A New Day for DPS?

Detroit Public Schools gets a fresh financial start this fall, but some say Michigan lawmakers have set the state’s largest district up for failure

The first full week of May is Teacher Appreciation Week, and the staff and students at Keith Elementary School in West Bloomfield have pulled out all the stops. On Monday breakfast was served. Tuesday was Flower Day. On Wednesday snacks were available, and on Thursday a staff luncheon was served. It all culminated with a Teacher Appreciation Day celebration on Friday, which promised to “end the week with a sweet treat!”

Meanwhile, educators at Detroit Public Schools started Teacher Appreciation Week on a more sour note. Over the weekend, DPS Transition Manager Judge Steven Rhodes informed the teachers union that the district had only enough cash to make payroll through June 30. In other words, teachers who opted to spread their paychecks over the summer the majority of DPS teachers would not get paid for work they already did.

In response, the teachers union called for a districtwide “sick-out.” That Monday and Tuesday, the teachers closed 94 of the district’s 97 schools, putting the education of some 45,000 students on hold.

In January, teacher sick-outs closed more than 80 schools in response to widespread dilapidation in the district. The list of grievances: Class sizes so big students overflowed into the hallway. Freezing winters. Sweltering summers. Leaking ceilings. Crumbling walls. Cockroaches. Mice. Black mold.

This was following years of emergency management austerity measures, including forcing DPS teachers to pony up a $9,000 loan each by deducting $250 per paycheck, to be repaid when the teacher left the district.

This was following $48.7 million in state aid to the district just one month before.

‘You Destroy Communities’

In January, Detroit-based research team Loveland Technologies released A School District in Crisis: Detroit’s Public Schools 1842-2015, the result of an 18-month investigation into the history of Michigan’s largest school district. It shows DPS’s woes didn’t occur overnight. It has been an ongoing erosion, decades in the making.

DPS enrollment peaked in the 1960s, with nearly 300,000 students and more than 370 schools. But as Detroiters began to move to the suburbs, they took with them tax dollars desperately needed to maintain the district. Enrollment further dropped as white parents pulled their children out of public schools in protest of court-mandated desegregation busing programs.

By the ’70s, DPS had more classroom seats than students, initiating the school closures that would continue to the present. Oftentimes, closed buildings were simply abandoned by the district (see graphic, below), creating blight that further drove the exodus from the city.

The decline of the district has only accelerated in recent years. Karanji Kaduma, a science teacher at Detroit Community High School, watched it all unfold. An alum of DPS’s Cass Technical High School, Kaduma left Detroit to attend Hampton University in Virginia. He says he returned to Detroit to give back to his city.

“My education was not just for me. It was for me to come back and give back to my community and my people,” he says. He returned to Detroit in 1998, and has taught in DPS for 14 years.

But since his return, Kaduma says that community has disappeared.

Teachers stage a “sick-out” protest outside the DPS headquarters at Detroit’s Fisher Building on May 2.

Art and music were axed. Budgets decreased. Class sizes increased. Since 2000, DPS enrollment fell from 162,693 students to 47,959, and more than 200 schools have been closed.

Kaduma compares DPS to a hospital patient. “You go to the hospital if you’re really sick, they’ll put you in critical condition. They’ll give you the best doctors,” he says. “So why do those that have the least get the least, and those that have the most get the most? That’s not logical. Treat those who are most at risk as if they are most at risk.”

Kaduma says this wave of school closures dealt a drastic blow to the social fabric of the city. “When you lose schools, you also destroy neighborhoods. You destroy communities. You don’t realize how many people went to these schools for generations who just keep that community strong because they have a connection to the school,” he says. “Detroit neighborhoods don’t have a Panera, they don’t have all the things that suburban communities have. We have these schools. They might be all we have in a neighborhood.”

Emergency Mismanagement

As state legislators mulled over a package that would provide DPS with the financial aid necessary to pay its teachers, a corruption scandal made headlines. More than a dozen people connected to the district were charged in a federal investigation of a nearly $1 million bribery and kickback scheme in which DPS was invoiced for school supplies that were never delivered.

