Michigan Senate approves restructuring of Detroit schools

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LANSING, Mich. (AP) – The Michigan Senate approved a $720 million restructuring plan on Tuesday that would divide Detroit’s ailing school district in two, creating a new district in which new traditional or charter schools could automatically open only if they replicate a school with top marks in an A-to-F accountability system.

It’s been nearly 11 months since Gov. Rick Snyder first called for a rescue package for the Detroit Public Schools, which has been under state financial management for seven years, is burdened with operating debt and may start to run out of money in April. The legislation would not directly allocate much of the funding, for now leaving that to legislators during the annual budget process.

Lawmakers largely have agreed with the Republican governor’s plan for the district’s 46,000 students to attend a new district, while the old one would exist for tax-collection purposes to retire $515 million in debt. But majority Republicans and Democrats have been at odds over details, such as how quickly an elected school board will be handed decision-making authority and whether to create a commission that can open and close traditional schools and independent publicly funded charter academies.

The main bill, passed 21-16 in the Republican-controlled Senate and sent to the GOP-led House, calls for electing a new school board in August. The nine members’ terms would begin once election results are certified, and they would hire a superintendent. A commission of state appointees created to review Detroit’s finances in the wake of bankruptcy would oversee the new district’s budget until the debt is repaid and other conditions are met.

“I acknowledge that these bills will not alone transform DPS, but they are critically necessary to begin putting this district on a more positive financial path,” said Sen. Goeff Hansen, R-Hart.

The legislation also would create of a seven-member education commission – fully appointed by Detroit’s mayor – to make recommendations about the location of current and future schools and to determine the fate of proposed and some existing publicly funded charter academies.

Any new charter or traditional school could not open without the panel’s approval unless it would replicate a school given an “A” or “B” on a new grading scale that would be based on factors such as state standardized test scores and students’ improvement over time. “F”-rated charters would close, while the commission would recommend to the state’s school reform officer the potential closure or another form of intervention for traditional schools with an “F” grade.

Snyder has touted the commission as a way to get a handle on complaints that charters are opened and closed with little overarching coordination, but it was not initially included in the Senate bills because of opposition from pro-charter interests. Under the bills, the commission would have three charter representatives (including one parent), three representatives for traditional schools (including one parent) and one member with expertise in school accountability systems.

Snyder has proposed shifting $72 million annually for a decade from Michigan’s settlement with tobacco companies toward bailing out the district and starting a new one.

At his request, the House last week approved a $48.7 million stopgap measure to ensure teachers and other employees are paid the rest of this academic year. The Senate could also pass that stopgap measure this week, but the House would have to wait to take up the larger restructuring package until after returning from the Legislature’s spring break.

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