In Backing Tax Proposals, Voters Endorse Detroit School Reforms

By William Snider — September 20, 1989 10 min read
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Less than a year after issuing a mandate for significant reform of their school system, Detroit voters last week endorsed the subsequent changes in leadership and direction of the district by approving two tax increase proposals by wide margins.

One of the proposals approved last week allows the nation’s seventh-largest school district to enter the 1990’s with a clean financial slate. The district has been authorized to sell bonds to pay off an operating deficit that has grown during the past 15 years to more than $150 million.

The second proposal provides the district with some $70 million in new revenues for the coming year, enabling it to avert drastic program cuts and employee layoffs, fund a 6 percent increase in employee salaries, and embark on the first stages of an ambitious, 10-year reform plan.

“I’m extremely pleased about what has happened,” said Edna Bell, vice president of the Detroit school board. “We have a lot of work to do, but we’re on the up side of the mountain now.”

School officials and others who supported the tax proposals attributed their victory to the rapid development of plans for fiscal integrity and educational improvement by a new leadership team that took office in the district this summer.

The comprehensive instructional reform plan proposed by John W. Porter, the district’s new interim general superintendent, calls for dividing the school experience into five “cycles,” with mandatory interventions for students who do not meet the learning goals established for each cycle.

The plan, whose broad outlines were approved by the board of education last week, also calls for the devolution of authority and accountability to school sites, expanded preschool and school-readiness programs, and for creating a “certainty of opportunity” for successful students through the new Detroit Compact.

The victory last week culminated an intensive campaign by district leaders and their supporters, including separate rallies organized by school officals and a group of clergy at which thousands of Detroit residents demonstrated their support for the tax increases.

School officials also convinced the vast majority of candidates in city council and mayoral primaries to include endorsements of the school measures on their campaign literature, according to Ms. Bell.

Both the bond issue and a 5 mill property tax increase for the schools were approved by more than 60 percent of those voting.

“I’m ecstatic. I keep pinching myself to make sure I’m not dreaming,” said Frank Hayden, who was elected to the Detroit school board last November when voters ousted three incumbents and replaced them with reform-minded candidates. In the same election, voters soundly rejected tax increase proposals similar to those approved last week.

“The results indicate that voters in Detroit are confident enough that there are going to be some changes in the way we educate our children that they are willing to put their money where their mouth is,” he said.

The tax-increase proposals won broad support from organizations throughout the community, including several that had opposed the similar proposals last year--the Greater Detroit Chamber of Commerce, the Detroit Association of Black Organizations, and Black Parents for Educational Quality.

Paul L. Hubbard, president of New Detroit Inc., a civic coalition that also reversed its position on the tax increases, said that district officials had met several conditions that were lacking last fall.

“One, there is a quality education plan that the board is looking favorably on. Two, there has been a management plan put in place to cut costs. And three, the members of the Detroit board seem to be working much better together,” he said.

Tax-increase supporters also noted that--for the first time in a decade--the school board adopted a balanced budget for the coming year and reached a contract agreement with teachers before the start of school without third-party intervention.

The terms of the new teacher contract served as a strong spark for the Detroit Federation of Teachers to organize in support of the millage increase, because teachers would have received no increase if it had failed.

The union and district are currently in binding arbitration on a retroactive pay increase for the past school year, when the district was unable to pay a negotiated 7 percent increase.

Exit polls conducted by local media also indicated that some voters approved the tax increases to fund promised restorations of $22 million in budget cuts, including such popular programs as competitive sports, student transportation, and instrumental music in elementary and intermediate schools.

The budget cuts, which included layoffs for more than 1,000 teachers and custodians, were adopted under pressure from state officials who decided this year to stop allowing the district to carry its deficit over from year to year.

The election results “dug them out of what could potentially have been a very big hole,” Calvin Cupidore, director of finance for the Michigan department of education, said of the district.

“It wiped the slate clean on the accumulated deficit, and hopefully now they’re on sound footing in terms of their march towards fiscal stability,” he said.

Critics of the proposed tax increases, however, charged that the board’s choice of budget cuts was motivated by a desire to make defeat of the tax increases an unacceptable alternative.

“The children were held hostage, in my opinion,” said Bennett Earl Nowicki, an adult education teacher for the Detroit public schools, and leader of We Won’t Have Another Millage Increase, a grass-roots coalition that claims 3,000 members.

Mr. Nowicki’s group is one of a handful of local organizations that continue to maintain that the district has sufficient resources but “fails to manage them wisely.”

“Both the budgeting and financial mangement processes are ineffective, in fact, they’re awful,” he said.

He noted that Mr. Porter had come to the same conclusion last year while leading a state task force that investigated the district’s finances, but charged that the task force’s report and recommendations “are now sitting on a shelf gathering dust.”

