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As DPS "deals" swirl in Lansing, Detroit players push hard for school oversight commission

Parents protest outside a Detroit elementary school earlier this year.
Sarah Cwiek
Parents protest outside a Detroit elementary school earlier this year.

Some Detroit education activists and power players are making a last, all-out push for a specific component of any potential rescue package for Detroit Public Schools.

Lansing needs to come up with some plan to keep DPS from going bankrupt this summer.

But so far, state House leaders haven’t budged on a crucial issue for some: the proposed Detroit Education Commission.

That Commission would have the power to decide what schools open where in the city, including charter schools.

It’s included in the DPS rescue package the state Senate passed in March, but not in a House version.

Walbridge Construction CEO and influential Detroit businessman John Rakolta is a co-chair of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, which supports the Senate legislation.

Rakolta says some form of centralized control over Detroit’s various kinds of public schools is needed, but charter interests have lined up against the DEC idea.

“All Detroit attracts are inferior operators. And these are the very people who are fighting this reform,” Rakolta said.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is also pushing hard for the commission. Under the Senate’s DPS plan, he’d get to appoint all the members.

Duggan reportedly met with charter school operators this week, as well as other “political interests,” to try and put a damper on their concerns. Charter advocates fear the DEC would favor DPS schools at the expense charters, which already enroll more than 50% of Detroit’s student population.

Rakolta is also concerned that House lawmakers aren’t willing to pony up enough money to sustain the new, debt-free school district the Senate bills envision, after putting the existing DPS through a sort of out-of-court bankruptcy process.

Rakolta also said House GOP leaders’ reluctance to include much more than the roughly $515 million needed just to pay off DPS’s short term operational debts, will leave the “new” district sinking before it even gets started.

“The district will be back borrowing massive amounts of money in 12 months,” Rakolta said. Coalition members say at least $200 million is needed in start-up costs, though even the Senate bill package doesn’t explicitly identify a funding mechanism for that.

Skillman Foundation CEO Tonya Allen, another Coalition co-chair, admits that at this point, reports of deals that don’t include the DEC and propose less than $200 million in funding are still just “speculation.”

“But part of what we want to do is make it really clear … [is] that even these speculative thoughts, and the way that people are talking about how we might solve these problems, are insufficient,” Allen said.

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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