Detroit Public Schools Face 'Draconian' Cuts

March 2, 2011

Sarah Cwiek

Detroit's public school district is grappling with a $327 million budget deficit.

State-appointed Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb has proposed a deficit elimination plan that would close half the district's schools, and put up to 60 kids in a classroom.

Bobb admits the plan could be disastrous for students, but he may have no choice but to implement it.

Bobb calls his own deficit elimination plan "draconian." In January, he gave that plan to the state of Michigan, warning it was the only way for Detroit Public Schools to "cut its way out" of its deficit.

The state's department of education says that's exactly what Bobb should do.

"We're working through some very difficult and challenging budget situations," Bobb said last week.

He backed away somewhat from one of the plan's most staggering provisions: 60 kids in some classrooms. But he says class sizes will go up as the district closes about half its schools.

The plan also calls for replacing individual school principals with "regional" ones, and cutting all general bus service.

Maddie Wright found out about the cuts when she attended a workshop at the Marcus Garvey Academy on Detroit's east side. Wright, who's raising a grandson in the seventh grade, says she doesn't like the idea of less individual attention for kids — especially in subjects like math, where she struggles to help with homework.

"The only somebody who can help him is some of those younger teachers. Because I can't," Wright said.

Bobb also proposed putting Detroit Public Schools through a bankruptcy process similar to what General Motors did. It would allow the system leave much of its debt behind, and emerge with a new balance sheet.

Detroit State Representative David Nathan, a Democrat, says he's all right with the bankruptcy option. But he says state officials have told him that even talking about it will hurt the state's bond rating.

"We should allow the district to do that," Nathan says. "We should not sacrifice the kids of the city of Detroit to save a bond rating for the state. Those are my children in that school district."

But the state's education department nixed that option. State Republicans are also pushing legislation that gives state-appointed financial managers broad powers, including the right to throw out union contracts.

Nathan says he's working on a compromise bill that would avoid both bankruptcy and the worst cuts.

As the drama unfolds in Lansing, Detroit schools are left to wonder when they'll know their fate.

Lorena Craighead, a teacher at Detroit's Renaissance High School, says almost everyone involved in the school system has failed Detroit's children "on so many levels."

"We continue to get thrown these leaders who don't show that they care, battle with our unions who are supposed to be on our side, and motivate and invigorate parents who've gotten apathetic, and kids who hear all these things being said about them as if they don't matter."

The Detroit native says she's thinking about moving on because she loves teaching, and won't let Detroit Public Schools budget mess take "that joy" away from her. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.