School & District Management

‘Failing’ Detroit Faces Job Cuts, Privatization

By Robert C. Johnston — April 18, 2001 5 min read
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Detroit has seen school improvement plans come and go about as often as the seven superintendents who have led the sprawling urban system in the past 11 years.

Kenneth S. Burnley, the chief executive officer of the 162,000-student district, unveiled his own plan this month for restructuring the troubled district. In part, the plan calls for closing five schools, cutting up to 470 jobs, and studying the privatization of some operations involving another 3,000 positions.

“Our school system is failing our students, and it is time to recognize the urgency and end the inadequacies,” Mr. Burnley said in a written statement.

The plan grew out of an extensive, eight-month review of the district by Berkshire Advisors Inc., a consulting firm in Cleveland. The findings of 18 consultants who interviewed some 750 district employees, local parents, and community leaders are part of Mr. Burnley’s 700-page reform document.

His plan drew mixed reviews last week in the Motor City. It was praised for its boldness, sense of urgency, and level of detail. Some people in district, however, fear the job cuts, which would likely come from the support- level and central-office ranks, not the teaching force.

Observers agreed, meanwhile, that Mr. Burnley must convince district employees and the Detroit community that he, and his plan, are here to stay.

“If Dr. Burnley is here for a while, that will impact on what happens in the plan. If he is here for two years and then goes away, we’ll start over again,” said Janna K. Garrison, the president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers. “Stability of leadership is first and foremost.”

The bulky “Efficiency and Effectiveness Plan,” released April 5, describes a district that is at a crossroads, where islands of success and excellence are surrounded by oceans of need and failure.

Faced with competition from private schools, independent, publicly financed charter schools, and other choice options, Detroit expects its enrollment to hit 157,000 next fall, well below the 177,000 students in the district just four years ago.

It is also losing the money that comes with them—about $6,402 per student in state aid. The district, which has a budget of $1.2 billion, is facing a $72 million budget deficit in the next fiscal year.

Even against that backdrop, one of the district’s deepest problems is a persistent lack of urgency about improving itself and performing jobs well, the review found. “In the face of extraordinarily difficult challenges,” it says, “a culture of complacency currently pervades the Detroit public schools.”

Repair Backlog

The district has numerous dedicated and talented employees, the report adds, but many of them are untrained, or in jobs that do not match their skills. The district’s ability to support schools is suffering as a result, it says.

In his plan, which does not need school board approval, Mr. Burnley wants to create 13 positions for people who would come up with ways to use performance data and other information to raise student achievement.

Another 10 posts would be created to train school-based staff members in budget management. That proposal follows an embarrassing spate of stories in the local media this winter about school officials’ mishandling of more than $1 million in recent years.

To improve school safety, the study recommends establishing 76 public-safety-officer positions and 54 other new posts for staff members to monitor security cameras.

In other administrative changes, the district will introduce the post of chief operating officer to manage the district’s fiscal matters, and reorganize staffing to better support schools.

The physical condition of the city’s schools is also lacking. In part, that is because so many schools are old: The average Detroit school is 61 years old. Under the plan, James McMillan Multicultural School, which was built in 1889 and is the oldest school in the system, would be one of the five schools closed.

Eight others will be converted to prekindergarten or all-day-kindergarten sites as their current enrollments move to other schools.

Meanwhile, the district is in the midst of spending $400 million to build or renovate 12 schools as part of the $1.5 billion, 1994 school bond measure.

At the same time, however, Detroit has a backlog of 27,000 school maintenance work-order requests. Michael H. Walker, a principal partner in Berkshire Advisors and a veteran of school district reviews, said he had never seen such a “magnitude of problems in maintenance and repairs” as he found in Detroit.

“How could it not affect instruction if bathrooms don’t have lights or toilet paper,” he said. “Any one of us would not be as productive in that environment, so why would schools be any different?”

‘I’m For It’

To tackle school maintenance, Mr. Burnley said, the district will review contracting with a private provider for building and grounds maintenance, as well as food services and information technology.

A coalition of unions representing teachers and other district employees vehemently oppose privatization, saying that such a move would take jobs away from employees who live in Detroit and who send their children to city schools.

Mr. Burnley, a Detroit native and a former superintendent in Colorado Springs, is getting support on that front, however.

“If the current staff doesn’t have the zest and desire to kick it up a notch, we need a change,” said N. Charles Anderson, the president of the Detroit Urban League. “If a vendor can come in and do the job, I’m for it.”

As for nursing his plans to fruition, Mr. Burnley, who assumed his job last July, has an advantage over previous district leaders.

He’s the first permanent CEO of the district since the Michigan legislature disbanded the Detroit school board in 1999 and gave Mayor Dennis W. Archer the power to pick most of the new members.

Mr. Burnley, who was hired by the reconstituted board, appears to be on firm ground through 2004, when voters in Detroit will decide whether to return to an elected board.

“In the past, people would say, ‘Let’s let this pass,’” said Mr. Walker of Berkshire Advisors. “They know he’ll be here for four years, and that will make a difference. The other thing is that people will see the changes happening and get out in front of the parade, or get run over by it.”

Ms. Garrison, whose union is an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, said there were other reasons to be hopeful.

“The previous reform plan tore into teachers,” she said. “This plan says that we haven’t done for classroom teachers what we should have. It focuses on what people have to do.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 2001 edition of Education Week as ‘Failing’ Detroit Faces Job Cuts, Privatization

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