In many ways, after all the turmoil experienced by Detroit Public Schools over more than a decade, it seems that the only direction to go is up. With all the headline-grabbing news reports of dead rodents in school hallways and freezing classrooms, not to mention rapidly declining enrollment, it’s hard to imagine things getting any worse.
Fortunately, it appears that some steps toward measurable progress are being made. That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that the mountain to climb is so steep – and the resources still painfully limited – that the task ahead can not afford any missteps or further miscalculations. There is little to zero wiggle room for error.
One of the largest concerns among Detroiters was eliminating emergency management and returning the schools to community control with an elected school board. That long-awaited transition will occur during the November elections when Detroiters will once again be given the opportunity to elect their own school board.
“The people of this city want, and are entitled to local control,” said Judge Steven Rhodes, who began the first day of his appointed role as DPS Transition Manager by Gov. Rick Snyder on March 2.
“In order for the promise of local control to be fulfilled, the Financial Review Commission has to have a working relationship with the school board that fully recognizes the school board’s democratically mandated role in running those schools. We in the FRC are still working that out. It’s going to be a process. It’s going to take time. And when the school board comes in in January, it may have to be reset again.
“I understand why the legislature felt that some role for the Financial Review Commission was necessary. I supported that role here, just as I did in the Detroit bankruptcy case. But the FRC can’t be the school board. It can’t be a second school board. It has to play a lesser role. The extent of its role is ambiguously described in the legislation, but what’s not ambiguous about its description is that it’s not a school board. Its primary function is, as its name implies, to deal with finances.”
On a more positive note, Rhodes said that much progress has been made in filling teacher vacancies with qualified teachers.
“And just for the record, to say it the umpteenth million time, we are not going to hire any non-certified teachers, even though the law says we can. Not gonna happen.”
Meanwhile, the lives and futures of more than 45,000 Detroit children hang in the balance.
Alycia Meriweather has been an employee of Detroit Public Schools for the past 20 years. She began attending public school in Detroit at the age of four. So it’s safe to say that Meriweather knows a few things about Detroit Public Schools.
On March 7, five days after Rhodes began his tenure, Meriweather was appointed by Rhodes as Interim Superintendent of DPS (now DPSCD). All that experience was scant preparation for the perfect storm of catastrophes that came raining down like a swarm of screeching bats from practically her first day in office.
“So here we are, and when you think about everything that’s happened since March 7 to today, it’s really incredible. When I talk to other superintendents, in their whole tenure – that could be five years, 10 years, even as many as 15 years as a superintendent – they might have had one of the things that’s happened in the last five months happen. So when you think about the legislative piece, when you think about the budget piece, when you think about the legal piece, the various indictments, the sickouts, the facilities, I could go on and on. But most organizations have one of those happen in a 10-year period, and we’ve had all of those happen in five months,” said Meriweather.
“I feel like once we got past July 1, and the new district was born, then I felt like we are in a position where we can move forward. We’re not distracted with Lansing, and we’re not distracted with all of these other things that were taking away from the work. Once we got past July 1, I felt like now we can really, really dig into the work and prepare for [the start of the school year].”
For example, “I think we do have some real issues related to peoples’ pay. We’re working on our building issues. We are chipping away. We have three buildings that are getting new roofs. We’ve got boilers that are being installed at different schools. So we’re slowly chipping away at things we know are concerns,” she said.
Meriweather also pointed out that this will be the first year that the district will get the full per-pupil allocation without $1,100 per pupil going toward the debt. And that is a major hurdle cleared.
Rhodes is also hopeful that the Detroit Public Schools Community District, formally created as of July 1, is on the right path. But he is equally aware of the challenges created by the $50 million gap between what was requested of the Michigan Legislature and what was granted. Rhodes’ term, originally scheduled to terminate at the end of September, has been extended until the end of December, after which he is gone. Had Rhodes not agreed to the three-month extension, yet another emergency manager would have had to be appointed for a single three-month term.
“I went to the legislature, with the administration’s support, and said ‘we need not only the $515 million to pay the debt, but we need $200 million of transition costs and support to launch this new school district. That was not a number that was just pulled out of a hat. It was a number that this district and the treasury department came up with after a review of the minimum amount that the district would need to launch successfully and we didn’t get it. That’s a challenge,” said Rhodes.
But Rhodes added that it is a challenge that has to be met.
“The governor has promised that he and his administration will continue to find ways and fight for ways to make that additional $50 million available for DPSCD. That money was going to go into buildings. The buildings still need that money. And our children still need for the buildings to be fixed. I am satisfied that the governor and the administration understand this need and are committed to doing what it can to help us. I intend to hold him to his commitment.”
Meriweather echoed Rhodes’ concern, saying that too many Detroiters still do not fully understand the situation that DPSCD is currently in, even with the money granted by the legislature.
“People need to understand that while $617 million was allocated to the district, we’re not sitting on $617 million. When it’s all said and done, when the legacy debt was satisfied, when the OldCo obligations were satisfied, when we take care of cash flow needs to get us to October, which is our first state aid note, we were left with basically $25 million. The money that was allocated to the district was allocated to satisfy the debt. We asked for $200 million. We were allocated $150 million.”
“So $25 million is what we have to invest. I don’t know how to get people to understand, because the story I keep hearing is that we got $617 million, which we should be thankful for, and that we should be able to pay somebody some money now. Or that we should be able to fix all of our buildings. We were really clear from the beginning; we’ve done intense analysis of our buildings. We said that we needed $65 million just to take care of the buildings.
“When you talk about $65 million, when you’re talking about 94 buildings, I mean, if you’ve done home renovation and you fix the bathroom or a kitchen? And that’s at your house. Think of a school building. When you’re talking about windows and roofs and walls and boilers and plumbing and electrical…”
In addition to the need for more funds, Rhodes still believes strongly that something resembling a Detroit Education Commission still needs to be created that would have control over where and when new schools could be opened. The DEC was removed from the Michigan House version of the bill that was ultimately approved.
“If you were to begin today afresh to allocate school buildings throughout the city of Detroit, based on not only its current demographics and geography of demographics, but what you expect and want it to be in the future, you would not in a million years create the geographic distribution we have now. It is totally irrational. This is nothing against charters, nothing against whatever decisions DPS made about which schools to close, just a reflection of looking at the map and where schools are. It’s nuts.”
Meriweather said she also hopes Detroiters vote in large numbers in November in the school board elections, especially after such a long, drawn out fight on the right to vote.
Rhodes said it would not be proper for him to endorse any candidates, however he is doing all he can to help educate and inform those who are running so that they will have a clearer picture of the job they are applying for.
“I want them to have the most wholesome debate they can have about the future of DPS. Where they think it should go academically. Where they think it should go involving the community, where they think it should go in terms of involving the public in their decision-making. We need to discuss all of that and give their vision of what success for DPSCD looks like.”
Rhodes and Meriweather extended an open meeting to all 72 of the candidates to discuss all of those issues and more on August 1. Fifty-two showed up. Another meeting is planned for September.