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Always on the lookout for ways to fix — or at least start to improve — the Detroit Public Schools, News Hits chatted with state Rep. LaMar Lemmons Jr. recently.
The east side Detroit Democrat has introduced two bills this session related to the troubled district but has bigger reforms in sight. At least if he uses binoculars
But first things first.
In one of his bills, Lemmons proposes the state forgive the $350 million deficit he says was incurred by the reform board that ran the district from 1999 to 2004.
"You can't return the district with a deficit and expect the Detroit citizens to clean up," Lemmons says.
The district's finances currently are the territory of Gov. Jennifer Granholm-appointed consultant Robert Bobb, who has control of the DPS budget for at least a year. He's doing a thorough review of finances and plans for debt reduction.
But Lemmons says the plan should include forgiveness for any debt incurred during the reform board era. He's tried this before — he introduced the same bill last session and it didn't go anywhere.
"It's a political hot potato," he says. "We remain undaunted. We think it's important we keep it before the Legislature and get as much discussion on the issue as we can."
His second proposal this session would allow community colleges to authorize charter schools in first-class districts, a change to the Michigan Revised School Code. Detroit is the state's only first-class district, and current law prevents community colleges from authorizing charter schools in the city. In other school districts, according to law, community colleges located in those districts can authorize charter schools.
The current restriction in Detroit shuts out both Wayne County Community College and Bay Mills Community College, which, as a tribal entity, has statewide opportunities to authorize charters. "Charter schools have helped the city of Detroit and could be a greater benefit," says Lemmons, who concedes there could be better oversight of charters. The charters in Detroit are currently authorized by public universities, Detroit Public Schools and the Wayne Regional Educational Authority.
Both proposals are just a prelude to Lemmons' long-range vision for the district: merger with city government, where it would operate as a city department.
"It should get support from Republicans; it's smaller government," Lemmons quips. But in all seriousness, Lemmons would like to see a voter-approved reorganization that would combine some operational and administrative city and district services — a purchasing department, as an example. Basically, he'd get rid of the school board and have its duties shifted to a new City Council elected by districts.
"It would take a layer out of unnecessary, redundant bureaucracy. It saves money," he says. "That's just my vision of how I would see it. You have to take this in increments."
Lemmons doesn't plan to introduce specific legislation to design this, but he will keep talking about it and hope it catches hold and gains support. "I believe in organizing the grass roots and letting them put pressure on the elected officials," he says.
Of course, in 2004, Detroit voters rejected a ballot proposal that would have given the mayor and an elected school board the power to appoint a CEO to run the district and instead returned the district's administration to the elected school board. Both of Lemmons' bills are referred to the House Education Committee. In the other chamber, Sen. Wayne Kuipers, R-Holland, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, says he's waiting to see some kind of similar initiative from the city's delegation.
Kuipers says groups of teachers and parents have approached him asking for help with the district, though he declines to be specific about what they're asking for.
"I expressed to them that those who have concerns and expressed those concerns to me, that they work through a member of their delegation to try and craft some workable solutions," he says. "I will assist them in any way I can. I will move the legislation through committee. But I think it's in the district's best interest and the students' best interest that I not be responsible."
In additional to financial problems, at issue is the continuing decline in DPS enrollment. Any legislation that seeks to seriously address these issues will likely include negotiations to appease outstate legislators who aren't, oh, sympathetic to Detroit's plight. Expect discussions about allowing more charter schools to operate in Detroit, provisions for financial oversight and changes to school board configurations.
Again, without giving specifics, Kuipers says Detroit lawmakers have spoken with him, suggesting changes to school code. "I've not seen any of them that are in bill form," Kuipers says. "At the end of the day, the delegation has to want to solve the problem, I would think."
News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Send comments to NewsHits@metrotimes.com.