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From Flint to Detroit: Darnell Earley to take over as Detroit Public Schools emergency manager

Jan 14, 2015

From left to right: newly-appointed DPS emergency manager Darnell Earley, Gov. Snyder, and outgoing DPS EM Jack Martin.
Credit Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio

Flint’s emergency manager is moving into a new role: as emergency manager of the Detroit Public Schools.

Gov. Snyder named Darnell Earley as the school district’s fourth consecutive emergency manager on Tuesday.

At a press event announcing the appointment, both Earley and Snyder emphasized the importance of broad school reforms to Detroit’s larger revival as it emerges from bankruptcy.

“Detroit’s rebirth won’t be completed until the chapter on the Detroit Public Schools is re-written,” Earley said. “That revision is now some six years in drafting, with at least another 18 months of editing yet to be done.”

Under Michigan’s revised emergency manager law, elected officials can vote emergency managers out of office after 18 months. The Detroit Board of Education had planned to dismiss now-former EM Jack Martin when his 18-month term expired this week.

But Gov. Snyder, citing a recent court decision, believes the law allows the governor to appoint an unlimited succession of emergency managers ​– if he acts before any one EM officially reaches the 18-month mark.

The governor defended his decision to stay the current course with DPS, while acknowledging the district still faces a budget deficit of nearly $170 million after almost six years of emergency management.

“The emergency manager law has worked quite effectively in a number of other communities,” Snyder said, citing Earley’s work in Flint and Detroit’s recent emergence from bankruptcy.

While admitting that DPS "has been a particular challenge,” Snyder insisted the district has made important progress under state control. “And I don’t think it would be prudent to leave while we still have major financial issues,” he added.

Earley wouldn't commit to fully resolving those issues during his term, saying his main goal is “to leave the Detroit Public Schools in better shape than when I got here.”

Earley promised to work with outside partners, including a coalition group, backed by Gov. Snyder, that’s devising recommendations for wide-reaching reforms in all Detroit schools, including charters.

He also pledged to involve the elected DPS school board, but was clear about who would call the final shots.

“My philosophy of management is one of inclusion. That means everybody has a seat at the table,” Earley said, adding: “That is, until you try to knock the table over.”

School board members were furious about Earley’s appointment. They and other critics maintain that conditions in DPS schools have only gotten worse under emergency management, while leaving parents, teachers and community members marginalized.

“He’s [Snyder] destroying children’s lives here in the city of Detroit,” fumed board member Lamar Lemmons. “I’m a parent before I’m a school board member, and there’s no accountability under this process.”

Detroit Federation of Teachers President Keith Johnson was “infuriated and offended” by the move.

Johnson noted that DPS enrollment has fallen off sharply in the past six years, from about 97,000 students in the 2008-09 school year, to roughly 47,000 this year. Meanwhile, the district is educating more special-needs  students with fewer resources, struggling with classroom overcrowding, and carrying an ever-increasing debt burden per student.

Johnson said all those things combine to make it “virtually impossible for us to climb out of this hole," and that a new emergency manager won’t fix anything.

“They [the state] keep on dancing around the issue, without really getting to the core, which is that we have a structural problem,” Johnson said.

“The definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing the same way, and expecting a different result.”