Report: Michigan’s takeover of Detroit schools was ‘a costly mistake’

The state was supposed to solve intractable problems that elected school officials in Detroit could not.

It made things worse, according to a newly released report on the 15 years during which the Detroit school district was largely controlled by state-appointed officials.

The study, which was commissioned by the current school board, found a pattern of “startling mismanagement” in academic and financial matters whose consequences continue to weigh on the district’s future.

While some had hoped that the report would eventually lead to a lawsuit against the state, that seems unlikely. Instead, it provides a 172-page confirmation of what many Detroiters have argued for years: that installing state officials in place of the elected school board wasn’t enough to make the district’s problems disappear.

“The legacy of emergency management coupled with the continuing effect of inequitable school funding, will inevitably cause the District to hit a ceiling and impede its current progress toward a complete turnaround of traditional public education in Detroit,” the seven board members wrote in a statement in response to the report.

As state officials closed dozens of schools, they failed to adequately maintain the properties — “a costly mistake,” the report found, “as many of the vacant buildings have been stripped and/or vandalized.”

Tom Watkins, who was state superintendent from 2001 to 2005, said there was little hope of improving the district’s financial situation simply through effective management — not without solving underlying issues with declining enrollment and Michigan’s school funding structure.

“It’s like trying to bail out a sinking yacht with a thimble,” he said.

The authors of the report, which was produced by the Allen Law Group, a Detroit law firm, acknowledged that it’s impossible to put a price tag on emergency management. They noted, too, that it’s impossible to say whether locally elected officials or anyone else would have done better given the district’s financial condition and declining enrollment.

The report was set in motion by the election of a new school board in 2017. One of its members, LaMar Lemmons, wanted the district to be compensated for what he viewed as the failures of state control. He wanted to sue the state. While his new colleagues didn’t agree, he continued to press the issue, and they agreed to commission a study.

“The ill-conceived experiments have adversely affected a district of children of color,” said Lemmons, who continued to voice his criticism of state control after his term expired last year.

Rather than solve the district’s structural financial problems, the report says, state officials sought short term fixes, leaving the district with $299 million in long-term debt by 2014, not to mention interest costs of $52 million.

As they sought to stanch the financial bleeding, emergency managers paid little attention to what was going on in the classroom, according to the report. A 2018 curriculum audit found that students had been learning from outdated materials that Superintendent Nikolai Vitti called “an injustice to the children of Detroit.”

There’s little question that the last two decades rank among the most tumultuous times in the history of the largest school district in Michigan.

Declining enrollment fueled by deindustrialization and white flight came to a head in the late 1990s as the district faced a fiscal disaster.

Between 1999 and 2016, the district was mostly under the control of state-appointed officials.

Many Detroiters viewed the takeovers as a violation of their voting rights. Critics pointed out the racial overtones of mostly white state lawmakers taking control of a majority black district. Indeed, almost all state takeovers of school districts nationwide have happened in communities of color.

In 2016, state legislators agreed to send $617 million to the school district as part of a deal that ended nearly 15 years of mostly state control. A school board election was held within months.

The new school board hired Vitti, who launched an academic overhaul and is seeking input on a plan to consolidate the district’s facilities. The school board pointed to gains on recent standardized tests as evidence that the district has started a new chapter.

Watkins agreed: “There is a greater focus in the law few years on teaching, learning, and children in Detroit than I have seen in the last couple of decades.”