The problem in Flint, Michigan that now has a lead-poisoned water system; and in Highland Park, Michigan where the for-profit Leona Group, a charter management organization, was brought in by a state-appointed emergency manager to run the public schools but went broke instead; and in Muskegon Heights, Michigan, where the for-profit Mosaica Education, a charter management organization, was brought in by a state-appointed emergency manager to run the public schools but went broke instead, is that Michigan’s poorest cities and school districts can, under a 2012 law, be taken over by the state and operated by an emergency fiscal manager appointed by the governor. And the current governor does not have a background in public service, reports Amber Phillips of the Washington Post: “Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R), (was) a tech venture capitalist who was elected in 2010 on a platform to fix the state’s ‘disaster’ economy….”
Claire Groden, writing for Fortune, explains Michigan’s abrogation of democracy under the current governor: “(A)t the time that Flint flipped the switch in April 2014 to send the river’s highly corrosive water through lead pipes, the predominantly African-American city didn’t have a working local government… Five years ago Snyder signed legislation that expanded the reasons why the state could choose to appoint a municipal emergency manager, then granted those appointees almost complete power over their assigned municipalities. Under Public Act 4, as it was called, state-appointed emergency managers could break collective bargaining agreements, fire elected officials and determine their salaries, and privatize or sell public assets… Emergency management is a way to short-circuit democracy when a city faces financial insolvency, with the idea that a leader free from accountability to voters can make unpopular but necessary decisions. But Michigan voters rejected that law in a state-wide referendum… A month later, the state legislature passed a replacement law that made minor adjustments and one major one: an appropriation banning a referendum on the new law. That was 2012. By 2013, six Michigan cities—and almost half of the state’s African-American population—were under emergency management. In many of these cities, public services were pared down to the minimum. Pontiac’s emergency manager whittled the city’s employees to around 10% of their previous number.” (Here is what happened in Pontiac.)
State emergency managers can override not only elected city councils but also be imposed on public school districts where they can overrule the elected local school board. In Detroit, where the schools have been operated by an emergency fiscal manager for some years, neither have the bills been paid, nor have required contributions been made to the state teachers’ pension fund, nor have the school buildings been maintained, nor has class size been controlled. Even the finances—the specific thing emergency fiscal managers are supposed to take care of—have been mismanaged. Short-term borrowing has been regularly turned into long-term obligations that now total $3.5 billion.
Emergency managers in Michigan are limited to terms of 18 months under the 2012 law, which might curtail the damage any one of them could possibly impose, but Governor Rick Snyder has found a way to skirt that provision of the law. After an emergency manager has served for 17 months and twenty-nine days, that manager resigns and another is appointed. Snyder has continued to shuffle around the same people. Darnell Earley, the emergency manager responsible for the lead poisoning of Flint’s water, is currently serving as the emergency manager of the Detroit Public Schools.
Here is a review from yesterday’s NY Times of what happened in Flint: “From 2011 to 2015, Flint was in state receivership…. Flint, led at the time by an emergency manager who was appointed by the state to help solve the city’s fiscal woes, switched water supplies in April 2014—in part to save money, which… amounted to $1 million to $2 million a year.” State agencies repeatedly lied about the poisoning of Flint’s water, but local leaders lacked the power to expose the statewide cover-up, and the children continued to drink contaminated water. The ultimate result has neither saved Flint nor the state of Michigan any money. The Washington Post’s Phillips reports: “In October, the state paid $12 million to switch Flint back to Detroit’s water system.” Unfortunately the failure over a period of many months to add anti-corrosives to the water leaves the system vulnerable to the continued leaching of lead into the water even after the switch back to Detroit’s system.
Austerity, not structural reform, has been the operating model for the emergency managers in Michigan’s poor cities and school districts. Fortune‘s Claire Groden explains: “Critics of the emergency manager law have long protested that the appointees cut services to realize short-term savings, with little eye to the long-term structural problems the cities face. ‘ The assertion is that these are cities that are running deficits because the elected governments are not capable of keeping spending under control. The problem from my perspecteive is that these really are structural deficits… it’s almost impossible for anyone to solve these problems,’ says Peter Hammer, a law professor at Wayne State University…. Structural problems like the fact that 40% of Flint’s residents live in poverty—presenting an impossible tax base for the city to draw upon—go unanswered.”
Yesterday, Julie Bosman reported for the NY Times on the impact of years’ of emergency management of Detroit’s schools, where the teachers have been staging rolling sick-outs to try to bring attention to the conditions in the buildings where they work: “Detroit’s public schools are a daily shock to the senses, run down after years of neglect and mismanagement, while failing academically and teetering on the edge of financial collapse. On Wednesday, teachers again protested the conditions, calling in sick en masse and forcing a shutdown of most of the city’s almost 100 schools… Things have become so bad, district officials say, that the Detroit public school system could be insolvent by April.”
The stories of Michigan’s poorest cities and school districts demonstrate our society’s willingness to impose austerity instead of addressing our collective failure through federal and state government to provide financial support when local communities and school districts, segregated by race and poverty, utterly lack the capacity to fund essential services. We are further willing to disenfranchise and disempower the citizens of these cities and school districts by destroying the democratic institutions designed to protect their votes and their voices.
Will Michigan find a way to restore democracy for its poorest citizens?
In a commentary published on Monday in the Detroit Free Press, Kary Moss, executive director of ACLU of Michigan, presses for the repeal of Michigan’s law that grants the governor power to impose appointed overseers on Michigan’s poorest cities and school districts: “Little has been said… about… a law that gives a political appointee unfettered power to make decisions that will affect a community, without democratic accountability. This lack of checks and balances on government is a civil rights issue. The law does not require that an emergency manager have any expertise outside the financial arena and, to that end, allowed him (in Flint) to elevate the financial bottom line above all else. It enabled a revolving door of emergency managers in Flint with no ties to that community and yet unfettered power to make decisions that affect them.”