“The only change they have been advocating is the kind that jingles,” he said. “In fact, it’s business as usual, basically.”

No one disputes that dropout rates in Detroit are unacceptably high, and that test scores and other indicators of student achievement are unacceptably low.

A Detroit News survey of the nation’s ten largest school districts found, for example, that Detroit public school students had the lowest average scores on the the ACT, the SAT, and nationally normed basic skills tests.

The education reform program that the district’s leadership promised to implement if the tax increases were approved has evolved throughout Mr. Porter’s two-and-a-half month tenure, but is far from complete.

In an interview prior to the election last week, Mr. Porter said that his Quality Education Plan represents a redesign of the instructional process from “3- and 4-year-olds right up through high school.”

“This district has set a lower set of expectations for youngsters than the youngsters have in the suburbs, and it operates basically the same kind of school system,” the former state superintendent of schools said.

“It should be the other way around,” he said. “We ought to set the same expectations, but we really need to operate an entirely different delivery system.”

Mr. Porter has proposed breaking the school experience for students into five cycles, including:

A preschool/kindergarten cycle, during which students would master the physical, social, emotional, and cognitive skills necessary to be ready for school;

A primary cycle, composed of grades one and two, during which students would build a “foundation” of basic skills, personal and social performance, health and physical education, and artistic skills development;

An elementary cycle, with grades three, four, and five, during which students would acquire “essential learnings” in the areas of communication, mathematics, science, social studies, art, foreign language, music, health education, physical education, and personal and social skills;

A middle school cycle, with grades six, seven, and eight, during which students would learn “enabling skills” for career development, hygiene and physical fitness, interpersonal relationships, academic preparation, and appreciation of the arts; and,

A high school cycle, with grades nine through 12, during which students would master “life-role competencies” such as personal and family management, civic and social responsibility, employability and occupational skills, aesthetic and humanistic appreciation, and health and physical fitness.

“We need to ask ourselves at the end of each cycle, ‘are we doing what it is we have to do?”’ Mr. Porter said.

Students who do not master the essential goals of each cycle, he said, will be subject to interventions that will vary with the cycle.

In the primary cycle, for example, students in need of assistance will be provided with individually paced and targeted lessons on computers. Mentors, including older students and members of the community, will be provided for all students in the elementary cycle who have not attained the the identified standards, he said.

A comprehensive assessment at the beginning of sixth grade will identify students who need immediate intervention, which will be designed based on each student’s needs and encapsulated in an individual learning plan. In addition, all sixth grade students will sign contract with their parents indicating agreement on goals and objectives for the next six years.

A group of ninth grade alternative schools will provide assistance to students who do not demonstrate attainment of the middle school standards, he said.

Within this framework, he said, school leaders would be free to determine how best to utilize staff and resources under a school-based management plan that is being phased in beginning this year. Between 30 and 40 of the district’s XXX schools will be designated to begin school-based-management during the current school year.

A current draft of the Quality Education Program states that “student achievement will be used as an important, but not the sole criterion, in assessing principal performance.”

The administrative reorganization will also make area superintendents and their staffs accountable for helping principals lead and manage their schools and improving parent and community involvement and support, it says.

The general superintendent and central office will become accountable for overall district attainment of improved student achievement through the provision of personnel, materials, supplies, equipment, training, and other resources needed by schools, the draft says.

Eventually, Mr. Porter said, the district will implement a choice program to encourage parents “to associate with schools that are going to make a difference.”

“The first step is to create more effective schools so that people can have a greater variety of choices,” he said. “That is going to take several years.”

As a test of the concpt, he said, at the end of the next school year “we are going to ask a very powerful question: “If you had your choice, would you have your kid attend the school they have just finished?”’

Task forces will be created within the next several weeks to fill out the details of each of the proposed reforms.

With the passage of the tax increases, “we will implement or demonstrate all parts” of the reform plan during this school year, the superintendent said.

Mr. Porter said he has been heartened by the “enthusiasm of the district’s staff to want change and improvement, and the support form the community and the parents has just been fantastic.”

“The critical issue that we are going to have to come to grips with,” he said, “is the extent to which employee contracts are going to inhibit us.”

“The contracts are just devastating,” he said. “There is going to have to be a lot of collaboration and working agreements” to get the reform plan implemented.

An additional doubt cast on the future of the reform plan is Mr. Porter’s stated intention to leave the interim supertendent’s post at the end of his current one-year contract.

Some school board members have already stated that they would like Mr. Porter to continue as permanent superintendent, but he reiterated last week that he is not interested in remaining.

“This is not a job that I sought, or intend to continue in,” he said. “I agreed to come for only one year, and it’s already more than I contemplated.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 20, 1989 edition of Education Week as In Backing Tax Proposals, Voters Endorse Detroit School Reforms


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