Without aid, DPS may close half of its schools
Class sizes also would swell under proposal filed with the state.
Jennifer Chambers / The Detroit News
Detroit — Detroit Public Schools would close nearly half of its schools in the next two years, and increase high school class sizes to 62 by the following year, under a deficit-reduction plan filed with the state.
The plan, part of a monthly update Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb gives the Department of Education, was filed late Monday to provide insight into Bobb's progress in his attempt to slash a $327 million deficit in the district to zero over the next several years. Under it, the district would slim down from 142 schools now to 72 during 2012-13.
Bobb has said school closures, bigger classes and other measures would be needed if he cannot get help from lawmakers to restructure finances in the state's largest school district.
DPS considered but declined to file for bankruptcy in 2009. In the past year, debt in the district has increased by more than $100 million, brought on by a mix of revenue declines in property taxes, reduced state aid, declining enrollment and an unplanned staffing surge this past fall.
Starting this fall, the district plans to boost class sizes in grades 4-12 and at all grade levels by fiscal 2012, which begins July 1, to save $16.8 million. The plan would hike class sizes for: Grades K-3 from 17-25 students to 29 in 2012-13 and 31 in 2013-14.
Grades 4-5 from 30 students to 37 in 2012-13 and 39 in 2013-14.
Grades 6-8 from 35 students to 45 in 2012-13 and 47 in 2013-14.
Grades 9-12 from 35 students to 60 in 2012-13 and 62 in 2013-14.
Because the district's contract with the Detroit Federation of Teachers requires payments to teachers for class sizes that exceed specified maximums, the district estimates it would spend $10 million in oversize class pay over four years.
Keith Johnson, president of the teachers union, said the proposed class size increases won't work and will never happen.
"I will never agree to any class-size increases," Johnson said. "These increases are antithetical to learning. Secondly, our classrooms aren't even built to accommodate those numbers.
"Johnson said the teachers' contract does not let the district exceed contracted class sizes through 2012. DFT filed an unfair labor practice charge in July to restore class sizes for the upcoming school year.
Parent Petrina Johnson said swelling high school classrooms to 60 students or more will only leave them uneducated.
"There is one teacher and she can barely get to each of the 36 kids now. That makes no sense," said Johnson, who has three children at Mumford High School.
School officials said the plan would create a "lecture hall" model similar to a university.
Johnson said teenagers aren't ready for that.
"This gives more opportunity for them to slip through the cracks," she said.
The proposal calls for closing 40 schools in fiscal 2012 and 30 schools in fiscal 2013. That would leave DPS with 72 schools for a projected 58,570 students, down from about 74,000 now. The district closed 30 schools this fiscal year, which is expected to save $23 million. The planned closings in fiscal 2012-14 would save more than $33 million.
Bobb said the district could save another $12.4 million from the school closures if it "simply abandons" the closed buildings. Past policy has been to keep the closed schools clean and secure, officials said, but the district could cut costs by eliminating storage, board-up and security.
DPS spokesman Steve Wasko said the district has laid out the path it must take to eliminate the deficit, and Bobb remains focused on working with lawmakers to pass one of three plans to restructure DPS' finances.
Those plans include splitting the district in two to put its debt obligation with an "old district," covering about 9,000 students. State revenue would pay off the debt, allowing the "new district" to move forward debt-free with undetermined start-up funds.
Such a plan would need approval by state lawmakers and Gov. Rick Snyder.
District officials said they are pursuing "renaissance" legislation to free up $400 million in future tobacco settlement funds that could help mend DPS' deficit and those of 40 other districts statewide. In return, the districts would make dramatic reforms based on the federal Race to the Top initiative, such as eliminating teacher seniority.
That proposal died last month in the state Legislature's lame duck session. A third plan would look at new systems and agencies used in New Orleans, which has converted more than half of its public schools into charter schools in the past several years.
Besides closing schools and increasing class sizes, Bobb's plan calls for the district to abolish its divisions of finance, legal services, human services and public safety and contract with either Wayne County or the city of Detroit for those services.
"This is the route that we'd need to take if the other larger solutions are not found," Wasko said. "It is in fact the route that we continue to take until alternatives are approved."
There was no mention of any of these plans in the documents Bobb filed with the state, Wasko said, because the plans are still being researched and fleshed out in and outside DPS.
"There is a lot of work going on," he said.
Joseph Johnson, executive director for the National Center for Urban School Transformation, said almost every urban school district in the country is struggling, but perhaps none as severely as Detroit.
"I haven't heard of an urban district taking such drastic of steps," Joseph Johnson said. "Certainly every urban district is engaging in some serious belt-tightening as they are dealing with smaller budgets and at the same time often higher expectation from the public in terms of student achievement."
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