Legislation that transfers control of Detroit's ailing public school system to Mayor
Dennis Archer became law in March after two months of debate in the House and Senate and
years of political maneuvering.
The legislation, signed March 26 by Governor John Engler, gave Archer 30 days to name
six members of a seven-member reform board that would effectively replace Detroit's
elected public school board. The seventh member of the board will be State Superintendent
of Public Instruction Art Ellis. The final version of the bill increased Ellis's term on
the board from one year to five years.
Archer took only five days to appoint six business and community leaders to positions
on the new board. In addition to Ellis, the team includes deputy mayor Freman Hendrix, New
Detroit President Bill Beckham, Marygrove College President Glenda Price, community
activist Marvis Coffield, Mexican Industries CEO Pam Aguirre, and DaimlerChrysler Vice
President Frank Fountain.
The reform board has the power to appoint a chief executive officer to direct
day-to-day operations of the 180,000-student system, but the board must be unanimous in
its selection of the CEO.
The new law stripped the existing elected board of most of its power, and Archer moved
quickly to establish control. The Detroit News reported that shortly after the
bill's signing, the mayor gave the elected board members five days to vacate their offices
and ordered them to turn in any district-owned property including keys, credit cards,
pagers and cell phones.
The legislation easily passed the state Senate in early March. The state House approved
the bill by a comfortable margin in the early-morning hours of March 25, but not without
emotional debate and accusations that the law disenfranchises Detroit voters.
"How can you do this? It's criminal. We're human beings, not second-class
citizens," Rep. Martha Scott, D-Highland Park, said during the final hours of House
Weeks of House wrangling over the bill produced unusual allies as Republican Engler
proposed giving power to Democrat Archer. A coalition of Detroit's 13 school employee
labor unions, not usually allies of Engler, supported the plan that preserves current
collective bargaining agreements. The labor unions also secured a promise from Archer not
to privatize janitorial, food, and transportation servicesreforms that have helped
restore financial health to other ailing school systems including Chicago.
Democratic legislators from Detroit turned against the mayor of their own party and, at
one point, proposed an alternative that would have given Engler complete control of the
schools, leaving Archer out.
"It got very personal," Archer told The Detroit News. "It got
very ugly and it didn't need to go that way. . . . [But] when the smoke cleared, those who
thought that this was in the best interest of the children agreed with me."
The Detroit public school district, Michigan's largest, is saddled with poor test
scores, high dropout rates, and crumbling buildings. The district's dropout rate for high
school students was 26.4 percent in 1997; the four-year graduation rate was 29.7 percent.
In 1998, only 6 percent of the city's high school juniors met state standards in reading,
writing, math, and science, compared with a statewide average of 32 percent, according to
U.S. News & World Report.
Engler has long talked about intervening in Detroit schools. He floated the idea of
transferring control to the mayor in 1996, but Archer was newly elected and did not agree
to the plan. Engler proposed "state intervention" for "failing public
schools" in his 1997 State of the State address. This year, he got more specific by
proposing a takeover modeled on reforms of Chicago's school system. The Illinois
Legislature granted Chicago Mayor Richard Daley sweeping authority over the city's schools
Governor Engler declared himself satisfied with the final bill.
"This bill is the result of hard work and tough negotiations," Engler said in
remarks reported by the Michigan Information & Research Service. "This bill is
stronger than the one we started with, and I am pleased with the compromise."
The law includes provisions that give the new school board CEO the power to appoint a
chief academic officer, chief financial officer, chief purchasing officer, and chief
operations officer. It also allows the CEO to terminate contracts entered into by the
elected school board (excluding collective bargaining agreements); requires the mayor to
conduct a financial audit of the school system; and establishes a school accountability
board comprised of Ellis, the state treasurer, the state budget director, and two members
of the public appointed by Engler.