A sharply divided Michigan legislature voted to create a new, debt-free school district in Detroit, a decision Gov. Rick Snyder called an “unprecedented investment” in the city’s children.
The city’s teachers union, however, called the package approved late Wednesday inadequate and politically motivated. One Democratic lawmaker called it “a farce.”
If signed by Snyder, the legislative package would strip the existing Detroit Public Schools of their educational responsibilities and transform the district into a vehicle for paying off $500 million in debt that has sapped classroom funding.
The district — dogged by debt, declining enrollment, crumbling buildings and a growing chorus of teacher complaints — has been under the control of a state emergency manager since 2009.
In its place, a new district — Detroit Community Schools — would be created with $150 million in state funding included in the legislative package. A local school board would lead the new district, with state officials helping oversee finances.
The state Senate passed the main bill in the package by a 19-18 vote, followed by a 55-54 vote in the House, according to CNN affiliate WDIV.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof called the package a “thoughtful compromise.”
“This package of bills resolves a half billion dollars in debt, provides resources necessary for DPS to transition to a new, debt-free district and returns the school district to a locally elected board at the earliest possible election date,” he said.
Snyder signaled his support for the legislation in a statement released early Thursday.
“The legislation approved tonight represents an unprecedented investment for the education of Detroit’s children. The district’s debt will be fully repaid and the new funding will be used to support teaching kids in their classrooms, instead of being diverted to pay off decades of legacy costs,” he said in the statement obtained by WDIV.
But the city’s teachers disagree. On Thursday morning the Detroit Federation of Teachers was promoting a petition on its website calling on Snyder to veto the bills, calling the package “punitive, petty and dangerous for the people of Detroit.”
“The fact that these bills target only Detroit with unpopular and untested education experiments and anti-union measures shows this is not about what’s best for the children of Detroit — it’s about how the Michigan House can exert power over the people of Detroit,” the AFT petition said.
In a statement carried by WDIV, the union said the package that passed the legislature “does not meet the needs of students and attacks educators.”
“This is people playing political games while showing an utter disregard for children’s futures,” the union said, according to WDIV.
Sen. David Knezek of Dearborn Heights was clear about where he stood: “This plan is a farce,” WDIV quoted him as saying.
Approval of the package comes after months of back-and-forth with the local teachers’ union, which has been angry over what officials said were unsatisfactory and sometimes hazardous working conditions, overcrowded classrooms and, at one point, the possibility of not getting paid for their work.
Teachers protested by staging “sickouts,” forcing most of the district’s schools to close as teachers called in sick as a form of protest. Teacher strikes are illegal in Michigan.