One of those charged was a principal from Charles G. Spain Elementary, which only months before received a $500,000 donation from talk show host Ellen DeGeneres in response to a viral video showcasing the school’s dilapidation. Another former DPS principal, notorious for driving around town in a Maserati with a “GUCCI1” vanity plate, was sentenced in a similar scheme.

Given the lurid headlines, it would be easy to assume that the cause of DPS’s recent financial woes is rampant corruption. But that would ignore the larger problem: the breakdown of democracy under emergency management.

That’s because DPS’s finances have been under state control going back to 1999, when then-Gov. John Engler replaced the elected school board with a new board appointed by then-mayor Dennis Archer. The district was underperforming, but at the time it had a $93 million surplus.

The elected board was restored in 2005, but it wouldn’t last long. By 2009, the surplus had turned into a $219 million deficit. That’s when then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm appointed Robert Bobb as the district’s first emergency manager.

“Robert has the ability to get the Detroit Public Schools’ fiscal house in order so the district can devote attention to ensuring that every student receives a quality education,” Granholm said in a release at the time.

That did not happen — academically or financially. Instead, during Bobb’s two-year term the deficit grew to more than $284 million. For his work, he was paid an annual salary of $280,000, in addition to $145,000 from private sources, including the Kellogg Foundation as well as the Broad Foundation, a pro school-privatization organization.

Bobb was replaced by former General Motors executive Roy Roberts in 2011, who managed to cut the deficit to $76 million during his two-year term.

Roberts was replaced with Jack Martin in 2013. He had previously served a short stint as the emergency manager of Highland Park’s public schools. During Martin’s 18 months at DPS the deficit increased to nearly $170 million.

Two days before his term was set to end, Martin resigned with no explanation.

In his wake, Darnell Earley was appointed in 2015, coming off a stint as the emergency manager of Flint. It was under Earley’s term that Flint implemented the switch of its water source to the Flint River, causing it to become contaminated with elevated levels of lead.

As Flint’s crisis made national headlines, Earley announced his resignation as DPS emergency manager months before his term was to end, declaring the district’s financial emergency was rectified.

In reality, by 2016 — after seven straight years of emergency management and four emergency managers — DPS’s finances had only worsened. The district’s deficit was now $515 million, with long-term debts of over $3.5 billion. The financial situation was only considered rectified because state lawmakers had begun to debate a bailout plan.

The former Andrew Jackson Intermediate School is one of many currently vacant DPS buildings. // Photograph by Justin Maconochie

In the interim, Rhodes, the retired judge who led Detroit out of the nation’s largest-ever municipal bankruptcy, was appointed as DPS’s transition manager. His term was set to end in January.

Unchartered Territory

This past June, Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law a package of bills that would infuse the district with $617 million in state aid. The legislation would allow the teachers to get paid through the summer. It would also split DPS into two entities: a “shell” district tasked solely with collecting property taxes to pay down the previous debt, and a new “debt-free” district to educate students.

Snyder said the legislation marked “a new day for Detroit families, with DPS free from debt and strong accountability measures for all schools in the city that promises a brighter future for all of Detroit’s children.”

Some call the legislation downright draconian.

While the plan reinstates a new elected board, a state-appointed Financial Review Commission will continue to control the district’s money. The new district is also not really debt-free: While the legislation unburdens the new district of its previous mammoth obligations, it does include a $150 million loan for transition costs. The legislation also permits the district to hire uncertified teachers, and implements harsh fines for sick-outs.

A number of critics say the legislation effectively codifies into law separate and unequal education for Detroit children.

“No other representative would tolerate uncertified teachers in their classrooms,” says Sen. David Knezek, a Dearborn Heights Democrat, whose District 5 includes parts of Detroit. Knezek voted against the legislation, which narrowly passed with no support from Democrats or Detroit lawmakers.

The bills also omit a proposed Detroit Education Commission, introduced in a previous version of the legislation. The mayor-appointed board would have regulated the opening and closing of schools. Without this oversight, Knezek says the legislation does nothing to change the systemic problems that led to DPS’s near collapse.

“The state, I believe, is setting the school district up for failure,” he says.

