VOICES: Lansing needs to listen on DPS

When Rick Snyder was elected as governor, one of his first moves was to expand Michigan’s emergency manager law and use it to appoint a manager for DPS. In the intervening six years, the state has accumulated over $500 million in debt from operating losses at DPS.
 
It is easy to portray this debt as a result of previous commitments made by DPS officials, whether pensions or building bonds. The truth is, poor management by a steady stream of emergency managers who ran over budget every year has resulted in huge losses that DPS is now being forced to account for.
 
In other words, the state was in control when this debt was run up and should be held legally responsible for paying it down. Even if DPS were to declare bankruptcy, it is both irresponsible and inaccurate to lay the blame solely on district administrators.
 
Sonja KarnovskyWhile teachers are forced to miss class because they will not receive compensation and see themselves portrayed as selfish and ignoring the needs of children, Lansing has finally tried to address this issue.
 
It seemed reasonable to hope that legislators could come together to help DPS move away from past mistakes of state-appointed administrators and to help pay Lansing's obligation to this district.
 
Instead, DPS is now faced with a series of bills from Lansing (Public Acts 192-196)  that don’t solve any problems.
 
Schools have not been given the financial and logistical resources they need to be successful; DPS was not given the cash necessary to start off debt free in the 2016-2017 school year. If the school system is not solvent at the beginning of this school year, it cannot build trust and retain the competent teachers it needs to serve its students.
 
Teachers who have stuck with DPS, rather than the emergency managers who are responsible for much of the school system’s debt, will be punished through loss of income and benefits. This sends a clear message that teachers are being forced to account for mistakes that they did not make.
 
And yet, state control over DPS will continue; emergency managers have not been removed, despite their role in this crisis.
 
This package of bills sends a clear message: Lansing is not stepping up to shoulder any of the burden to help DPS, despite its clear role in the problem. Detroit legislators were shut out of negotiation and were denied the right to speak for their constituents in Lansing. It is telling that legislators from the Detroit unanimously opposed this legislation.
 
The state needs to offer material support and structural guidance while stepping back from a direct supervisory role. DPS has talented, capable people who need the opportunity to help their school district. Lansing just needs to listen to them.  
 
Sonja Karnovsky is currently in her second year of a Master in Urban Planning program at the University of Michigan with a focus on Housing, Community, and Economic Development. Before pursuing her MUP, Sonja worked as a campaign manager for progressive candidates around Michigan. She is passionate about the intersection of quality, affordable housing and sustainable building and growth. Sonja holds a Bachelor of Arts in Environmental Politics and Policy, Political Science, and Spanish from the University of Michigan.
 
Karnovsky is also a member of Metromode's Emerging Leaders Board. which advises our solutions journalism-based series on Metro Detroit's regional issues. The project is conducted in partnership with Metro Matters and Model D. The work is funded by the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan. Read more in the series here.
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