The departure of former Flint emergency manager Darnell Earley from the emergency managership of the Detroit Public Schools and Eastern Michigan University’s decision to no longer sponsor the failing so-called “Educational Achievement”Authority (EAA) are two long-overdue baby-steps in the right direction. The 1999 state takeover of the Detroit Public Schools has been an unmitigated disaster for Detroit and our schoolchildren. So has Governor Rick Snyder’s creation of the EAA, which was illegally given fifteen of Detroit’s public schools in early 2012 by then-emergency manager Roy Roberts. Those EAA schools included five of our high schools–Southeastern, Denby, Pershing, Central, Ford, and the new $50.5 million Mumford. At the time of that totally unwarranted state takeover of DPS in 1999, the school district enjoyed a SURPLUS of approximately $100 million, and its student test scores were at the state midpoint and rising steadily despite the many social problems in the city.
However, Detroiters have historically been consistently supportive of education, and they had recently voted in a bond of $1.5 billion to renovate, maintain, and refurbish school buildings. Then-Governor John Engler and others close to him immediately began to ogle that $1.5 billion with avaricious eyes. During those tragic takeover years, school buildings were built to replace perfectly good ones unnecessarily, and contracts were let to hordes of construction and curricular “consultants” who were cronies of assorted DPS CEOs, superintendents, assistant superintendents, Detroit and Lansing politicians, and some emergency managers. By 2011, when the first emergency manager, Robert Bobb, left the district, the schools had amassed a $327 million DEFICIT and the student test scores had plummeted to become the worst in the nation, at which dismally low level they remain today. The state-engendered DPS deficit now approaches $1 billion, and the test scores of the corruption-plagued EAA were and are the only ones worse than those of DPS. When in 2013 Public Act 436–the replacement law for PA 4 (which was the emergency management law that Michiganians had voted in 2012 to have repealed)–was re-enacted, then-emergency manager Roy Roberts availed himself of this unconstitutional new/old law to totally disempower the democratically elected school board and fire its appointed superintendent, in which position this writer had served during that 2012-2013 school year on a pro bono basis.
Now Governor Rick Snyder has unveiled an ill-conceived and entirely unworkable plan for our city’s schools. This is another (and ongoing) example of the same form of racialized displacement of local governance that poisoned the children of Flint. The Governor’s plan threatens to worsen the damage that the interminable state takeover has already visited upon the education of Detroit schoolchildren,. The plan has provoked overworked and underpaid DPS teachers to stage massive sickouts. In a district that once had nearly 300,000 students but now has fewer than 50,000, many schools are gang-infested, rodent-enfested, mold-infested, and in dangerous disrepair. Throughout vast stretches of the city, there are no longer enough schools to accommodate the local student populations in certain neighborhoods, while other areas have TOO MANY schools. Class sizes in the schools that remain have soared to unacceptable levels, and the textbooks and other materials are grossly outdated. An exemplary school that taught aviation and state-of-the-art schools for pregnant girls and for the physically challenged have closed. Art and music courses are pervasively lacking. For the past two years, a lawsuit to overturn PA 436 has languished in federal court, and now a $1.5 billion lawsuit seeking damages for all DPS students of the past decade-and-a-half is about to be filed. The suit will name Governor Snyder and several other allegedly culpable parties as defendants. In the midst of this, parents have turned in desperation to lower-performing, unaccountable charter schools in the city that have siphoned off 34,000 DPS students along with the state foundation-grant monies that accompanied them out of DPS.
The Governor must immediately restore the power of the current democratically elected Detroit school board and its appointed superintendent, and the state must clean up its own mess by reimbursing the school district for the millions of dollars that were squandered by the many incompetent and venal school administrators who were in power during the unwarranted and disastrous state takeover. There is no other way to remediate this nightmarishly long and criminal injustice that has been perpetrated upon Detroit and our schoolchildren.
Dr. John Telford is a lifelong Detroiter and former Detroit and suburban school superintendent. He remains the superintendent of the elected Detroit School Board.