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Michigan schools continue to struggle under emergency management

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The Highland Park school district is almost out of cash. The state is working on a solution to keep kids in school.

It’s been almost two-and-a-half years since Michigan’s revamped emergency manager law took effect. Thirteen Michigan cities and five school districts are currently under some form of state oversight.

Now, there are growing doubts about the law’s ability to help schools in financial distress.

It’s fair to say there have been some successes on the municipal front. Seven cities are now transitioning back to full local control. Only one municipal emergency manager remains on the job.

The same cannot be said about schools. Only one district has ever exited state receivership and stayed out from under it.  That district – Inkster Public Schools – has since been dissolved due to financial troubles.

For people living in Highland Park, failure to stabilize enrollment under a number of EMs means their only high school will not be opening its doors in the fall.

"If we ain't got no school, how do we go get the kids the progress or go anywhere?"

“If we ain’t got no school, how do we go get the kids the progress or go anywhere? Especially if you’ve got to go clean across town now to take them. Now people have got to figure out a way to get them there, get them back,” one Highland Park named Keith told me.

Keith was one of several people I ran into outside Highland Park Renaissance Academy trying to get school transcripts so they could transfer their children to another school. Unfortunately for Keith and the others, all the doors to the school were locked – despite having checked with the district to make sure the building would be open that day.

Democratic State Sen. Bert Johnson represents Highland Park, Hamtramck, and parts of Detroit. That means he’s likely dealt with more emergency managers than any other state elected official other than the governor. And he says he’s had good working relationships with many of them.

“At the end of the day, they’re people just like I am,” says Johnson. “They put on their pants the same way that I do. So I recognize that they’re not monsters and they’re doing a job. I also recognize that, in a lot of instances, they’re not equipped to do the job that they’re being brought in to do.”

Johnson says he believes the state has a responsibility to assist public schools that fall into financial trouble. But he says the emergency manager approach has not worked.

“You can’t bring in bean counters and think that they’re going to take care of the academic side of schooling. And schooling is much, much different than running a municipality. Once you lose a child in the education system, you hardly get them back.”

There are signs from Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration that confidence has dropped, at least in some cases, in the ability of emergency managers to deal with schools in financial emergencies.

Snyder hopes to sell lawmakers on a major restructuring and bailout of Detroit Public Schools, which has had four EMs in seven years.

Michigan Department of Treasury spokesperson Terry Stanton says it’s relatively easy for parents to move kids to different schools. That means it can be very hard to stop the bleeding once enrollment begins to drop.

“When you have a declining enrollment, just because an emergency manager is appointed doesn’t mean that enrollment stabilizes immediately or that there’s additional student growth,” said Stanton. 

Stanton points out that out of about 600 school districts in Michigan, only five are under some form of state oversight.

"You can't bring in bean counters and think that they're going to take care of the academic side of schooling."

But he says the administration and lawmakers are still trying to be proactive. He points to a set of new laws that create a so-called “early warning system” for schools. They require added financial reports for districts that show signs of financial trouble. They would make it easier for intermediate school districts and the state to intervene early on.

“The longer you let a problem fester and grow, then the more difficult the hole gets to dig out of and the more difficult the decisions are to remedy that situation.”

But Democrats like Sen. Johnson opposed the measures in the Legislature – in part because the new laws also make it easier for the state to appoint emergency managers if schools don’t fully comply.

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