Knezek adds that the current system has produced an oversaturation of schools in some areas and school deserts in others. In northeast Detroit, there are 6,000 high school-age kids, but only two high schools. In southwest Detroit, over a dozen schools have opened and closed in the last two years. In Brightmoor, huge swaths of the neighborhood have no nearby schools.

Detroit-based research team Loveland Technologies released results of an 18-month investigation into the history of DPS. At its peak in 1966, some 300,000 students filled 370 buildings. By 2016, there were 47,000 students and 97 schools. // Map illustrated by Loveland

As public schools in Detroit have closed, the city has seen a rise in charter schools, privately run entities that can receive state funds. Some are for-profit. Michigan authorized the creation of charter schools in 1994 as an alternative to public schools. The same year, voters approved Proposal A, which would give schools funding on a per-pupil basis. (Typically more than $7,000 per year in Michigan.) The result was that parents could now choose where to send their children, theoretically rewarding successful schools.

That led public schools and charter schools to compete for Detroit’s dwindling number of students. By 2013, the number of charter school students in Detroit grew to over 51,000, surpassing the number of students enrolled in DPS. Today, Detroit has the second-highest charter enrollment in the country following New Orleans, which became the nation’s first all-charter school district in 2014.

Critics say there are plenty of incentives for charters to have kids on count day to get funding, but not necessarily to graduate them. And charters have no reason to set up shop in underserved neighborhoods in the city; instead, they can enter higher-density neighborhoods and “poach” DPS students, sometimes with raffle prizes and other promotions.

Boosters say data shows that Detroit’s charter schools are outperforming DPS — at least by some metrics. A 2015 report by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes compared individual students in charter schools to their peers in DPS. It found that on average, test scores for Detroit’s charter school students improved more. According to the report, Detroit charter school students also gained the equivalent of a few weeks to as much as several months of progress in reading and math compared to DPS students.
Daniel Quisenberry, president of Michigan Association of Public School Academies, a trade association for Michigan’s 300 charter schools, rejects the notion that Detroit charter schools only marginally outperform DPS.

“If that’s marginal, I’m going to take exception to the word ‘marginal,’” Quisenberry says. “Multiply that by 12 years of school, and that’s three years of additional education.”

It should be noted that both Detroit’s charter and public school test scores lag far behind the state’s averages. Quisenberry admits test scores are only one metric, and the system is far from perfect. “We got a lot of room to improve, whether it’s DPS or the charters in Detroit,” he says. He chalks it up to growing pains school choice, he says, is still a relatively new concept.

Choice, however, is a luxury for those who can afford it. Not everyone can.

What Choice?

To truly have school choice, you need transportation. And many Detroit students, whether they attend public schools or charters, have limited transportation options.

Deniqua Robinson is a mother of five. Because of their ages, each of her children has attended a different school — both public and charter.

“We do have some great schools, I have to admit that,” she says. But those schools have waiting lists.

None of the schools her kids attend have their own buses. Robinson had to leave her job when her daughter got sick and no longer has her own car. To get her children to school, she has to rely on friends, or the city’s bus system.

“In the winter, that’s a real nightmare,” she says. “If it’s deadly cold, my kids are not going to school, because it’s too hard to get them there.” She estimates last year her kids missed between 10 to 15 days of class.

But for some, navigating the city’s public transit system is the only way to choose a good school.

Carla Underwood is a junior at southwest Detroit’s Western International High School. She lives in the city’s northwest side.

To get to school each day, the 15-year-old wakes up at 5:30 a.m. to catch the bus at 6:30. It’s the first of two city buses she has to ride to make the commute. The first ride is an hour and 15 minutes, and the second is 15 minutes. Typically, the whole trip takes an hour and a half, one way — if the buses are running smoothly.

Carla Underwood uses public transportation to get to her school of choice. Her commute takes an hour and a half, one way.

They seldom are.

If the first bus is late, she’ll miss her second bus, and the next one doesn’t come until 30 minutes later. Last year, Carla was often late for her first hour because the buses were behind schedule, especially in the winter. She says she nearly failed English after missing too many classes.

Carla could catch an earlier route, but she would rather ride “when there’s more kids on the bus.”

