Who Will Take Responsibility for Detroit’s Future?

January 19, 2016. Share on Twitter

What About the Future? Children are cities’ futures, so it is understandable that Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is trying to change not only the math of the system’s failing fisc, but also the failed governance of a system currently under a state-imposed emergency manager. With black mold climbing the interior walls of some classrooms, and free ranging, non-laboratory rats occupying classrooms, the arithmetic of the schools’ finance merit an F: Of the $7,450-per-pupil grant the school district will receive this year, $4,400 will be spent on debt servicing and benefits for retired teachers, according to the Citizens Research Council. Absent a turnaround, the failing school system is hardly likely to spur young families to move into Detroit.

Math, as in any school system, is a fundamental issue: in Michigan, unlike other states, for more than two decades, the Detroit Public School System (DPS) has been funded, not from property tax revenues, but rather through state sales and income taxes—a system which provides the state with a disproportionate role in how Detroit’s schools are managed—or mismanaged. In addition, DPS, which has been on fiscal life-support since 2009: DPS is currently managed by the fourth state-appointed emergency manager—hardly an augury of stability—and with little indication the series of state appointees have earned good grades: DPS currently carries debt of over $3.5 billion, which includes nearly $1.9 billion in employee legacy costs (such as unfunded pension liabilities) and cash-flow borrowing, as well as $1.7 billion in multi-year bonds and state loans. For the fourth time since 2009.

DPS last year ranked last among big cities for fourth- and eighth-graders (children aged 8-9 and 13-14) in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a school-evaluation program mandated by Congress. If attendance is some measure of the public’s trust, the report card is miserable: over the last decade, attendance has declined more than 66 percent: a majority of families have moved their children to charter schools. Today, the majority of Detroit’s schoolchildren attend state-funded, but privately managed charter schools. Although the massive shift has enabled DPS to reduce its staff by nearly two-thirds, the system’s fixed costs remain high because of its former size. That augurs for a bad report card: Michelle Zdrodowski of DPS recently warned that DPS will run out of cash in April. Mayhap unsurprisingly, the legislature has been not just unenthusiastic about crafting another Detroit rescue plan, but also uneager to even consider the draft, $715 million bill proposed by Governor Rick Snyder: a bill which would create a debt-free DPS, run by a state-appointed board, and with a shell that assumed DPS’s debt. Gov. Snyder is also proposing closing poorly performing charter and traditional schools. Michigan’s constitution proclaims primary and high-school education to be a right. But in freezing, rat-infested Detroit schools, some 50,000 children who might someday determine Detroit’s future are soon to learn how the Michigan legislature defines that “right.”

For Detroit, now more than a year after emerging from the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history, a new municipal bankruptcy might be in the report cards, as DPS is within months of insolvency—especially if the state legislature continues to spurn Gov. Snyder’s proposals. By next month, the amount of state aid to DPS which will have to be sidetracked to pay off debt is projected to be roughly equivalent to what DPS is spending on salaries and benefits—or, as Hetty Chang of Moody’s describes it: “It’s not sustainable…” adding that absent action soon, “they will run out of money.” Her colleague, Andrew Van Dyck Dobos, added that the “Continued sickouts (by teachers) may further incentivize students to flee the district, resulting in lower per-pupil revenues from the State of Michigan and continuing a downward spiral of credit quality.” DPS, Moody’s projects, will see its expenses rise by $26 million a month beginning in February—after our friend in Pennsylvania sees—or does not see—his shadow: February is when DPS is on the line to begin repaying cash flow notes issued to paper over operations—part of the depressing math that will now, inexorably, begin to eat into DPS’s monthly expenses: the increasing debt service will equal about one-third of DPS’ monthly expenses, according to Moody’s. Indeed, without some form of restructuring, Moody’s warns that DPS could lose even more students as it is forced to divert funds from the classroom—adding that teeming long-term pressures on the near-term operational debt payments as the district will impose a $53 million annual expense to repay long-term operational debt through FY2020. In Lansing, Gov. Snyder’s proposal to ask the state legislature to approve the $715 million in state funding, as unappealing to the legislature as it may seem, would prove more affordable to state taxpayers than an eventual default or potential legal action due to a municipal bankruptcy filing.

DPS’s burdensome debts.  President Barack Obama plans to visit Detroit tomorrow to witness the Motor City’s progress firsthand as part of his trip that includes a tour of the auto show. The trip will also be an opportunity to assess the outcomes of his creation of a federal coordinator and an interagency Detroit Working Group to help 20 federal agencies assist Detroit—agencies through which the federal government has since invested $300 million in Detroit through grants and programs involving blight demolition, transportation, and public lighting. The President will also visit the North American International Auto Show in an effort to showcase the record auto sales of 2015, the 640,000 new auto-industry jobs created since the federal auto bailout, and emerging technologies that could help reduce U.S. dependence on oil and keep the industry competitive. The visit could also help the White House assess the successes and failures of its own efforts to help Detroit out of bankruptcy—efforts, obviously, profoundly different than the federal bailouts of the bankrupt automobile industry in Detroit, including “embedding” full-time federal staff inside city government to help identify federal resources to help Detroit and cut through red tape. Among the Administration-supported projects provided to Detroit has been $130 million in federal funds for blight removal, and allowing the city to demolish more than 7,500 blighted buildings in fewer than two years—federal funds made available from the 2009 Hardest Hit Fund mortgage aid program. Among the projects that Mayor Duggan’s office continues to discuss with federal officials are expanding Detroit’s youth employment program and securing more aid for blight elimination. It is hard to imagine that the future of DPS will not be on the table too.

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