes this fall.

Detroit United argues that the board has misplaced its priorities and made cuts in the wrong places. It is said to be contemplating a lawsuit to block the current plan.

Others have responded to the impending budget crunch with fundraising efforts. A group led by Dave Bing, a former star on the Detroit Pistons basketball team and owner of Bing Steel Inc., last week donated $600,000 to the district to restore the fall sports program. The Pistons’ Isaiah Thomas, an all-star member of this year’s championship team, has pledged to the schools the proceeds from an all-star game to be played in Detroit on Aug. 11.

A separate fundraising drive intended to restore both sports and music programs for the year was cancelled last week by the Detroit Auto Dealers Association after district officials expressed concern that it might jeopardize a proposed tax hike.

Levy Request, State Action

Providing further good news, the Michigan legislature appeared poised last week to approve a budget that would grant the district between $5 million and $8 million more than anticipated.

District officials have indicated they would use the money to continue a six-period high-school day, instead of cutting it to five periods as planned. The move would save almost 200 teaching jobs.

The board has also pledged to restore some $28 million in proposed cuts, including jobs for 455 custodians and several hundred teachers, if voters approve a 5 mill property-tax hike that board members voted last month to place on the Sept. 12 ballot.

The board’s agreement to seek the levy request broke a logjam in talks with the Detroit Federation of Teachers, and a tentative accord was reached at 1:30 A.M. the following morning.

The one-year agreement, which is being considered by the union’s membership this week, includes a 6 percent salary increase

Under the pact, up to 40 schools will be allowed to form committees of teachers, parents, and community members to consider policy and spending priorities, according to Carol C. Thomas, executive vice president of the dft

The contract also includes implementation of a mentor-teacher program, additional opportunities for teachers to participate in such activities as curriculum planning and textbook selection, and an agreement to create pilot programs to explore instructional experiments, according to Ms. Thomas.

The board and the union did not, however, reach agreement on a retroactive pay increase for the past school year, when the board was unable to pay an agreed-upon 7 percent increase in teachers’ salaries. The matter is currently in binding arbitration.

If the ballot measure fails, teachers would receive no raise next year and the planned layoffs would be triggered.

Deficit-Reduction Bonds

On the same ballot, voters will be asked to approve the issuance of $160 million in bonds to reduce the district’s accumulated operating deficit. That would require an additional 1.5 mill increase in the property tax.

“If those [actions] aren’t approved, there are unquestionably going to be reductions in the instructional program, and that isn’t a climate in which significant improvements could be made,” said Mr. Hurwitz of New Detroit Inc.

The major community and business groups that opposed last fall’s larger levy request indicated then that they could support additional money for the district only after improvements in financial management and educational offerings. Several have already announced their support for the new request.

And a poll commissioned this spring by New Detroit showed a similar softening of opposition to tax hikes if prospects for school improvement were better. It found that 53 percent of voters opposed the 8 mill increase being proposed then.

But when asked if they would support a levy request if comprehensive educational-improvement and fiscal-stability plans were in place, “an astounding 82 percent of negative respondents said they would change their vote,” Mr. Hurwitz said.

Failure of the bond measure would also trigger an agreement be8tween the state and the Detroit board under which the state could order the district’s superintendent to make mandatory budget cuts.

Cuts If No Bonds

The agreement was reached this spring when the district requested a state loan to meet its payroll, but the state has agreed to defer action on it until after the results of the election are known, according to Calvin C. Cupidore, finance officer for the Michigan Department of Education.

“We would hope that Sept. 12th would bring good news all around,” he said.

In addition to the restored cuts and the salary increases, the 5-mill levy would provide between $7 million and $9 million to fund Mr. Porter’s school-improvement plan.

Details of the plan were difficult to obtain last week. But they are known to include school-based management, public release of school performance data, and interventions in schools that do not meet prescribed goals.

Mr. Porter was unavailable for comment last week.

The school board, meanwhile, appears to observers to have reduced the internal conflicts that delayed several important decisions last year, including the hiring of Mr. Porter, and that became the focus of much public criticism.

The board demonstrated unusual unanimity in approving the levy and bond requests last month, these sources said. And its members agreed to attend a two-day workshop hosted by New Detroit on communications skills and conflict resolution scheduled to take place last weekend.

A version of this article appeared in the August 02, 1989 edition of Education Week as Detroit Officials See Belt-Tightening Moves As First Steps Along the Road to Recovery


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