The Detroit Public Schools (DPS) Debacle

DPS Currently Pays $1,100 per Student for Debt

In an era where education consumes 31% of the State’s Budget, the already struggling Detroit Public Schools are being forced to divert over $1,100 per student simply to pay their outstanding operating debt.  The Legislature recently had to pass an emergency funding bill of nearly $50 Million just to make payroll and keep the doors open.  Sounds like a good time for partisan politics to me!

The House Comes up with a Plan- at 4:30am

The Michigan Senate, in a rare example of bipartisan cooperation, recently passed a rescue proposal for the the DPS- providing $715 Million in debt relief and an operating loan of $300 Million to create a new, debt free school district.  After what is described as a marathon session split along party lines the Republicans passed a $500 Million debt relief package and a $30 Million loan- described by House Democrats as inadequate to give the DPS a chance at solvency and foreshadowing a return, hat in hand, to the state for more funding in a few years. The competing bills now go to committee to find a compromise both chambers can live with.

The DPS Plan Highlights

The Detroit Public Schools have many problems.  They have gotten themselves in quite a mess.  The answer both chambers have come up with is to basically eliminate the current district and replace it with a new one, debt free and with reforms in place.  The old district will continue to exist on paper to continue to collect its milage and use it to pay down debt.  Whether there will be a new milage to go with the new district has yet to be seen.

High points of the House Bill include:

  1. All collective bargaining agreements are null and void with the new district.  The school year, vacation and class schedules will be reworked without respect to bargained agreements, and teachers will have penalties for striking if they don’t like it.
  2. A new school board will be appointed- 5 members by Gov. Synder and 2 by the Mayor.
  3. Elections to the new board will be held to replace the appointed members (in Aug 2016 per the Senate, Aug 2017 per the House).  The top 7 candidates will win a seat, with the top 4 getting 6 years and the remaining 3 getting 4 year terms.  Each election thereafter will be for 6 years.
  4. A Superintendant will be appointed by the new board within 90 days, subject to the approval of the Detroit Financial Review Commission.

The Detroit Education Commission

House Democrats had promoted the involvement of the Detroit Education Commission to supervise all school openings and especially charter schools, but this was opposed by the Republican majority as a measure to restrict charter schools.  164 schools have opened and closed in Detroit.  The Republicans succeeded in their efforts.  Currently they have a near super majority in the Senate and a majority in the House, so they pretty much get whatever they want with or without the approval of the Democrats.

Why Bail Out DPS?

The long and the short of that is because the children of Detroit deserve it.  With better management public education in Detroit can be salvaged.  But the most important reason is that they are facing bankruptcy on $3.5 Billion in Debt, and if they default the state is responsible to pay it.  As much as $750 Million is, it is quite a bit less than $3.5 Billion.

The Questions to Ask

When I hear ‘Bailout’ I revert to parent mode.  My daughter is working her first job, and she has her first ‘debit’ card to learn how to handle her money and watch her expenses.  Like most parents in the same situation, I am waiting for the day she comes to me and tells me she has royally messed up her finances.  Then, being a good dad, I’ll get her bank account straightened out.  But as a parent, I can’t stop there.  We have to look at what got her in trouble, what changes she needs to make to keep within her means, and I’ll monitor it to make sure she takes my advice.  Otherwise, I’ll be doing a ‘bailout’ again and again.

The State is no different.  In exchange for bailing them out, they need to listen to our advice.  The $750 Million dollar question is ‘What is Lansing’s Plan’ that will form the basis of the advice?  If I was your Representative, I’d suggest a couple of key components for that plan.

  1. Review the operations of the school.  Where has the money gone in the past, and how did that strategy fail- and what changes need to be made to prevent a repeat?
  2. Review the assets of the DPS- Are any being underutilized? Could they be repurposed?  I’ve seen schools turned into nursing homes, community centers, and other public or private facilities.
  3. School funding is based on tax base, and the only way to protect the future of schools is to make sure the tax base is sufficient to support them.  This does NOT mean raising taxes (though designated milages voted on by the residents of the district are good (example our recent vote on the CTE).  It means stopping the hemorrhage of tax dollars to charter schools that compete with public education.
  4. Following up on the last point, healthy communities have healthy school districts.  We need safety, jobs and commerce to support our schools, and our excellent schools make our communities attractive to business and residents.
  5. Involve the community in the schools.  This is beyond holding PTA meetings.  In the example of the abandon school in the image for this article, how about hiring someone locally to mow the damn grass?  That provides a job or two and prevents community blight.  Heck, call me, my daughter needs the money.

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