The big deal
Bobb wants Detroit's debt forgiven in exchange for new district administration ... or else
Published: October 13, 2010
In addition, according to Bobb's memo to the state, the district last year lost revenue from uncollected Wayne County property taxes, received less money than anticipated in state stabilization stimulus funds and educated more students than were funded by the state because they were not part of the official count.
"It's been a very rapid, acceleration of the downward spiral of the DPS enrollment, and resulting revenues declines and the cumulative deficit would only get worse. You can't keep cutting without losing more parents and bringing everything down further," Wasko says. "You can't cut fast enough to stay ahead of the curve."
Bobb would prefer to pursue Plan A, his spokesman says, and has begun to "sell" it around the state even as details are being worked out.
In Bobb's recommendations from July, he called for splitting the district into two systems as part of Plan A. One would have provided a traditional education setting and the other would have been set up with the new reforms. But Bobb has since decided that won't take place. What could happen is a second administrative entity would be set up to deal with the debt issues, much as corporations do during bankruptcy proceedings, Wasko says.
"It's a financing mechanism and would not be obvious to parents and has no impact whatsoever on overall governance questions, which remain to be resolved long-term, separately," Wasko says of how Bobb's eventual plan could be administered.
In either scenario Bobb has laid out — draconian cost-cutting or dramatic systemic reforms — Wasko foresees some consolidation of services with the city or other public entities. It makes no sense, he offers as an example, that the district cuts the grass on school property up to the property line of the city-owned parcel adjacent to it. "Surely there is some efficiency that can be had in those kinds of situations," Wasko says.
Meanwhile, other state initiatives seem to be — coincidentally perhaps — supporting the proposal. Last month Mike Flanagan, the state superintendent of public instruction, began a national search for a director of the Michigan Department of Education's new Office of School Reform and Redesign, a unit prescribed by the national Race to the Top initiative. The office is authorized to develop and implement reforms for public schools that do not improve student achievement.
Bobb's proposal comes at a time when "Race to the Top" is influencing thinking about education nationwide and other sweeping ideas are being put forward for education in the state.
A study released last summer by the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University found that Michigan taxpayers could save $612 million annually by consolidating districts along county lines.
The savings come from trimming school management layers, sharing services and combining purchasing power. No schools would have to be closed or students moved to produce the study's projected outcomes.
But the state's long history of local control has prevented any measures in the past, the report's authors said.
Still, consolidation — however it's defined — is a subject that's starting to be more seriously considered in Lansing, Johnson says, tough as that may be to sell to voters.
"Consolidation. Saving money. Means of efficiency. Those are all nice, good, proper, fitting ways to kind of move government forward," Rep. Johnson says. "And it raises money, frankly, without asking taxpayers to do it in a different way. That's sexy, new and is the cutting edge."
Could now be the time for monumental change in the district? Rep. Fred Miller (D-Mount Clemens), who sat on the education committee for the first two of his three terms in the Legislature, says Detroit Public Schools has reached a crisis.
"The status quo is unconscionable," says Miller, who questions the state's ability to absorb the Detroit Public Schools' debt. "That being said, arguably school districts are by state law entities of the state and the state bears a certain amount of responsibility for them. I believe that everybody of every political stripe wants to do right by the students and the families of Detroit."
Whatever's being done this year could continue for years and the impact felt by generations of Detroit families.
"Robert Bobb is going to be gone in five months, but this community is going to have to live with the remnants of what he leaves behind," the DFT's Johnson says. "It looks like he is content to try and break the district apart."
Arsen, the academic policy researcher from Michigan State, won't speculate specifically on whether Bobb's Plan A would likely improve education for Detroit pupils. "What I can say is that for the most part, governance changes have not been the sources of great success in American schools," he says.
Charter schools, for example, have had mixed results in their effect on student performance. Some cities — like Washington D.C. — have put schools under mayoral control, but Arsen calls outcomes there "not impressive."
"Here are two examples of education reforms that are premised primarily on changes in governance and so far neither has provided a silver bullet for improving educational outcomes," Arsen says. "They had great appeal politically but their track record in improving the prospects for children is not so good. They're not bad, they're just not clearly better than the traditional public schools, but what they do change for sure is who has influence over the education of children."
Contact Metro Times staff writer Sandra Svoboda at 313-202-8015 or firstname.lastname@example.org. News editor Curt Guyette contributed to this story.
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