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Will Governor Snyder and the Legislature fix Detroit Public Schools?

Jan 14, 2016

Over the past few weeks, Detroit Public Schools have been facing sick-outs from teachers protesting school conditions, pay, and Governor Snyder’s proposed plan to address the district’s massive debt.

I spoke to Susan Demas, publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, and Ken Sikkema, former Senate Majority Leader and Senior Policy Fellow at Public Sector Consultants about the situation at DPS and whether there is a clear path forward.

Mayor Mike Duggan toured some Detroit schools and says the conditions are a mixed bag.

Some schools are in decent condition while others would, in his words, "break your heart."

Some schools are in decent condition while others would, in his words, "break your heart."

Duggan is the latest voice in a chorus expressing concern about the conditions in Detroit Schools.

Demas says it's clear the district is in financial distress and adds, "I think there are also real safety, health and academic concerns as well. And those are things that have to be addressed although the Governor obviously is hoping to get the financial plan in action first."

The sick outs have closed dozens of schools across the city.

Detroit teachers say it's the only tool they have to call attention to deteriorating conditions in schools.

Teacher strikes are illegal in Michigan and now there are calls from the Legislature to plainly define sick outs as a type of strike.

Sikkema says the question about the legality of sick outs is a sideshow. 

"The big issues are money, the government structure ... and academic outcomes," he says. "And I guess we can add a fourth and that's the condition of the buildings. But it's those big three issues that the Governor and the Legislature are going to have to grapple with here very quickly, because come April or March the district is going to run out of money."

"I think Republican lawmakers want to make sure the teachers' unions take it on the chin."

As Governor Snyder tries to move his plan forward he is looking to get support from lawmakers and other concerned groups.

Demas says we're starting to see what that support might look like.

"I think that what you're starting to see are Republican legislators who do control both bodies by large margins trying to stake out a position in dealing with the Governor in order to come up with that $700 million that the district will need over the next decade," says Demas. "I think Republican lawmakers want to make sure the teachers' unions take it on the chin." 

Demas adds that Democrats in the Legislature are worried that the concerns of parents and teachers aren't being addressed in the plan. 

Sikkema says, ultimately, he thinks they will solve the problem because they have to. But he thinks the process won't be pretty.

"It could be a lot like the road issue, a very ugly process and frankly an ugly outcome that I don't think is going to work long term," he says. "Or as you get closer and closer into the year and that means closer to the November election, solving the problem might simply mean avoiding bankruptcy prior to the November election."
 

Sikkema adds that if the solution doesn't address academic outcomes, it will ultimately be a detriment to Detroit's recovery. 

Lister to our full conversation below: