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Detroit plan would slash schools, cram classrooms

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 26, 2011

DETROIT | Think wrangling one or two teenagers at home is tough? Some high school teachers in Detroit could end up with as many as 62 students per classroom under a proposal geared at helping balance the district's budget, which is $327 million in the red.

The class-size increases come along with a recommendation to close nearly half of the struggling city's schools over the next two years, from 142 to 72, in a money-saving effort that would shutter empty buildings, lay off staff, force parents to pay fees for sports and consolidate some departments.

The plan also calls for cutting vocational and alternative schools, JROTC, truant officers and busing for students seeking GEDs.

The hard-times proposal was released last week as a part of a monthly recommendation made to the Michigan Department of Education by Robert Bobb, a former D.C. school board president and deputy mayor who was appointed in January 2009 by Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm as the district's emergency financial manager.

It is the latest of his stark yet determined efforts to get the failing school system on track after years of financial woes and mismanagement.

Mr. Bobb's efforts, while lauded by some on the national education reform scene, have not made him a popular figure among some teachers, school officials and parents, but his path toward overhaul is necessary, said Michael Petrilli, vice president for national programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington.

"I think it's definitely appropriate … but he's not going to win a popularity contest," Mr. Petrilli said of Mr. Bobb's massive fixes.

"He's like an emergency-room doctor up there, trying to stop the bleeding and he's doing some tough work that had to be done — laying off teachers, cutting costs, trying to find a way for this school district to be sustainable," Mr. Petrilli added of the tough choices ahead for the Motor City schools.

Over the past several decades, as the city's population has diminished along with property tax revenues and state aid, the system has struggled with its finances and its record of achievement. On the U.S. Department of Education's National Report card, the district's fourth- and eighth-graders posted the lowest reading rates of any urban school district. The district's high school graduation rate was 24.9 percent in 2008.

The dismal academic outlook in Detroit prompted Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in 2009 to call it "arguably the worst urban school district in the country."

School finances have been in a deficit for the past four years, forcing the Democratic governor, who left office this month, to hire Mr. Bobb as a turnaround specialist. As he strives to cut the budget deficit and return the schools to fiscal solvency, he also must now work with a Republican governor and legislature as he negotiates the return of academic control back to the Detroit Board of Education, which eventually will hire a new superintendent.

The city itself is plotting a rebound strategy after the Kwame Kilpatrick scandal and the ongoing rebirth of General Motors, Chrysler and Ford, which has energized those invested in the city's fledgling renaissance.

Mr. Petrilli said it is not the first time that a struggling urban district has turned to massive overhaul, including shuttering many schools to make ends meet. He pointed to massive cuts in the Kansas City, Mo., district, which closed 26 of its 61 schools in August amid a $50 million budget shortfall. Like Detroit, Kansas City had drastic reductions in enrollment — from a peak of 79,000 students in 1979 to fewer than 17,000 today.

"This takes a lot of energy and leadership and stamina. It's not a lot of fun," Mr. Petrilli said. "But Detroit public schools were in such dire shape that the only path was dramatic overall. They were not on a sustainable path — financially and academically. He's trying to get the house in order up there."

The proposed plan calls for class-size increases in grades four to 12 starting this fall, and then all grades in fiscal year 2012. Kindergarten through third grade would rise from 17 to 25 now to 31 by the 2013-14 school year.

Class sizes in fourth and fifth grades would increase from 30 now to 39 in 2013-14. Sixth and eighth grades would increase from 35 to 47 in the 2013-14 school year. High school class sizes would rise the most — from 35 students now to 62 in 2013-14.

Whether the plan comes to fruition is another matter. District spokesman Steven Wasko said officials are working on but have not released details of alternative plans to the latest proposal, under which the large class sizes and school closures were suggested. The emergency financial manager updates the state education department monthly of his progress.

Even as ideas are being formulated, the head of Detroit's teachers union said the proposal on the table will never happen.

"It is the union's contention that the district's deficit can be resolved without the dismantling of the Detroit Public Schools and our contract," Detroit Federation of Teachers President Keith Johnson said in a statement published last week.

The union's contract with the district said teachers receive more payments when class sizes exceed a certain benchmark. It filed a charge of unfair labor practices in July in an attempt to make sure class sizes were not increased.

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