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Officials pledge "seamless" transition to new Detroit school district, but many still nervous

DPS emergency manager Steven Rhodes.
John Meiu
Detroit Legal News Publishing LLC

At a public meeting Thursday, Detroit Public Schools leaders tried to reassure still-nervous teachers and parents there should be a “seamless” transition to a new school district in the city.

Governor Snyder signed bills splitting the old Detroit school district in two this week.

Those bills create an “old” district, which will remain a legal entity solely to pay off existing debts; and a new, yet-to-be-named entity that will take over running schools and educating children.

The bills also include $617 million, though most of that money will go toward paying off the “old” DPS debt, with just about $25 million going to finance start-up costs and other expenses for the “new” district.

The legislation provides an opportunity for a “fresh start,” said the district’s former emergency manager and now transition manager Steven Rhodes.

Rhodes said the district has a balanced budget for the next school year. Enrollment is projected to decline slightly, to about 45,000 students. 

But many remain skeptical of the deal, and concerned the schools will continue their downward spiral.  

Bolstering those concerns are provisions in the legislation that carve out special exemptions for Detroit schools, many of which target teachers.

That includes a provision that allows for uncertified teachers in the new district — though DPS interim superintendent Alycia Meriweather says the district does not intend to take advantage of that loophole, which she likens to letting an untrained pilot fly a plane.

“The whole country would be outraged if a pilot took off a plane with people on board, and they had no training. We have 46,000 passengers whose life is in our hands,” Meriweather said.

“We need the most qualified, most certified, best people teaching our kids.”

But Gwendolyn Denham, a math teacher at Detroit’s Renaissance High School, worries that leaders aren’t doing enough to reassure teachers about the district’s future.

“I’ve talked with a lot of my fellow staff members, and people are fleeing the district. I’m talking about the educators,” Denham said. “And if you don’t have teachers, whether the new co or the old co, it’s not going to work.”

Collective bargaining for a new contract with the Detroit Federation of Teachers has begun, though Rhodes would not comment on it. Under the new law, Detroit's state-appointed Financial Review Commission, which oversees the city's finances post-bankruptcy, also must approve the new district's labor contracts.

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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