News Story

House May Push Back Against Snyder's Detroit School Plan

Rep. Tim Kelly: 'We need to focus on what students need, not the adults'

The Michigan House should create its own plan to address the Detroit Public Schools financial collapse. That’s what Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Saginaw, chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on School Aid, is recommending to his House colleagues.

“We need to respond to the Senate legislation with an alternative plan that would offer an avenue of hope for the students of Detroit,” Kelly said. “It should have more innovation and not necessarily be operated by a traditional school district.”

The Senate legislation Kelly referred to is Senate Bill 710 and Senate Bill 711, which would essentially enact Gov. Rick Snyder’s plan to rescue DPS from $515 million in operating expense debt and impending bankruptcy. Sen. Goeff Hansen, R-Hart, introduced the bills on Jan. 14.

Under Hansen’s legislation, the Detroit school district would be split in two. One portion would have the purely administrative function of servicing the bond debt accumulated by the district. The other would be governed by an elected school board and manage the schools (including academically failed schools currently under a form of state receivership).

At the core of the legislation are financial arrangements to relieve the school district of its operational debt and allow it to redirect property tax revenue that currently supports school operations toward paying off its bond debt. Meanwhile, the state would cover the district’s operations funding shortfall.

Senate Bills 710 and 711 have been assigned to the Senate Government Operations Committee, chaired by Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive. The fact that they weren’t assigned to the Senate Education Committee suggests the bills could be headed on a fast track through the Senate.

But Kelly, who is also vice-chair of the House Appropriations Education Subcommittee, said the Senate legislation focuses too much on preserving DPS, a traditional school district with a long and troubled history. He said that a better approach would be a plan that puts the educational needs of the students ahead of efforts to salvage the district.

“We need to be focused on the students, not the adults,” Kelly said. “It’s the adults who seem to need traditional school districts; what the students need is functioning classrooms whether they’re in a traditional school district or not."

When Kelly was asked whether the prospect of the courts intervening in the DPS situation was on his mind, he said it was.

“Yes, this needs to be done relatively quickly, but the real question is whether what we do is something innovative that could bring about real change or just something that’s similar to what’s always been done in the past,” Kelly said. “Basically, Sen. Hansen’s plan just cedes $250 million to DPS and resets the debt clock. Ultimately, it provides more of the same structure that has produced the same problems.”

When asked whether his Republican colleagues would support his plan, Kelly admitted that it faces some resistance.

“Some education needs to take place both within my caucus and in the Legislature as a whole,” Kelly said. “There are legislators who have a difficult time envisioning schools other than ones that fit the standard school district model. If we can provide information and they get to see some of the innovative ideas that have been successful around the globe, I think we could come up with an alternative to just doing the same things that have been done in the past.”

Hansen said that if Kelly offers an approach that differs from Senate Bills 710 and 711, he would gladly take a look at it.

“I’m fine with him coming up with new ideas. I’m always willing to discuss new ideas and approaches,” Hansen said. “Actually Rep. Kelly and I work together well. He and I worked on the School Aid budget and we ended up getting 99 votes for it in the House.”

“What I’m trying to do on this issue is work with Detroit to put something together that isn’t just the state telling Detroit what to do,” Hansen continued. “I think in the past we tried to tell Detroit what to do and it hasn’t worked out very well. But if Rep. Kelly comes forward with some other ideas, I look forward to seeing them.”