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For the first time since 2009, Detroit has a (mostly) empowered school board

Jan 12, 2017

New Detroit school board members officially took office Wednesday night.

It’s the first time the district has had a true school board since a series of emergency managers took over in 2009.

The district is in much better financial shape after a state-sponsored aid package passed in June. In fact, it currently has a budget surplus.

But it faces a number of chronic problems, including 264 vacant teaching positions. 163 are now being staffed by substitutes, interim superintendent Alycia Meriweather told board members.

The board took some first steps to hire outside firms to recruit and vet new teachers, as well as a permanent superintendent.

That concerned Detroit Federation of Teachers interim leader Ivy Bailey, who said she was otherwise “pretty pleased” by what she saw from the board.

“Why are we paying somebody to come in and recruit teachers, when we already have a department that is supposed to do that?” Bailey asked. “So if you have to hire somebody to come in and do that, something is wrong with the department that we have.”

The board does need to address the current shortage, which is putting a serious strain on current teachers, but “before they do that they need to pay the teachers that they have in order to keep them,” Bailey said.

Another big issue for the board right out of the gate is the potential closure of dozens of state-designated “priority schools,” singled out for poor test scores.

The district’s outgoing emergency manager, Steven Rhodes, made a last-minute decision to close Durfee Elementary-Middle School. The plan is to merge it with nearby Central High School.

That deal was “new knowledge to us,” said newly-elected board president Iris Taylor.

“We’re in the process of vetting that, so I can’t say to you what the substance or details of such a contract is, or whether there is an option or not an option,” Taylor said.

The new school board is still not quite fully empowered. The state-appointed Detroit Financial Review Commission still has some oversight of the district’s budget, and some contracts and appointments.