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Despite partnerships, office reshuffle, hearing this week in case against School Reform Office

Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio

This week, attorneys representing four Michigan school districts will argue that the state overstepped its bounds when it threatened to close three dozen low-performing schools earlier this year.

In January, the state’s School Reform Office surprised thousands of parents and school leaders when it mailed letters announcing the potential closures. Kalamazoo and Saginaw schools, with the backing of parents, filed a lawsuit, which was joined with two separate cases previously filed by Eastpointe and Detroit schools.

Ultimately, all but one school, a charter school authorized by Central Michigan University, worked out agreements with the state to stay open.

In 2015 Governor Rick Snyder made a controversial move. He reshuffled the office responsible for turning around failing schools, the School Reform Office, in a way that gave him more control — moving the SRO from under the control of the Michigan Department of Education, which answers to the state superintendent and state school board, to the Department of Technology, Management and Budget, which answers to the governor.

That move allowed Snyder to “jumpstart” the School Reform Office, says Snyder spokesman Ari Adler.

“The governor is very action oriented and he doesn’t want to just see reports he wants to see action taken because of the data in those reports. He wasn’t seeing that happening and now he is,” Adler said.

One of the main arguments attorneys for the school districts have made is that moving SRO from the education department goes against the state constitution. Adler disagrees.

“You also have to remember that the state has a responsibility to make sure that kids are getting quality education,” Adler said. “If the local decisions being made are not allowing that to happen, we have a responsibility as a state to step in and make sure these kids are taken care of.”

But in late June, Snyder announced he’d move the SRO office again; this time back under the supervision of the education department and State Superintendent Brian Whiston. Despite the reshuffle and the partnership agreements, the hearing is still set for Tuesday morning in Detroit.

An attorney for Kalamazoo and Saginaw schools districts and a spokesman for Kalamazoo Public Schools declined to comment on pending litigation at this time.

Lindsey Smith is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently leading the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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