Recent facts and figures have cast the effectiveness of Detroit’s appointed school board into serious doubt. The passage of Proposal E means that voters will once again be able to hold the board accountable, but until then, the fiscal mess the current panel has overseen will plague Detroit schools. The appointed board, which was supposed to solve the problems created by a marginally effective elected board, has plunged the district into a deep financial crisis that threatens the viability of public education within the city.
The nominated board, headed by Detroit Public Schools Chief Executive Officer Kenneth Burnley, was appointed by former Gov. John Engler. This board, in its five-year tenure, has turned a $100 million fiscal surplus into a debt that could easily surpass $200 million. Last year, the district posted a $48 million deficit. This year, the projected deficit rose to $278 million, before the board passed a series of budget cuts. Unfortunately the cuts will only bring the deficit down to $198 million.
Under the cloud of this massive fiscal shortfall, prospects for the district’s future are rather grim. One solution is a state-level bond bailout, in which the state would issue securities to generate money for the school district. However, Republicans in the state Senate and state House, who helped appoint the board, have indicated that they are not willing to pass such a measure. This impediment could force the district to enact policies that have tangible, negative consequences on the students and residents of Detroit. If the state leaders who professed concern over Detroit’s public schools five years ago truly wish to ensure the survival of public education in the city, they must pass provisions for a government bailout.
The school board could partially balance its finances by laying off an additional 4,000 to 5,000 employees, in addition to the 2,100 it cut last year. The remainder would be made up by closing up to 40 schools indefinitely. Some education policy analysts have derived worst-case scenarios that foresee the complete shutdown of the district. This would be accomplished by simply ending the school year early, when the district is no longer able to afford the cost of educating children.
The financial disaster that threatens to cripple Detroit’s public schools can be attributed to a number of factors, but the brunt of the blame must be placed on the Detroit School Board and the state officials who orchestrated the takeover. The board, appointed specifically to turn the failing district around, has left it in a position that is arguably worse.