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With schools back under local control, can Detroit chart a better future?

For the first time in more than seven years, the nation’s most-beleaguered public school district is once again under local control. Step 1: Restore stability.

Daniel Mears/The Detroit News/AP
Jordyn Dearing, 5, a Nichols Elementary School student, with her mother who is a teacher there, attends a Detroit Federation of Teachers rally outside Detroit Public Schools offices at the Fisher Building in Detroit May 2, 2016.

On a recent Wednesday, some 300 students, teachers, parents, and community members packed into the auditorium at Cass Tech, a century-old high school in Detroit’s surging Midtown area.

In a buoyant ceremony, the Cass choir performed “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the classic hymn associated with African-American liberation.

The school’s principal delivered a welcome address, as did the senior class president. Then the six women and one man standing on stage in front of microphones raised their right hands and vowed their commitment to serving Detroit public schools as its new board members.

It was a larger crowd than normally shows up for the swearing-in of local officials. But for many Detroiters, Jan. 11 marked a long-hoped for occasion: For the first time in more than seven years, the nation’s most-beleaguered public school district was once again under local control. “This is an incredible day in the city of Detroit,” Alycia Meriweather, the district’s interim superintendent, told the Detroit Free Press. “We have been pushing toward local control, and everyone in this city should be celebrating.”

Many families and educators are. In early 2009, when Michigan’s then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, appointed an emergency manager to wrest control of the district amid drastically declining enrollment and dire financial problems, many Detroiters felt slighted. A string of outside managers then failed to turn around the district’s fortunes – culminating in a series of walkouts last year over crumbling schools and teacher pay that was set to run out at the end of June. After a deal was struck last summer, the state legislature approved a financial restructuring that effectively relieved the district’s $600 million debt and restored power to the school board.

Now, Detroit families and educators say they see the return to local control as a sign of hope.

“We don’t need those guys,” says Ed Brown, the father of a seventh-grader at Spain Elementary-Middle School, of the outside managers. “All they think about is the money. They ain’t thinking about these kids.... I’d rather have people in control that’s been around, been to the schools, grew up in the Detroit Public Schools. We need those people here.”

Of the newly elected seven-member board, only one member, LaMar Lemmons, has served on a previous Detroit school board. The other members include Lemmons’s wife, a teacher who once ran for state senate; a 28-year-old public agency coordinator and daughter of a state legislator; a recently retired hospital CEO; a United Auto Workers community relations director; a former superintendent who runs an educational consulting company; and the CEO of a Detroit development nonprofit. (Board members did not return requests for comment from the Monitor.)  

Since the new board was elected, members have talked about demonstrating accountability, restoring cut programs, and tackling issues such as compensation and school security. But no one is under any illusion that it will be easy to revive a district that has lost 70 percent of its student population in the past 15 years and ranks among the nation’s worst performing.

“I think the future looks more promising under the local control than it did under emergency management,” says David Arsen, an education policy professor at Michigan State University, who added the city has a “fragile path forward.”  “There are more informed people involved. And it will be nice for Detroiters to have ownership over the future of its school.”

Balanced budget, but immense challenges

In addition to a return to local control, educators and families can also point to at least two significant developments. The 45,000 student district is “in notably better financial shape than a year ago,” the Detroit Free Press noted in December in an interview with Steven Rhodes, the former bankruptcy judge who oversaw the transition to the new district. Thanks in part to the sale of some unused parcels of land, the fiscal 2017 budget is balanced and the district has a projected reserve fund of $48 million. 

And on Jan. 12, the day after new board was sworn in, the district reached an agreement with the city’s teachers’ union in a lawsuit related to school conditions. The settlement establishes a new committee to ensure that building maintenance needs are met, and was hailed as an important victory for the new board.

But a week later there was more evidence of the district’s immense challenges: The state announced that 24 Detroit schools could be slated for closure, based on poor test scores, inspiring fresh uproar among educators and families. That decision has not yet been finalized.

