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Who Can Untangle Detroit’s Mess?

May 16, 2016

I’ve read a lot and blogged frequently about Detroit’s public schools, which serve as the poster child for mismanagement of urban districts. This AP article from the Pittsburgh Tribune’s online newspaper recounts the sorry history of the school district, which was taken over by the State in the mid-1990s, turned BACK over to the local Board in themed 2000s, and returned again to the State in the late 2000s. In each case the reason for the takeovers was corruption. But the real issue is money: Detroit schools have not had sufficient funds to operate for decades.

The latest of five state-appointed financial managers has said the district can’t continue unless legislators pitch in to pay off the debt and include money to allow resources to be directed back to classrooms. 

With encouragement from Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, the state Senate has approved a plan to pay off the district’s estimated $467 million debt and provide $200 million in transition funds for a new, separate district that would educate students and have its finances overseen by a commission of state appointees. The plan effectively commits Michigan to a decade of new spending until the old DPS debt is retired. The House version would pay off the debt and provide $33 million for transition costs.

It’s evident that corruption was likely a contributing factor to the original financial problems that plagued Detroit for decades, but underfunding can contribute to corruption when administrative positions designed to monitor and control spending are stripped from budgets, when underpaid administrators, knowing they won’t be caught, accept kickbacks from businesses, and elected school boards “reward” their constituents by providing them with employment or with opportunities to do business with the schools in exchange for “campaign contributions”. A vibrant free press could find out about these kinds of shenanigans and, once they are brought to light, an aggressive district attorney could prosecute the wrongdoing. Unfortunately none of these counterbalances were in place in Michigan when the State initially took over the district in themed-1990s: instead of addressing the corrupt practices, the State replaced the corrupt political practices with corrupt business practices. And the legislature made matters worse by insisting that the fiscal problems of the district took precedence over the educational problems. By focussing on the need for the debts to be paid before money went to the classrooms and pensioners, the schools never improved and teacher recruitment suffered.

Will Detroit ever get out of the hole? The explicit bifurcation of debt expenses from operating costs is a step in the right direction… but the underfunding of the operating costs that the House is recommending will only sustain the cycle of failure. At some point, Detroit schools should get the same per pupil operating funding as Bloomfield and Birmingham schools and the same kind of leadership as the boards and administrators in those districts provide. Appointing “emergency managers” with no experience in the day-to-day operation of schools and providing minimal financial support will only lead to the continuation of the cycle of failure.

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