LANSING, Mich. (AP) - Detroit’s debt-ridden school district would receive a $617 million state bailout under a compromise restructuring plan that appears poised for final legislative votes and the governor’s signature after winning narrow approval in the House.
The ailing district has been managed by the state for seven years, during which it has grappled with plummeting enrollment and, more recently, teacher sick-out protests. The Republican-led House voted along party lines late Thursday to split the district in two in July, without support from Democrats - not even those from Detroit.
The new debt-free district would educate students and qualify for $150 million in transition costs to help it stay afloat over the summer, including $25 million to upgrade buildings that have been a source of teacher complaints. The old district would exist solely to collect taxes, retiring $467 million in debt over roughly 8 ½ years.
A school board, to be elected in November, would be given control again while a commission of state appointees would have financial oversight of the new district - a system similar to what is in place for the city after it exited bankruptcy, when it received an infusion of state money.
A spokeswoman for GOP Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof called the bills a “realistic compromise.” Republican Gov. Rick Snyder stopped short Friday of saying he would sign the package, but noted its “huge positives.”
“It would have a locally elected school board and school district that doesn’t have debt. That’s the model for every school district in the state of Michigan,” he said at a policy conference on Mackinac Island.
The Senate could vote as early as Tuesday. Without further action, emergency aid previously approved will run out by June 30.
Democrats assailed the legislation, which does not include a Senate- and Snyder-endorsed commission to make decisions about opening traditional schools and independent, publicly funded charter schools. There instead would be a powerless advisory council to conduct annual reports on the siting of existing and future public schools, building conditions and other issues.
Nearly a third of 113,000 students living in the city attend a charter school in Detroit or surrounding areas, which has prompted criticism that they are being opened largely unchecked to the detriment of a district with too many schools in some areas and too few elsewhere.
“The reality is that the Republican approach of just throwing money at the Detroit public school system without enacting any of the needed reforms that actually help the district succeed long term is simply a waste of money,” said House Minority Leader Tim Greimel, an Auburn Hills Democrat. He accused Snyder of having no “backbone,” and Republicans of “derailing a bipartisan approach … to appease their charter school donors” and the DeVos family, which funds a pro-charter advocacy group and financially backs GOP candidates.
House Speaker Kevin Cotter said the bills would save Detroit’s schools, “preventing a disastrous bankruptcy that would have affected every community in the state.”
Snyder said that while he supports the proposed Detroit Education Commission, he wants a “package … that can pass with a majority in both the House and the Senate.”
Detroit schools ranked in the state’s bottom 5 percent would be closed under the legislation, as would schools consistently given an “F” under a new accountability system to grade schools on an A-F scale starting in the 2017-18 academic year. Also, tougher anti-strike provisions would be enacted in the wake of the mass teacher absences that kept students home.
Critics questioned provisions that would allow the school board to hire noncertified teachers to fill hundreds of vacancies and require the financial commission to sign off before a superintendent is fired.
“This bill denies the people in Detroit real local control and fails to propose an actual strategy to stabilize all schools in Detroit,” Ivy Bailey, interim president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, and David Hecker, president of the American Federation of Teachers state organization, said in a joint statement.
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said, “It’s just not right to keep imposing solutions on Detroit without the support of Detroiters.”
School-choice advocates, however, praised House Republicans for looking out for students and parents.
“Thanks to this compromise, their opportunities are protected,” said Gary Naeyaert, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project.
The main bill was passed by the narrowest margin, 55-53, with eight Republicans joining Democrats in opposition. Votes on the five other bills ranged from 56-52 to 60-48.
House Bills 5383-84, 5387 and Senate Bills 711, 820 and 822: https://1.usa.gov/1r4WhCo
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