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After public backlash, Detroit Public Schools changes budget cut tactics

Detroit Public Schools

After a public outcry, the Detroit Public Schools is walking back plans to cut teacher pay and boost class sizes.

The district is battling a $127 million deficit, and the Michigan Department of Education approved its revised deficit elimination plan last week.

It called for cutting teachers’ pay by 10% (on top of another 10% pay cut imposed in 2011), and putting up to 43 students in some classrooms.

Those cost-cutting measures sparked a big furor, drawing protests from teachers, parents, community leaders and even some elected officials, including Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan.

On Tuesday, DPS emergency manager Jack Martin announced the district was backing off those moves.

Martin said district leaders had “agonized” over implementing the harsh cuts--but decided they had to go forward with them to get state approval for the deficit elimination plan in time for  annual state aid borrowing.

But given the public outcry, Martin said he feared the moves would end up doing the one thing the district can’t afford—driving more students away.

“Maintaining and growing our student base is the only way of making sure the district is sustainable into the future,” Martin said. “We must have more students."

Martin said the district is working with state officials to create a new plan that “makes sense,” but thinks they have the support needed to roll back the cuts.

“There’ s only so far you can go with cutting [before] you destroy the fabric of the organization," Martin said.

The Michigan Department of Education didn’t immediately indicate it would support Martin’s proposed revisions—though state superintendent Mike Flanagan tweeted this week that he didn’t support the teacher pay cut.

“DPS can make things right,” Flanagan said. “Send me a revised deficit plan that has a better solution with no pay cuts to teachers and staff.”

Flanagan had approved the plan last week, noting in a statement that: “It is not the role of the Michigan Department of Education, or the State Superintendent, to dictate what a local district proposes in its Deficit Elimination Plan – those decisions are up to the local district.”

But Martin said district officials felt compelled to include the more drastic measures because the state had rejected previous versions of the plan for their “unrealistic assumptions.”

Martin said the new plan is a work in progress, and likely won’t be finalized for another 2-3 months.

But the idea is to pare back the deficit through other means, such as letting more vacant positions go unfilled, selling additional surplus real estate, pursuing more grand funds, and possibly laying off non-school-based district staff.

The new plan would also extend the district’s timeline for erasing its deficit by another 2 years, until 2021.

The prior state-approved plan had also assumed Wayne County voters would approve an enhancement millage proposal next year—despite the fact that voters overwhelmingly rejected essentially the same proposal earlier this month.

The district had assumed the millage would pass in its prior budget, and its failure was a big reason officials had to submit another plan and seek an emergency bridge loan from the state last week. However, Martin said the revised plan will not assume new millage revenues as part of the budget.

Detroit Federation of Teachers President Keith Johnson said teachers and school communities were relieved to hear about the rollbacks. He credited public pressure for making that happen.

“We want to give a big round of thanks to the people in the community who rallied behind their teachers and other DPS employees to say, ‘This is not the way,’” Johnson said.

Johnson echoed Martin’s concerns about boosting enrollment, budgeted for this year at just 43,000 students. He said these changes do make things easier, but it’s still tough to sell many Detroit parents on DPS.

“You can’t tell parents, ‘Your child’s going to receive a quality education, but by the way, there’s going to be about 45 students in the classroom,’” Johnson said. “Those two concepts collide.”

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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