Takeover PlanFor Detroit Shifts Gears

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After weeks of wrangling, Michigan lawmakers have at least agreed on this much: Authority over Detroit's ailing schools should shift away from the city's elected school board. But who should get that power remained a burning question in Lansing last week, as the state House surprised the Senate with a substitute for the bill that had been widely expected to breeze through both chambers.

In the new version, Gov. John Engler, and not Detroit Mayor Dennis W. Archer, would oversee the appointment of new management to run the state's largest district.

The House bill, adopted on a 64-40 vote March 18 after an all-night debate, would allow the Republican governor to appoint a "monitor" to run the district. That administrator would be required to work with--but not necessarily heed--the 11-member local school board. Mr. Archer, a Democrat, would play no part in school governance.

Late last week, the Senate responded with a revised version of the bill it had passed earlier in the month, which both Mr. Engler and Mr. Archer had favored. The original bill would have dissolved the elected board immediately, to be replaced by a reform board appointed by Mr. Archer.

The revised Senate version would preserve the shift to mayoral control, but would retain the current school board members in an advisory capacity. The board members would serve out their terms, and then the elected board would be eliminated.

Despite their victory on the substance of the bill, House leaders could not muster the two-thirds majority needed under the state constitution to make the bill effective as soon as the governor signs it. Since quick implementation is considered vital to any reform plan, the shortfall casts even more doubt on the outcome of the legislative tussle.

The House was scheduled this week to begin considering the Senate compromise.

Earlier in the week, Gov. Engler had expressed satisfaction with either bill.

"We can accept either version because either one leads us to reform, with one person in charge to make the changes so dramatically needed," said his spokesman, John Truscott. "What it basically comes down to is who has the authority to appoint that person."

Late-Night Debate

In the Republican-controlled Senate, the measure originally proposed by the governor was approved by a comfortable 30-7 majority. The plan closely resembled Illinois legislation that in 1995 shifted the Chicago schools to mayoral control.

But many Detroit Democrats had condemned the governor's proposal, saying it would undercut local voting rights and was an insult to African-Americans, who make up the overwhelming majority of the city's population. In recent weeks, though, polls have suggested that increasingly frustrated Motor City voters might favor a takeover by the mayor, who is black. And the idea had won the backing of influential civic groups and religious leaders. ("Power Shift for Detroit Moves Ahead," March 3, 1999.)

In the end, two of Detroit's five state senators voted for the governor's plan.

Mr. Engler's proposal stirred even more debate in the House, also controlled by Republicans, where Speaker Chuck Perricone strove for bipartisan approval. The compromise he put forward, for a gubernatorially appointed monitor, was finally adopted about 5 a.m. after 14 hours of negotiation. Nine of the 13 Detroit Democrats eventually supported the bill, which echoed a plan proposed by both the Detroit City Council and the school board.

Whose Victory?

Lawmakers from the city hailed the surprising compromise and called it a significant improvement over the Senate bill.

Rep. Keith S. Stallworth, a Detroit Democrat, contended that it turned a takeover plan into one for assisting the 178,000-student district. The substitute bill properly invested authority for the school system in the state, which would run the political risks of assuming responsibility, he said. And, he added, a role remained "for the elected board as a conduit to the people."

But others said the House compromise owed more to the reluctance of local and state officials to expand the mayor's powers than to any rethinking of the relationship between the state and Detroit's schools.

Oddly, the compromise made Detroit Democrats in the House allies of Gov. Engler and city politicians the foe of Mayor Archer.

The mayor could not be reached for comment last week. But he told local reporters the day before the House vote that he strongly favored the Senate bill, which he said would make for more effective reform. He also expressed astonishment that the school board, after fighting the governor's original proposal, would suddenly seek to hand Mr. Engler greater power.

William S. Ballenger, the editor of a Lansing-based newsletter, Inside Michigan Politics, noted the irony. "What the governor could never have gotten himself is what Detroit Democrats are giving to him," he said last week.

Virgil C. Smith, one of the two Detroit senators who voted for the bill that would have given Mr. Archer control, expressed disappointment with his colleagues in the House. He argued that allowing the mayor to name a school board did more to preserve the voting rights of Detroiters than the compromise plan. Detroit voters, he observed, have a much greater say in electing their own mayor than they do in electing a governor.

Mr. Truscott said that, whatever version ultimately reaches the governor's desk, the timing of its implementation is critical. "We won't wait," Mr. Engler's spokesman declared. "We'll do what is necessary to get the votes there."

Plan Called Weak

Without a supermajority, the bill's provisions would languish until April 2001. The governor could opt to move up implementation to the summer by ending the legislative session soon, but he is apparently reluctant to do so. Democratic legislators also would be unhappy with such a move because the governor would likely reconvene the legislature in a special session where he would control the agenda.

Though the governor and many in the state seemed to think both plans offered promise for reform, at least one national expert disagreed. Michael Kirst, an education professor at Stanford University who studies school governance, described the House plan as unprecedented and conceptually weak.

He said the advantages of mayoral control, as opposed to retaining an elected board, include establishing a clear point of accountability, promoting the alignment of finances with curriculum, and a more aggressive stance in dealing with school unions.

Those advantages would likely be lost under the bill passed by the Michigan House, he said. "It sounds as if this plan could lead to a lot of buck-passing and splintered accountability."

Mr. Kirst, who is the co-author of a recent study on mayoral takeovers, argued that experiences of urban districts do not seem to support an arrangement with an advisory school board.

In Chicago and Boston, which did away with their elected boards, he pointed out, there has been no groundswell of opinion to bring them back. And both districts, he added, are showing signs of progress.

Vol. 18, Issue 28, Pages 1, 16

Published in Print: March 24, 1999, as Takeover PlanFor Detroit Shifts Gears
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