Legislature Debates Detroit Schools’ Bailout, Gov. Snyder’s Future Fades

Finally, Michigan’s governor Rick Snyder has agreed to testify before the U.S. House Oversight Committee tomorrow about his role and the role of his appointed Emergency Fiscal Manager Darnell Earley in the circumstances that left Flint with a lead poisoned water system.  Lenny Bernstein and Joby Warrick, reporters for the Washington Post quote the committee’s ranking Democrat, Elijah Cummings of Maryland: “Contrary to Gov. Snyder’s recent claim that he requested this ‘opportunity to testify,’ the reality is that he is finally bowing to mounting public pressure to answer questions before Congress about the central and critical role his administration played in this man-made disaster.”

Snyder was, according to the Post‘s reporters, considered a rising political star when he became governor in 2011. He was at the time a venture capitalist who had presided over the successful Gateway computer company, and he promised to run Michigan like a successful business.  After a Michigan law to permit appointed emergency fiscal managers for municipalities and school districts was defeated by referendum in November 2012, he got it reinserted into an appropriations bill that is, in Michigan, referendum-proof.  And his emergency fiscal managers have been his tool not only for managing struggling municipalities, but also for the state’s poorest school districts.  After Darnell Earley finished his stint in Flint, Snyder put him in charge of the Detroit Public Schools.

The thing is that the emergency fiscal managers are appointed by Governor Snyder not so much to worry about the quality of government services for citizens or about the checks and balances that encourage public accountability and transparency.  They are fiscal managers, and their charge is to impose austerity measures to stave off public bankruptcy.  In Flint, Darnell Earley started using water from the Flint River instead of more expensive, pre-treated water from Detroit, and he saved money by leaving out the anti-corrosives that would have kept lead and iron from leaching out of the pipes.

And in the Detroit Schools, Darnell Earley just kept on turning short-term debt into longer range obligations that now total $3.5 billion.  He closed schools and let the buildings become decrepit.  Without very pricey help from the state legislature, the District is now scheduled to run out of money at the beginning of April.

Here is the latest from reporter Chad Livengood of the Detroit News: “A bipartisan consensus appears to be forming among lawmakers that the state is on the hook for the DPS financial rescue.”  A rescue would be appropriate as the huge deficit has continued to accrue since the state began its most recent takeover of the district in 2009.  Here is what appears to be happening in the legislature: “The Michigan Legislature is preparing to consider a $50 million bailout to keep the Detroit Public Schools operating through June to avert the specter this spring of payless paydays and 46,000 children locked out of shuttered buildings… As their own spring break looms, lawmakers have two weeks to act on Detroit school district Emergency Manager Steven Rhodes’ request for the emergency funding, while a larger debate plays out over Gov. Rick Snyder’s $715 million, 10-year plan to relieve the Detroit district of debt piled up by Rhodes’ predecessors and create a new debt-free district.”

Steven Rhodes, the retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge who presided over the Detroit municipal bankruptcy, was appointed emergency manager of the Detroit Public Schools by Gov. Snyder early in March to take over from Darnell Earley, who resigned his position as of the end of February.

Snyder’s negotiations with legislative Democrats have forced the governor to make some concessions.  First, he has pushed Republican legislators to put some boundaries on the authorization of new charter schools that drain students and money out of the school district.  An enormous problem in Detroit has been out-of-control, unregulated charter schools, and the plan being considered by the legislature would impose some limits on the launch of new charters, according to the Detroit News report: “The latest plan floated in the Senate would revive Snyder’s proposed citywide Detroit Education Commission and empower it to block new charters from setting up shop in Detroit near existing high-performing schools operated by the district or charters.”  A spokesman for Governor Snyder explained that “the governor’s office is seeking ‘quality choice’ for Detroit’s fractured educational landscape.” Even Robin Lake, of the pro-charter, pro-choice Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, questioned her previous assumptions about the expansion of school choice after she observed the problems in Detroit: “Whose job is it to fix the problems facing parents in Detroit?  Our interviews with leaders in the city suggest that no one knows the answer.  It is not the state, which defers oversight to local education agencies and charter authorizers.  It is not DPS (Detroit Public Schools), which views charters as a threat to its survival.  It is not charter school authorizers, who are only responsible for ensuring that the schools they sponsor comply with the state’s charter-school law.  It is not the mayor, who thus far sees education as beyond his purview.  And it is not the schools themselves, which only want to fill their seats and serve the children they enroll.  No one in Detroit is responsible for ensuring that all neighborhoods and students have high-quality options or that parents have the information and resources they need to choose a school.  ‘It’s a free-for-all,’ one observer said. ‘We have all these crummy schools around, and nobody can figure out how to get quality back under control….’” Charter school lobbyists are reported by the Detroit News, however, to be pressing legislative Republicans to oppose Snyder’s plan, which, they say, will “increase the enrollment of the new Detroit school district at the expense of competitors.”

Second Snyder has agreed to get rid of the state-run Education Achievement Authority (EAA), a state funded, $84 million joint venture with Eastern Michigan University that pulled 15 of  Detroit’s poorest schools under state management.  EAA was supposed to take over other struggling schools outside of Detroit, but EAA has itself experienced mismanagement, and its schools have not demonstrated improvement. Eastern Michigan’s board of regents voted in February to terminate the university’s role in the partnership, a move that would have phased out the EAA by June of 2017.  Now Snyder says he will shut down EAA, and he will let Detroit’s citizens elect a local school board in August to put the school district back under local control, though he would continue to involve the state in turning around the 15 schools currently assigned to EAA.

Rhodes, Snyder’s new appointed emergency manager for the Detroit Public Schools, has said that his goal is, “to restore local control of the district as quickly and efficiently as possible.”  In a move to build community support in Detroit, Rhodes has appointed a school superintendent, Alycia Meriweather, a Detroit native, veteran teacher, and former head of curriculum for the school district.

Snyder has proposed a complicated state-local, two district arrangement as a path to long range solvency for the school district.  The state would grant funds to run the schools while local property taxes would flow to the “old” district to pay off the debt.

The Michigan legislature will continue to negotiate the long-range plan.  For now it is engaged in a more urgent project before the legislature itself goes on its spring break on March 24: pass short term debt relief to keep the teachers paid and Detroit’s 45,000 students in classes until the school year ends in June.

In the meantime, Governor Snyder faces serious political problems and faces threat of a recall.  Writing for the NY Times, Julie Bosman recently described Snyder and his challenges: “Mr. Snyder’s opponents have said that the governor’s political crisis is one of his own making, the result of a disconnected management style and lack of knowledge of the workings of government.”  “Many Michigan voters now blame him for how he handled two of the state’s biggest debacles, the tainted water crisis in Flint and the tattered Detroit public schools.”  “For a man who swept into office in 2010 by promoting his resume as a no-nonsense accountant and businessman who was above politics, Governor Snyder now finds himself in the middle of the kind of bitter partisan warfare that he has long disdained.”