Spain’s principal, Frederick Cannon, sees the newly-empowered board – which will still be overseen by a financial review commission – as a big step toward restoring local pride. He also thinks board members will be more attuned to what’s actually going on in Detroit schools. “It’s easier for them to hear the voice of the people,” he says.

Black mold, kickbacks

Over the past year, Spain, a K-8 school with an enrollment of 400 known for its performing arts program, became emblematic of the city’s public schools crisis.

Last year the school’s facilities problems, including black mold, an unusable gym, and heating problems, attracted national attention and helped inspire the “sick-out” protests that forced most of the district to temporarily close. In February, comedian and talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres, in partnership with Lowe’s Companies, Inc., announced more than $500,000 in donations to the school for facilities and technology upgrades.

Among those celebrating was Ronald Alexander, Spain’s then-popular principal, who after the announcement called himself “the happiest principal on Earth.” A month later, Mr. Alexander was charged in a kickback scheme involving a dozen Detroit schools employees and more than $900,000 in illicit payments. The principal was found guilty of having taken $23,000 in gift cards and checks in exchange for approving phony invoices. He was sentenced to a year in prison.

“I was shocked when I heard he was one of the ones that was involved in it,” says Mr. Brown. “I was like, ‘Man, what is really going on out here?’ ”

With help from the donation, most of Spain’s pressing facilities needs have been met, and the school has a new gym.

But the district’s poor reputation continues to dampen morale among faculty and deter students from enrolling, which exacerbates funding problems. Chronically low teacher salaries also mean administrators have a hard time attracting and keeping quality educators, a problem across the district. In December, there were an estimated 200 teacher vacancies.  

“I’m not going to say they’re all bad, because you have good teachers here,” says Caroline Jones, the mother of a Spain kindergartner. “But some of them – they just really do come here and they just want a check.”

Like many Detroit parents, Ms. Jones, whose son attends the neighboring Benjamin Carson High School of Science and Medicine, has been disillusioned by the string of outside leaders: Including Granholm’s initial appointment, three different emergency managers and one transition manager assumed the reins.

“Every time we looked up it was always a new one,” says Jones. “Somebody didn’t know what they were doing, obviously, that they had to keep changing.”

The outside managers had vast leeway to make financial changes – and they used it, instituting a rash of school closings and personnel cuts – but during their tenure the district’s massive budget deficit actually increased. Academic performance remains dismal. In 2016, fewer than 20 percent of the district’s third graders – and fewer than 10 percent of boys – tested proficient in English, and only 7 percent of third-graders were proficient in math.

And with outsiders leading the overhaul, many families and educators felt ignored.

“You may not even see an emergency manager,” says Mr. Cannon. “I know they did tours, but could you really get their ear?”

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Cannon believes the new board will be more attuned, and Jones is also cautiously optimistic, as are many parents. But not everyone is excited. One teacher at Western International High School, who declined to be named out of fear of retribution, questioned the motivations of some of the new board members, who appeared to the teacher to be more interested in advancing a political career than serving kids. The teacher doubted whether a locally elected board would be any better at stamping out the corruption that’s plagued the district.

“It’ll be interesting to see what comes about,” the teacher said. “I’m not optimistic.”

Because in Michigan education funding largely follows students, a new expansion effort from area charter schools – which studies have found are a major culprit behind the district’s population loss – couldeasily wreak havoc with the budget, Professor Arsen says.

“Right now the … finances are OK, but the money that the state contributed to covering the debt is really the bare minimum. They’re really operating on a razor’s edge,” he says. “So the whole thing moving forward will depend on whether Detroit Public Schools is able to maintain its enrollment share.” 

Step 1: Restore normalcy

The board will have a huge task ahead in simply re-establishing the kind of stability that’s necessary to thrive.

“This is just common sense,” says Arsen. “The first thing that’s necessary is to try to get back to what in other places constitutes normalcy.”  

The new board’s most important objective – and the one that would benefit his school the most – should be to unify a long-divided district, says Cannon, Spain’s principal.

“Just kind of bring the district back together as one,” he says. “Any way possible. Any way that we can get it done.”

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