Last year, one of the fellow bus riders, an adult, kept trying to talk to her. “I was trying not to be rude to him, but also not really trying to keep the conversation going,” she says. “So I stopped talking to him and put my headphones in, but then he kept on talking to me and touched my face. And I like, freaked out.”

Since her commute is so long, most of the kids get off the bus before she arrives at her final destination anyway.

“I’m sure every kid who catches the bus has had an encounter like that,” she says.

Carla chose Western because she used to live nearby, attending the nearby Amelia Earhart Elementary-Middle School. Instead of going to Western her freshman year, Carla attended Benjamin Carson High School of Science and Medicine because she thought she might want to grow up to be a cardiologist (she says she wants to be a Michigan senator now). When she moved to northwest Detroit last November, Carla decided she would follow her middle school friends to Western.

In northwest Detroit, Carla could go to Mumford or Renaissance, but she says she’d still have to take the bus. Renaissance is a magnet school with selective admissions; Mumford is one of the worst-performing schools in the city. (Carla is raising funds via GoFundMe to buy her own car.)

But the grueling commute is worth it. “I really rely upon community, and that’s just one thing that really helps me learn better, knowing that I have people around who I can depend upon,” Carla says. “It’s kind of like my own little family there.”

A Teachable Moment

The problem with competition, critics say, is there are winners and losers. “What happens when you introduce that level of competition to public education is that it is accepted that some children will be able to access excellent education and other children will not,” says Emma Howland-Bolton, a fifth-grade teacher at a southwest Detroit school (many of the teachers interviewed for this story preferred not to identify their school out of fear of retaliation). “It accepts that some students are going to be systematically denied having any access to education because of who they are, or where they were born, or who there parents are, or any accident of birth that you have no control over.”

Howland-Bolton has been teaching in Detroit since 2010. Originally from upstate New York, she got her master’s degree from the University of Michigan. This year, her paycheck went down to $375 a week. Half of her monthly income goes to rent. Earlier this year, she was diagnosed with skin cancer and had to take medical leave for treatment. She has student loans to pay off.

Every few weeks, a different veteran staffer, seemingly independent of one another, pulls her aside and gives her a variation on what she has dubbed “the talk,” encouraging her to leave DPS while she has the chance. “I want to teach in Detroit,” she says. “I think that my students deserve to have an excellent teacher. This is where I want to be. But thinking about the future, it’s frightening.”

Meanwhile, Detroit’s students struggle. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, DPS students score the lowest in math and reading among the nation’s largest school districts. According to figures released earlier this year, DPS has a dropout rate of 11.4 percent.

Outside of school, many Detroit students face insurmountable odds. Some are homeless, and rely on school-provided breakfast and lunch. Some have parents who can’t help them with their homework because they never completed school, or work the night shift. Some have had their water shut off due to delinquent bills. Some have to walk through abandoned neighborhoods to get to school.

One thing is undeniable: Without good, stable schools, any talk of Detroit’s much-ballyhooed comeback is moot. At best, an entire generation of Detroiters is doomed to be left behind.

Nevertheless, Howland-Bolton points out that DPS students have been defying the odds. Out of the 1,000 Penn State Millennium Scholars recognized for academic excellence in 2016, six hailed from DPS. This year, three DPS chess teams placed among the top seven teams in the Michigan Chess Association’s High School Championship, and raised money to compete nationally. Martin Luther King High School’s football team won the statewide Division 2 football championship last year; Cass Technical High School was the runner-up in Division 1. And in 2014, a West Side Academy teacher donated one of her kidneys to a student, saving her life.

“There are teachers and students who are not only performing under incredible duress, but outperforming their peers in other districts that are better funded and have better support and stability. To me, that just blows my mind,” she says.

In her own classroom, Howland-Bolton says she has used the unprecedented situation in DPS to create a teachable moment, getting her students to think critically about politics and government.

“You should try teaching government in the city of Detroit,” she says. “In fifth grade, the curriculum focuses heavily on democracy. We compare and contrast. … ‘This is what the constitution intended. And here’s what the city of Detroit looks like.’ ”

Howland-Bolton shares a video of her students participating in protests earlier this year. The kids hold banners with a hand-written message: “We Deserve Better.”