Commentary
9:26 am
Fri August 10, 2012

Be Careful What You Wish For

Sometimes I think Detroit should adopt a new motto, something like: “Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it."

This time, the focus is on the Detroit Public Schools, which for years have been famous for incompetence, corruption, and the squandering of money. There were almost two hundred thousand kids in the schools at the turn of the century, a dozen years ago.

This fall, there may be fewer than fifty thousand left. In recent years, the schools have been under state control much of the time. Most recently, they’ve been run by an Emergency Financial Manager with sweeping powers over the system’s finances and academics. But this week, the Emergency Manager law was suspended until after a referendum in November that may repeal it.

In the meantime, the state believes that means that the old Emergency Financial Manager law is back in place.  According to a judge’s ruling, when Emergency Financial Managers were named to run school districts, they had power over finances - but not  academics. The stronger Emergency Manager law gave them both.

But with that gone, at least temporarily, the Detroit School Board moved to reassert itself. You might think they would move slowly and sensibly, reviewing Emergency Manager Roy Roberts’ academic plan and keeping it, as far as possible.

But instead, the board is acting as if they were terribly afraid someone might accuse them of common sense.

They immediately began changing the names of some of the district’s worst schools, adding  the words “of high achievement” to them and attempting to move them out of a special group the governor created to deal with failing schools.

Attorney General Bill Schuette didn’t like where this seemed to be going, and so yesterday he filed a lawsuit to remove seven board members from office and asking for an injunction to block the board from doing anything else.

How can the attorney general justify removing the board? Well, according to his office, Detroit has lost so many students he contends it is no longer legally a “first-class’ school district. If they aren’t, they are required to elect all their board members at large, instead of by district, the way they do now.

The attorney general’s action set off  howls from Detroiters, some saying it was another case of white politicians in Lansing disenfranchising the black citizens of Detroit. Roy Roberts, the former Emergency Manager and present Emergency Financial Manager filed his own lawsuit.

He wants the courts to prevent the elected school board from taking any action, because he contends the board would cause significant harm to the district. He may be right about that.

But it is also clear that the cumulative effect of what all the players are doing is further harm to attempts to save a district that’s been badly mismanaged for decades.

For years, nearly every family capable of doing so has fled Detroit‘s Public Schools.

The bottom line is that until Detroit has a public school system that works, the city will never again be able to attract or retain middle-class families. The much-hated Emergency Manager law is gone for now. But we've replaced it with chaos, and for the time being that means things are likely to get worse.