- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 27, 2015

MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich. (AP) - Leaders of a coalition seeking a shake-up in Detroit’s public schools implored Michigan lawmakers Wednesday to not ignore the system’s educational and financial crises, expressing frustration with the response to two overhaul plans and saying the state ultimately is responsible for the district’s operating debt.

The alarm was sounded by Republicans and Democrats alike during a session at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference, after the coalition proposed a plan, Gov. Rick Snyder incorporated parts of it into his overhaul recommendations, and both ran into legislative resistance.

“I perceive that Lansing’s not listening. It’s the Legislature that we have to salvage,” said John Rakolta Jr., CEO of the Walbridge construction company and co-chairman of the coalition backing changes aimed at turning around the state-run district.

The Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren says lawmakers should act quickly to deal with Detroit Public Schools’ debt, the vast majority of which the state is ultimately responsible for. Snyder last month proposed doing so, paying off $483 million over seven years, by spitting the district in two and directing up to $72 million more annually to the new district’s operations - a tough sell in a Republican-controlled Legislature resistant to reducing aid to other districts to bail out Detroit.

Snyder and members of the coalition plan to continue lobbying legislators, with hopes of passing legislation in the fall.

Rakolta criticized lawmakers, including fellow Republicans, who he said have told him the district’s problems are not their fault.

“You caused it. You ran up the debt,” he said, referring to the state’s control of the district for 13 of the past 15 years. “This has to be the No. 1 issue of our state going forward. In my view - and I’m a contractor and I love to build roads - it’s more important than roads.”

Participants in the forum said academic performance is not just an issue in Detroit, where the average score on the ACT college entrance exam is 15.9 on a 36-point scale. Michigan has lost ground overall, with white students dropping from 13th in fourth-grade reading to 45th over a decade, according to The Education Trust-Midwest.

A Democratic co-chairwoman of the coalition, Skillman Foundation CEO Tonya Allen, said “we have to push political courage.”

She and Detroit Regional Chamber President and CEO Sandy Baruah said the coalition’s plan and Snyder’s proposal are more similar than people realize.

Both want to create a Detroit Education Commission to oversee the opening, closing and locating of traditional and charter schools, whether the charters are part of the district or not. They also agree there needs to be state assistance to address debt.

“It’s really hard for someone to like one and really dislike the other,” Baruah said of the plans.

Hours later, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan embraced Snyder’s call for an old and new district to shed debt as the “right answer.” He welcomed the coalition’s proposal for him to appoint the commission to bring “order to the opening and closing of schools.”

He also floated a compromise between Snyder and the coalition on a third key tenet - governance - saying the district’s operational control should be returned this fall or next spring to a locally elected school board that would report to a state financial review board, mirroring the city’s oversight post-bankruptcy.

“Is there any reason to believe that continued state control would bring students back to DPS?” said Duggan, expressing concern that the new district’s board would not be fully comprised of elected members until 2021 under Snyder’s plan.

The coalition says other Michigan school districts use 2 percent to 3 percent of their operating funds to pay interest on their debt. Detroit Public Schools, which also faces a $170 million deficit, spends 13 percent. Other districts use up to 64 percent of their operating budget on instruction; Detroit spends just 43 percent.

“We’re a guarantor of a lot of this debt in some fashion. They’re state obligations in some way,” Snyder told The Associated Press in an interview, saying it is a point his administration and others will press with legislators.

From 2002 to 2013, the number of school-aged children in Detroit fell from nearly 197,000 to about 120,000. Eighty-five percent, or 167,000, of those kids attended a DPS school 13 years ago. Now just 42 percent, or 47,000, do, with the rest attending traditional suburban schools, charters in the city or the suburbs, and schools operated by the state-run Education Achievement Authority.

“I think we’re going to get to a solution,” Duggan said.

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Follow David Eggert at https://twitter.com/DavidEggert00 .


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