School & District Management

Panel to View Detroit Schools as ‘Blank Canvas’

By Catherine Gewertz — January 25, 2005 3 min read
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Michigan’s governor has named a panel of 120 citizens to help the Detroit school district improve its governance, but some skeptics worry that the group’s size and broad mission might hamper its effectiveness.

The task force’s mission is to help the district make the transition from an appointed school board to an elected one late this year, and to monitor its deficit-elimination plans. But in remarks to the news media on Jan. 11, Gov. Jennifer Granholm suggested the panel could take on much more than that.

The Democratic governor said the group would view the 140,000-student district as a “blank canvas,” coming up with educational, financial, and even structural improvements, including possibly breaking the system into subdistricts and creating smaller, specialized high schools.

Three days later, Ms. Granholm formally named the transition task force members, who are leaders from education, business, government, civic groups, and the clergy. They were nominated by the Rev. Wendell Anthony, a Detroit minister who will serve as the panel’s leader.

The governor believes that the size of the panel reflects a much-needed dedication to help the Detroit schools get on track, spokeswoman Liz Boyd said.

“We had so many people express an interest in wanting to serve on this team,” said Ms. Boyd. “It’s a beautiful thing. And we are an administration that values inclusiveness.”

Two Teams

A separate team of state leaders—including Michigan’s state treasurer, budget director, and superintendent of public instruction—has been examining the Detroit district’s financial situation since November, and is working with district leaders to make sure its deficit-elimination plan is workable, she said.

Wendell Anthony, left, a Detroit minister who will lead the school task force, appears last summer with Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.

Detroit faces a two-year, accumulated deficit of $198 million in its $1.5 billion fiscal 2005 budget. Chief Executive Officer Kenneth S. Burnley is to submit his deficit-elimination plan to the state by Feb. 4, outlining several measures by which the debt can be reduced, said district spokesman Kenneth Coleman.

The district, which has been suffering in recent years from plummeting enrollment, sent layoff notices to more than 300 teachers two days before Christmas. The new plan likely will call for program cuts, union concessions, closings of as many as 40 of 255 district schools, and elimination of 5,400 more of its 23,000 staff positions, either through retirement or layoffs, Mr. Coleman said.

The district is hoping that Gov. Granholm will allow the district to repay its debt over a 12- to 15-year period, he said. Mr. Burnley also hopes to “negotiate significant concessions” from Detroit’s teachers and other labor unions in the district, Mr. Coleman said.

Janna K. Garrison, the president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, who was named to the transition task force, said the district on Jan. 5 proposed a 10 percent cut in wages and benefits, a request the American Federation of Teachers affiliate rejected.

She said the task force has yet to set a meeting schedule. But she hopes the 120,000-member union’s presence on the panel can help the district focus on putting more dollars into the classroom and fewer into administration and ineffective programs. A higher priority must be set on smaller classes, each headed by a certified teacher, she said.

The fact that Gov. Granholm made the task force so large and gave it such a broad charge is causing concern in some quarters.

Ari Adler, the spokesman for Republican Sen. Ken R. Sikkema, the majority leader of the state Senate, said he feared the group would be unable to keep attention where the district most needs it: on how to get itself out of debt.

“What they need is immediate action, and the governor sent in a debate team,” Mr. Adler said. “You get together such a large group, with no deadline, no clear-cut direction, and it makes us wonder how effective they are going to be.”

But Ms. Boyd, the governor’s spokeswoman, said the state-appointed finance team, not the transition task force, would have primary responsibility for overseeing Detroit’s deficit-reduction plan. The 120-member panel wishes to focus more on helping shape the district for the long term, she said.

“They will certainly be monitoring [the deficit-elimination plan]. But they won’t be hands-on in terms of resolving it,” she said. She dismissed concerns that the group is too large or has too broad a task to be effective.

“We have every confidence that team will come together and structure itself and accomplish a great deal,” Ms. Boyd said.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 26, 2005 edition of Education Week as Panel to View Detroit Schools as ‘Blank Canvas’

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