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First DPS bills create new district, set up school board elections

January 19, 2016

Courtesy of MIRS News Service

Initial versions of long-awaited bills addressing the dire financial straits of Detroit Public Schools (DPS) were rolled out in the Senate today, outlining a plan to separate the district into old and new while creating a framework for an elected school board.

The legislation, SB 0710 and SB 0711, was referred to the Senate Government Operations committee. At this time, Senate K-12 Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Goeff Hansen (R-Hart) is the sole sponsor of both bills. 

The language would separate the DPS district into an “old” district to hold the debt until it’s paid off and create the new Detroit Community Schools District. The bills would also create a newly elected board that would be on the November ballot in 2016 and then be seated in January 2017. 

“This is the fastest that we could get to an elected board,” Hansen said. 

In the interim, the nine-member board would be appointed, with four selections made by Mayor Mike Duggan and five chosen by Gov. Rick Snyder. That board would initially be in charge of choosing a superintendent for the district. 

Also included in the legislation is language that would include the bottom 5 percent of schools into the state reform district. Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof’s (R-West Olive) spokesperson Amber McCann said the schools would be put under the purview of the state reform district, but would not be taken out of the new community district. 

Hansen said that decision was intentional. 

“They wouldn’t be taken out of DPS, because that just exacerbates the problem with the financial part,” he said. “If you take a bunch of schools out of DPS, that takes all that money away.” 

The legislation is the first installation of what will likely end up being an eight-bill package addressing the DPS situation. It currently does not include a funding source for paying back DPS debt of over $500 million, although the Governor is looking to set aside about $70 million a year for the next 10 years. 

“Right now, we’re basically looking at a framework that does address the financial concerns within the district, but doesn’t specifically prescribe education components,” McCann said. 

Meekhof said the caucus still has a lot of questions regarding the plan. In addition, many caucus members are considering the recent sick-outs orchestrated by DPS teachers “problematic” as they consider addressing the district’s serious funding concerns. 

“If the teachers are willing to use the students as pawns to get something done, they’re shortchanging the students and they’re shortchanging those families,” Meekhof said. “That does not start out on a good foot for asking us to put in $700 million. That’s a lot of money, so we’re going to consistently look at what is the oversight of that, how’s it going to be spent and what is the performance improvement that’s going to be expected of that.” 

John Walsh, Snyder’s point person on DPS, was available during caucus to provide information, and Hansen also began walking senators through various questions on the subject. 

Hansen said his goal is to have the least impact on the School Aid Fund possible when addressing the financial piece of the DPS plan. Different options are on the table, he said, and that discussion is still ongoing. 

“I think there’s a want to get the problem fixed. It’s just how we get there,” he said. 

The bills do not create a single entity to oversee all public schools — traditional and charters — at this time, which is something the Governor initially proposed but ran into trouble with charter schools over. 

Duggan said in a statement that he, members of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren and other stakeholders will be working diligently on the issue “until we have a framework for an educational system in Detroit that consistently provides our children with the quality education they deserve.” 

“Coalition members and I, along with community stakeholders, the AFT and the State Board of Education, are working closely with our Detroit legislators to have a single, unified position to eliminate the debt that is choking our schools, return control of DPS to a locally elected school board and to create a Detroit Education Commission (DEC) to establish a single standard of performance for all public schools in Detroit — district and charter,” he said. 

David Hecker, president of AFT Michigan, said the legislation “falls far short” of the coalition’s recommendations. He said to be successful, Detroit must have an elected and empowered school board as well as a DEC that will bring true coherence to the city’s education systems. 

At this time, the Hansen package doesn’t address how the Educational Achievement Authority (EAA) schools will be handled, although there are perceptions on what will be done with them. 

“While it appears that EAA schools return to DPS, we have numerous questions as to what form that will take. And we are deeply concerned that after the President and Congress, in bi-partisan effort, rewrote the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to remove the over emphasis on standardized tests and punitive ‘solutions’ for schools in need of help, that this legislation does not move forward in ways that support instruction and address the impact of poverty on a child’s education,” Hecker said in a statement. 

“The schoolchildren of Detroit deserve better,” he continued. 

Michigan Association of Public School Academies President Dan Quisenberry called the legislation a step in the right direction. 

“Every child in Detroit deserves a quality education in a quality school, and that’s not happening,” he said. “Sen. Hansen’s legislation puts the focus on solving the fiscal crisis in the Detroit Public Schools. We will be watching the process closely. There’s much work that needs to be done in Detroit, and we look forward to the next step in this process.” 

Great Lakes Education Project Chairman Jim Barrett called for a dissolution plan for the district that allows for a school choice phase-in for all current students.   

“More than half of the school-age residents in the city exercise their choice for an education in a charter school or traditional school of choice,” he said. “It is time to consider a dissolution plan for the Detroit Public School District that would allow families to exercise full school-choice options.”

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