The big deal
Bobb wants Detroit's debt forgiven in exchange for new district administration ... or else
Published: October 13, 2010
Johnson survived a recall effort earlier this year led by a faction of the DFT unhappy about concessions Johnson accepted — and urged members to ratify — in the most recent collective bargaining agreement.
With Bobb now proposing — possibly — to eliminate union contracts through whatever financial or budgetary deal the Legislature could work out, Johnson is insulted. "As far as I'm concerned, this is an act of betrayal," he says. "For him to turn around and draw up a plan like this in isolation is an insult to me, my membership and this entire community."
The Legislature would have to approve whatever plan Bobb presents and the governor would need to sign it into law, but it's unclear how much lobbying he's done. Liz Boyd, Granholm's spokeswoman, did not return telephone calls or e-mails seeking comment. Neither of the chairmen of the Michigan Senate or the House education committees made themselves available for interviews — Sen. Wayne Kuipers, (R-Holland) or Tim Melton (D-Auburn Hills). And neither of the major party gubernatorial campaigns replied to requests for comment.
Bobb is on schedule to ask the current Lansing leadership to consider the plan, his spokesman says, but it could spill over into the next political era in which leaders will be asked to pay off Detroit's debts for the chance to redesign — and possibly wield more control over — the district.
"The plan ostensibly and conceptually says you can have a fresh start in financing in exchange for the academic reforms that would put the district in a good position to survive and prosper moving forward," Wasko says. "It would put the district on a firm footing to move forward in exchange for academic reforms."
The few tenets of the debt-forgiving, reorganization plan Wasko described promise a fundamental, sweeping change of the educational system in Detroit. The plan also bears resemblance to the reforms being proposed and debated at the national level for teacher training, accountability and measuring student achievement.
"It's the kind of comprehensive legislative and academic remedy that would be hard to get approved without virtually all of the political leadership being aligned on the fact that this is important and needs to be done," Wasko says. "When it's complete, it will certainly be something that will have to by definition be shared with the broader community. It's going to take everyone's support, it's going to take a strong will on the part of the political and community leadership to see it through."
The proposal will be unveiled Nov. 15 — two weeks after the election that will change the Michigan Legislature and replace the term-limited governor — and Wasko says the district hopes the current Legislature will take up the proposal.
"It would in all likelihood require various legislation and it would be preferred that that take place as quickly as possible," he says.
But Rep. Tim Bledsoe (D-Grosse Pointe), a member of the education committee, questioned the wisdom of trying to force legislation through in the final weeks of this session. "I don't think this is something that could or should be done until after Jan. 1. I don't think you should have a bunch of lame duck political leaders making decisions of this importance. Everybody who is in a position of importance is a lame duck — the House, Senate, governor," he says. "If this is the kind of major, game-changing undertaking being described, it just seems like the right thing is for this to be done by people who are going to be in office long enough to assume responsibility for the outcomes."
Close 100 more schools?
Michigan law requires Bobb, as the emergency financial manager, to determine how the district will balance its budget by June 2013, the end of that fiscal year. As part of that process, Bobb submitted a document to the Michigan Department of Education in July for how he would remedy the outstanding, increasing $332 million deficit. State officials reviewed it, discussed it in person and on the telephone with Bobb and eventually approved it in August, Wasko says.
In the document, Bobb presents Plan A, which is the reorganization of the district. He follows it with the much more detailed Plan B which describes the cuts he calls "draconian." Among them:
• Closing 30 schools this academic year, 40 the next and another 30 in the 2012-2013 year;
• Implementing a "lecture hall" model for high schools, with classes as big as 62 students. The current contract prescribes 35 students per class;
• Raising K-3 classes from 25 to 31 pupils;
• Abolishing the finance division — which handles accounting, payroll, risk management, budget and contracting — and sending the work to the city of Detroit or "other entities";
• Eliminating transportation for the approximately 23,000 students who have it now;
• Discontinuing the auditor general office that Bobb installed;
• Reducing the number of guidance counselors, principals (one principal would oversee multiple buildings) and assistant principals;
• Closing the eight alternative schools the district currently operates;
• Eliminating the ROTC program in the high schools.
"It is an unreasonable route, we believe, to actually resolve the fiscal crisis because it creates, as you can see, a number of extremely draconian actions and takes class sizes up," Wasko says.
But as it stands, Plan B is what the law requires Bobb to do: create a balanced budget. "It's what we have to pursue," Wasko said.
Because the deficit has grown so high — roughly one-third of next year's operating budget — drastic measures are the only way out, despite Bobb's initiatives and union concessions that have reduced the current year's budget by $86 million, Wasko says.
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