State takeovers of various sorts have been a favorite policy response of governors and state legislatures who seek an efficient solution to the problems of America’s poorest cities and school districts. The question today is whether the lead poisoning of Flint, Michigan’s water supply and the attempt for months to hide the seriousness of this situation, all under Emergency Manager Darnell Earley—now serving as Emergency Manager of the Detroit Public Schools—will sufficiently awaken the public to the widespread neglect by state governments of so many of our poorest cities and school districts.
Last August, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools released a major report, Out of Control: The Systematic Disenfranchisement of African American and Latino Communities Through School Takeovers, that traces the state takeovers of school districts and the abrogation of democracy as appointed state overseers commence to manage operations without the usual checks and balances imposed by elected boards of education. That report describes the long-running New Jersey takeovers of Jersey City (since 1989), Paterson (since 1991), and Newark (since 1995); the Louisiana Recovery District that has fully charterized the New Orleans schools since Hurricane Katrina in 2005; the Tennessee Achievement School District that operates schools in Memphis and now in Nashville; the Michigan Education Achievement Authority by which Governor Rick Snyder has taken over 15 schools in Detroit since 2013; and two new state takeovers in 2015—the takeover of Milwaukee Schools that was logrolled last summer into the Wisconsin state budget, and Arkansas’ takeover of the schools in Little Rock. The 2015 legislation to enable Ohio to take over Youngstown’s schools was too recent to have been covered in the report, and Nathan Deal’s proposal for a Georgia “Opportunity School District” has passed the legislature but must be affirmed by voters in a referendum in November, 2016.
Additionally, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has the power to appoint emergency fiscal managers for municipalities and school districts deemed to be in financial emergency. Emergency fiscal managers were first authorized by state law in Michigan in 1988. In a referendum in November of 2012, the voters overturned the right of the governor to take over local municipal and school district juristictions deemed to be in financial emergency, but the all-Republican legislature came back with a tougher law that was passed before the end of that year. The 2012 law supposedly limits the tenure of austerity-budget emergency managers, but Governor Snyder has found a way to extend emergency management long-term. Curt Guyette, an investigative reporter for the ACLU of Michigan explains: “(T)he managers were given extreme unchecked authority… (T)hey were given the ability to come in, clean up the problems and get out. And so there was an 18-month time limit put on their terms. Except that this governor is exploiting what amounts to a loophole in that law… (T)hese emergency managers serve for 17 months and 29 days, and the day before their term expires, they resign. A new emergency manager is put in place, and the clock starts ticking all over again. And they just shuffle them from one place to another.”
We now know that a couple of years ago, Michigan’s appointed emergency fiscal manager, Darnell Earley, approved a plan for Flint to save money by creating its own water system instead of buying already treated water from Detroit. Chemicals to prevent release of lead from old, corroded pipes were not added to the water when Flint began taking water from the Flint River; the pipes corroded all over town; and the children of Flint began to experience epidemic lead poisoning.
Earley left Flint and was appointed Emergency Manager of the Detroit City Schools a year ago, not enough time for him to be blamed for all of the school district’s fiscal problems. The state’s previous appointed emergency managers had already failed to correct a long-running financial crisis for Detroit’s schools, a crisis that has now culminated in the failure to pay required contributions into the state teachers’ pension fund and a practice of restructuring short term debt instead of making the needed payments. Detroit City Schools currently have an accrued deficit of $3.5 billion.
Here is the conclusion of the new report from the Citizens Research Council of Michigan: “Detroit Public Schools has $3.5 billion in outstanding debt. Nearly half of this amount, $1.67 billion, is capital liabilities payable with a dedicated millage… The balance of DPS’s liabilities are related to legacy costs and repaying short-term borrowings converted to long-term debt by state-appointed emergency managers. This includes $1.3 billion that represents DPS’s estimated share of the unfunded actuarial accrued liabilities for retiree pension and health care costs…. A plan that solves the district’s money problems without addressing what is taking place in the classroom will not set the district up for future success. Similarly, any financial plan that only deals with the district’s near-term fiscal woes (cash flow for example) will not prove lasting and will not support student learning over the long haul if current financial problems are shifted to future students.” Neither has the state legislature invested in public education, nor has the state devised a workable plan for equitable distribution of funding to help the school districts with the least capacity to generate local revenue. A new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities documents that Michigan’s general state funding per student remains 7.5 percent lower than it was prior to the 2008 recession.
It is not only the emergency fiscal managers whose performance is in question in Michigan, but critics have also been raising very troubling questions about the other form of state takeover in that state, the Education Achievement Authority, that manages 15 of Detroit’s struggling schools. Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority was intended to have been expanded beyond Detroit, but low achievement and other problems have prevented its growth. Here is some troubling data released in mid-December: “Just one fourth-grader in schools run by the Education Achievement Authority—a state district created to turn around the worst performing schools in the state—passed the math portion of the exam…. Overall, only 1.2% of the students in the district passed in math and 5.6% passed in English language arts. In some grades and subjects, not one student passed.” Last spring, even Governor Snyder admitted to the failure of the Education Achievement Authority, when he issued an executive order to transfer the Education Achievement Authority from the Department of Education to the Department of Technology, Management and Budget, a department directly under Snyder’s control. In his executive order, he declared, “Despite not achieving satisfactory outcomes, the current structure has neither implemented the rigorous supports and processes needed to create positive academic outcomes….” In these words last March, Snyder condemns the results of the state takeover initiative he had himself created, though the test scores just released show no improvement under the new management plan he instituted last spring.
And there is more, this time about the implications of the state-imposed emergency fiscal manager on the Detroit Public Schools—news about cutting back on building maintenance under current Emergency Fiscal Manager Darnell Earley. Here is Michigan’s Eclectablog: “Darnell Earley has been the Emergency Manager for DPS for a year now. While the obscene state of many DPS schools is not solely on his shoulders, it’s clear that that he’s done nothing to solve the problems. Once again, he has used the Emergency Managers’ toolkit of cutting, reductions, and other austerity measures to solve a problem that can only be resolved through investment and renewal… For months, labor unions and residents have been sounding the alarm that a plan by DPS to cut the number of certified, licensed boiler operators and switch to an untested, unmanned system of monitoring commercial boilers in schools is too dangerous. Boilers are more likely to explode when not maintained and watched by licensed, certified operators… DPS is decreasing the number of operators from one per school to a one per every five schools… Getting to a school in time to avert an equipment failure that can cause an explosion will become almost impossible.”
Here is the analysis of Curt Guyette, speaking in an interview with Democracy Now: “(O)ne of the things about the emergency manager law is that these managers were given extreme unchecked authority. And the thinking was… they were given the ability to come in, clean up the problems and get out… And the other thing is… the imposition of austerity. This is what austerity looks like… So you have all the problems in these schools that you just reported on, because they’re treating it like a managerial problem rather than a structural problem.” Guyette is asked to comment on the type of communities and school districts on which Michigan has imposed emergency fiscal managers: “With the exception of one, they are all majority African American. And they’re also all very poor cities. So this is a racial issue, and it’s a class issue.”
This blog recently covered the fiscal problems of Detroit Public Schools here.