State ends direct control of Detroit schools

    Nikolai Vitti, DPSCD, general superintendent | Ken Coleman

    Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD) announced on Monday its exit from the state of Michigan Financial Review Commission (FRC). The news came immediately after the FRC unanimously to adopt a resolution approving the measure. 

    “Detroiters for a long time have deserved local control, deserved a regular, normal school district,” said Nikolai Vitti, Detroit Public Schools Community District general superintendent. “Today’s announcement is about returning this district back to where it was before it was improperly taken over by the state.”  

    The 51,000-student district, the state’s largest, has been under a form of direct or indirect state control for 18 of the last 21 years. In 2008, the district had incurred a projected budget deficit of about $408 million, according to a nonpartisan Senate Fiscal Agency report. That revelation prompted state oversight.  

    “This is a monumental day for the state of Michigan,” said state Treasurer Rachael Eubanks, Detroit FRC chair. “Our largest school district has shown leadership in having three consecutive balanced budgets with minimal oversight of day-to-day operations. I congratulate Detroit residents, parents, families, students and district officials for this historic accomplishment.”

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    The Legislature approved in 1988 an emergency management law that allowed for state-appointed officials to oversee management of municipalities and school districts. Then-Gov. Jim Blanchard, a Democrat, signed it. During the GOP former Gov. Rick Synder administration, those powers were strengthened to provide emergency managers who were appointed by the governor. 

    Under the leadership of the Detroit school board, Vitti completed debt refinancing, resulting in savings to the taxpayers of Detroit of nearly $100 million. In addition, DPSCD has improved financial operations and implemented systems resulting in reduced audit findings.

    State law allows school district exit active direct FRC oversight provided they meet financial and reporting requirements. The law, however, does require that the FRC continue to meet. 

    “This is one more incredible milestone for DPSCD, but it is really just the beginning of the next chapter of our work,” said Iris Taylor, DPSCD board president. “Beginning in January our board, alongside many community leaders, need to go to Lansing together to immediately begin work on a new model for Michigan’s school funding. The model has to change immediately to be equitable, to meet the unique population needs of the most urban and rural impoverished school districts of our state.”  

    The district either permanently closed or moved dozens of programs from one site to another since 2004. Before the COVID-19 crisis, the district carried out a series of community conversations in city neighborhoods where the number of operating schools was a part of the discussion.

    There are no plans to close schools, according to Vitti and Taylor. Detroit Public Schools enrolled 168,213 students during the 1999-2000 school year. It reported about 51,000 students during the 2019-20 school year. 

    Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.