Echoes of Flint in Detroit schools standoff

Critics of the controversial measures passed by Michigan's House Thursday say they could deepen the divide between city and state and have overtones that parallel the plight of nearby Flint.

Daniel Mears/The Detroit News via AP
Jordyn Dearing, 5, a Nichols Elementary School student, attends a Detroit Federation of Teachers rally with her teacher mom on Monday. Virtually all of the city's 97 public schools were closed Monday and Tuesday due to teacher sick-outs regarding the prospect of not being paid after June.

A little over a year after this city emerged from the largest municipal bankruptcy in United States history, its beleaguered school system is facing its own financial moment of truth.

Enrollment is down. Debt is sky-high. Schools are crumbling. And teachers are up in arms.

Now, a planned $500 million system restructuring – approved in the wee hours Thursday morning by Republican-led House lawmakers – comes with strings attached that could further deepen the divide between city and state.

For a school system with an estimated $3.5 billion in debt swelled by pensions, administration costs, and long-term borrowings, the legislation would lift the burden, spinning off the indebted system to create a new, debt-free one.  

But to do this, Detroit teachers who haven’t had a raise in five years will have to renegotiate their contracts and accept merit-based pay. The state will continue its emergency control over the largely African-American district. And there are financial sanctions on the district, teachers union, and teachers for striking.

Major changes are needed to save the district, many agree. But critics say the measures are unnecessarily punitive, fueling racial overtones and creating new fault lines at a time when the need is to rebuild community trust and give local residents a voice in problem-solving.

In this way, there are concerns that House lawmakers haven't learned the lessons of the drinking-water crisis in nearby Flint, Mich., where an unwillingness to listen to residents exacerbated a manmade environmental tragedy.

“The House version was not pulled together on a conciliatory stance. It’s heavy-handed and points the fingers at Detroit educators. It’s saying: We’re going to take away more power and more authority over your jobs,” says David Arsen, an education policy expert at Michigan State University in East Lansing. “If you want to have a system that enlists the support of the community, the educators, the parents, you’ve got to have their voices.”

That isn't just about local people needing to have their say; it’s also about sharing responsibility so that Detroit can do its part, says Tonya Allen, president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation, a nonprofit working to improve both Detroit and its schools.

“The longer we’re doing this [state oversight], the more we are reinforcing the notion that the schools are not the community’s responsibility,” she says.

Two very different plans

Teachers called a mass “sick-out” on Monday and Tuesday over the prospect of payless paydays this summer, shutting virtually all 97 public schools. The schools reopened Wednesday after teachers were promised that they would be paid through August. This winter, they staged sick-outs to raise awareness of the conditions in some of the schools, which included unheated classrooms, crumbling floors and ceilings, and mold, mushrooms, and rodent droppings.

In March, Michigan’s Senate passed its own restructuring bill with $700 million in funding and greater city oversight. This marked a positive step in the debate over what to do with Detroit Public Schools (DPS) after seven years of state management, says Mr. Arsen. But that path forward appears to have been checked by the House plan.

Michigan's Senate majority leader told The Detroit News Thursday he didn't want to force a solution on the city.

"I think bipartisan is best and I want those thought leaders and opinion leaders in Detroit to buy into the solution because I want them to want it to work," Republican Arlan Meekhof said. "If we give them something they don't want or can't accommodate, it's likely they'll make sure it doesn't work. And then we'll be back doing this again. I really don't want to do that."

One crucial difference between the two bills is the role of a commission with oversight over public and charter schools that proponents say is needed after years of breakneck expansion in charters in the state that have created a patchwork of options for parents. The House omitted the commission, which is opposed by charter schools and their political allies.

Enrollment in DPS fell from 141,000 students in 2005 to 47,000 in 2015. This exodus of students meant less money for schools, creating a debt spiral even as more teachers and programs were cut every year, adding to the frustration for educators.

“We’re telling them [teachers], they have to educate the next generation. But we’re not giving them the tools,” says Sharla Carter, an administrator at Wellspring Kumon, an afterschool nonprofit in Detroit that serves students from public and charter schools.

Cherie Bandrowski, who runs Wellspring, says that the closure of neighborhood schools and poor test scores in those that remain are tipping the hand of many concerned parents. “This further creams off families with resources. If you have a car and the ability to get your children to another school, you’re going to do that.”

Across the street, three yellow digging trucks clawed through the rubble of an elementary school that closed in 2009. It’s one of hundreds of abandoned or shuttered buildings in a city that has lost more than half of its population over the past half-century. DPS has shed 159 schools since 2005, some of which were converted into charters.

“A lot of people say parents are choosing charter schools. Some are choosing, but for others, they’re more like educational refugees than shoppers,” says Ms. Allen.

View from the ground

The city’s bankruptcy, from which it emerged in 2014, allowed it to settle with creditors, restructure its $6.8 billion in debt, and hang onto to the Detroit Institute of Art’s famous collection that some lenders had wanted to auction off.

But that model doesn’t work for the school system, says Arsen, since the state would be on the hook for DPS liabilities to the tune of $2 billion. This means state lawmakers have to find a compromise with the city and not impose solutions that exacerbate the upheaval.

And he says that means restoring an elected school board, which the Michigan House says won’t happen until 2017.

“We don't want our city to explode, by the virtue of the anger and the frustration and resentment that this kind of legislation can create,” said the Rev. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit branch of the NAACP and co-chair of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, which held a press conference Thursday.

Outside the Cass Technical High School on Thursday, many parents expressed frustration over the state’s management. “There’s been bad decisions from the top. I think students and teachers are the victims,” says Michael Van Tull, who was dropping off his ninth-grade son. He said he’d looked into private schools but couldn’t afford it.

"I don't think charters are the answer. We need to pull together and make DPS better," says Sandra Wilson, a paralegal who works for the city. Her daughter is in ninth grade at Cass, a magnet school a mile from Detroit's downtown skyscrapers. She said the state was to blame for the current crisis and said it was "100 percent racist" in its attitudes toward Detroit.

Laquesha Jennings, a pharmacy technician who has a tenth-grader at the school, says she has sympathy with the teachers who refused to work this week but lamented that the students had to suffer. “I just think they need to find a permanent solution to the problem.”

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