Detroit’s public schools are on the verge of a shut down and everything is at stake for the district. Nearly everyone in the Motor City is discussing the Republican-sponsored, $500-million package of bills that state Republicans recently passed in an effort to pay for the district’s debts while also creating a new school district that supposedly wipes the old slate clean.
“Michigan lawmakers have passed bills to cut [the district] out completely and start a new district,” says Erika Jones, a DPS teacher who participated in the recent sickout that brought attention to the unsanitary conditions in some schools. “The plan calls for the current Detroit Public Schools to run out of cash by August, just in time for a new school year, new district, new rules, new school calendar year [and] no regulations on class size, no required teacher’s union, no union negotiations, no set teacher’s pay scale, no guidelines on who is qualified to teach within the district; and so many layers of gray that uncertainty is the only thing we do know.”
In contrast, a Senate plan, which Republican lawmakers have refused to vote on, could provide additional funding to the tune of $200 million to kick off a new district when the school year begins in September. Yet, under the current plan, the district is set to run out of money in August, according to the Michigan Department of Treasury.
The reason why many Detroiters, Democrats, public education advocates and even some business leaders are irked about the recently-passed set of bills is because the district’s financial conditions already worsened under state emergency managers. When the state first took over the district in 1999, DPS was in a surplus, but since then, the government has run the district into a deficit. Now activists are asking the state to simply remedy the problems it created with its appointment of emergency managers. But the past few years have shown that emergency managers appointed by the state, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, have the wrong kind of experience and are too highly paid.
Now Republicans in the state house are not moving an inch to hear the concerns of teachers and other stakeholders. In fact, the political games in Lansing will only continue to hurt the future of Detroit’s school children, who stand to be the most affected in this education nightmare.
What happens after August is anyone’s guess. The only option now is that parents left uncertain about the district will be forced to move their kids out of the system, a move some have already been doing. Even the creation of another district– the Detroit Community School District, which could be funded by the Senate plan–has met opposition in Detroit, but some are already resigned to thinking that it’s the lesser of two evils in light of the House bill which doesn’t do much to advance the education of children. That plan only pays debt and closes the book.
“I am hurt to watch this dismantling and poor management happen,” says Jones, a 16-year DPS veteran. “We have been bullied and used and the new district has yet to discuss compensation and benefits. The only rhetoric we hear is punishment for teachers that historically hit picket lines to ensure fair practices for inner city students. We are expected to be volunteers, educated saints in regards to carrying out work duties in unsafe and unequal schools.”
I recently moderated an education town hall at in Detroit that featured some Republican lawmakers and among them was Rep. Amanda Price, the chair of the House Education Committee. During the discussion I pressed her to give reasons for the current actions of her colleagues regarding DPS. She struggled to find reasons except to say that parents need to be more involved in how the district operates.
I asked Rep. Price if she and the Republican-controlled Legislature understand that they created the financial mess that the district is in. I also said, as has been widely stated in the press and in every forum around town, that the state is both legally and morally obliged to right the wrongs of the district. She did not fully answer my question or respond to my statement.
But Democratic State Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo has been one of the most vocal lawmakers against the House package.
“Michigan taxpayers deserve greater transparency and to have their tax dollars spent wisely,” Gay-Dagnogo said, explaining how School Aid Fund alignment is needed in Michigan. “We’re currently in the budget process, wrapping up fiscal year 2017. All Michigan school districts fiscal year ends on June 30, however, our state fiscal year starts October 1st, creating a financial gap for many local school districts requiring them to secure a bridge loan or short term financing at the beginning of each school year.”
“The governor has appointed persons unfamiliar with the dynamics of DPS,” Jones says. “And all that current DPS teachers are asking for is fairness, honesty, transparency and to start over this fall with a system that has been proven to work more than the State experiments and mismanagement.”
Even prominent Detroit business leader John Rakolta, the CEO of Walbridge and the co-chair of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, has taken the position that the state needs to step up and provide full financial stability to the district.
That is where the majority consensus in Detroit is right now as the nation watches a once-thriving district teeter on the brink of destruction at the hands of lawmakers who seem more interested in playing chess than pushing for the kind of reforms that will enable DPS to thrive and become a model district for urban education.
Bankole Thompson is a columnist for The Detroit News where he writes about politics, culture and social issues. E-mail [email protected] and follow him on twitter @bankieT.