Fighting for Cities’ Futures

eBlog, 1/23/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider the ongoing fiscal and governing challenge to Detroit’s future—especially with regard to the quality of education for the city’s future leaders; then we learn from one of the unsung heroes, retired U.S. Judge Gerald Rosen, about his reflections and role in Detroit’s exit from the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history. Then we return to the historic Virginia municipality of Petersburg, where, in its struggle to exit insolvency, a citizen effort is underway to recall its elected leaders. Finally, in the category of ‘when it rains it pours,’ we consider the city hall relocation underway in San Bernardino—one month before it hopes to gain U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury’s approval of the city’s plan of debt adjustment, permitting the city to egress from the longest municipal bankruptcy in American history.

Fighting for Detroit’s Fiscal Future. The City of Detroit is siding with seven Detroit public schoolchildren suing Gov. Rick Snyder and Michigan state education officials over their right to access literacy. (See Jessie v. Snyder, #16-CV-13292, U.S. District Court), having filed an amicus brief in a proposed class action lawsuit against Gov. Snyder and Michigan education officials in a legal challenge seeking to establish that literacy is a U.S. constitutional right. The suit, which was filed last September by a California public interest law firm, claims the state has functionally excluded Detroit children from the state’s educational system; the suit seeks class-action status and several guarantees of equal access to literacy, screening, intervention, a statewide accountability system, as well as other measures. Detroit’s amicus brief urged the court to hold access to literacy as being fundamental, arguing the plaintiffs have alleged sufficient facts to show they are being denied that right: “Denying children access to literacy today inevitably impedes tomorrow’s job seekers and taxpayers; fathers and mothers; citizens and voters…That is why the Supreme Court has stressed the ‘significant social costs borne by our nation’ when children suffer the ‘stigma of illiteracy’—and are thereby denied ‘the basic tools by which (to) lead economically productive lives to the benefit of us all…The City of Detroit (though it does not control Detroit’s schools) is all too familiar with illiteracy’s far-reaching effects.”

A critical fiscal issue for every city and county is the perceived quality of its public schools—a perception critical to encouraging families with children to move into the city—thereby positively affecting assessed property values. The challenge has been greater in Detroit, where the schools’ fiscal and educational insolvencies led to the appointment of former U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes to serve as DPS’s Emergency Manager. In Detroit, politics at the state level imposing a disproportionate number of charter schools has meant that today Detroit has a greater share of students in charters than any U.S. city except New Orleans; however, half the charters perform only as well, or worse than, Detroit’s traditional public schools—mayhap a challenge of having a state attempt to substitute itself over local control. Perhaps former state representative Thomas F. Stallworth III, who helped navigate the passage of the 2014 legislation that paved Detroit’s way out of bankruptcy, put it more succinctly: “We’ll either invest in our own children and prepare them to fill these jobs, or I suppose maybe people will migrate from other places in the country to fill them…If that’s the case, we are still left with this underbelly of generational poverty with no clear path out.”

But, in Michigan, it appears that it has been for-profit companies that expressed the greatest interest: they now operate about 80 percent of charters in Michigan, far more than in any other state. In the wake of the state action, and even as Michigan and Detroit continued to preside over an exodus of families, the number of charter schools grew: Michigan today has nearly 220,000 fewer students than it did in 2003, but more than 100 new charter schools. The number not only grew, but the legislature made sure accountability did not: the legislature in 2012 repealed in the Revised School Code Act 451 the state’s longstanding requirement that the Michigan Department of Education issue annual reports monitoring charter school performance; and the state even created a state-run school district, with new charters, in an effort to try to turn around Detroit’s lowest performing schools. Indeed, 24 charter schools have opened in Detroit since the legislature removed the cap 2011: eighteen charters whose existing schools were at or below Detroit’s dismal performance expanded or opened new schools—that despite increasing evidence students in one company’s schools grew less academically than students in the neighboring traditional public schools. By 2015, the Education Trust-Midwest Michigan noted that charter school authorizers’ performance overall had improved marginally over the previous year, but remained terribly low compared to leading states’ charter sectors, in its report, Accountability for All: 2016, The Broken Promise of Michigan’s Charter Sector. The report celebrates high-performing authorizers and sheds light on the devastatingly low performance of other authorizers, adding that roughly one-quarter of one group’s eligible schools ranked among the worst performing 10 percent of schools statewide. Similarly, according to the Trust, a federal review of a grant application for Michigan charter schools found an “unreasonably high” number of charters among the worst-performing 5 percent of public schools statewide, even as the number of charters on the list had doubled from 2010 to 2014.

The great press to create charter schools has led to another challenge: today Detroit has roughly 30,000 more seats, charter and traditional public, than students. For a system desperate for investment in quality education, instead it has badly failed in elementary math; and there is great risk of a discriminatory system: Detroit Public Schools today bears the human and fiscal burden of trying to educate most of Detroit’s special education students. In contrast, charter schools are concentrated downtown, with its boom in renovation and wealthier residents. With only 1,894 high school age students, there are 11 high schools. Meanwhile, northwest Detroit — where it seems every other house is boarded up, burned or abandoned — has nearly twice the number of high school age students, 3,742, and just three high schools. The northeastern part of the city is even more of an education desert: 6,018 high school age students and two high schools.

Like others elsewhere, charter schools receive roughly the same per-pupil state dollars as public schools; however, in Detroit, it is about $7,300 a year — roughly half what New York or Boston schools get, and about $3,500 less than charters in Denver or Milwaukee.

With the significant fiscal challenges to the Detroit Public Schools, Mayor Mike Duggan had proposed an appointed Detroit Education Commission to determine which neighborhoods most needed new schools and to set standards to close failing schools and ensure that only high performing or promising ones could replicate. Backed by a coalition of philanthropies and civic leaders, the teachers’ union and some charter school operators, Mayor Duggan has succeeded in restoring local control of majority-black Detroit Public Schools, and supported the proposal. In the waning days of the legislative session, House Republicans offered a deal: $617 million to pay off the debt of the Detroit Public Schools, but no commission. Lawmakers were forced to take it to prevent the city school system from going bankrupt.

An Interview with Gerald Rosen. U.S. District Court Judge Gerald Rosen, who, as we have written, played an invaluable role in the so-called “Grand Bargain,” which paved the way for Detroit to exit the largest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history—and who will now join retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, who presided over Detroit’s municipal bankruptcy, in an interview with the Detroit Free Press, said, in response to the query how well Detroit was doing in adhering to its court approved plan of debt adjustment:  “We are hitting the marks, exceeding them in most areas — certainly revenue, I think the last report I saw was about 2 percent above the projected revenue. On budget. Expenditures are below — not much — but slightly below what was projected. Those are two important things…Certainly, investment and growth in the downtown area, certainly Midtown, and with the Ilitch development coming to fruition, the Red Wings, Pistons, some of the entertainment venues becoming a reality now, I expect the area between Midtown and downtown will become very vibrant over the next two-three years.”

Asked what the most difficult part of that case was, aside from the Grand Bargain, Judge Rosen responded: “You have to go back and see what the case was when we found it, which was an assetless bankruptcy. That was the most difficult part, for me. Certainly, there were a lot of first-impression legal issues. Certainly there were issues that could have gone all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, whether it was the collision between the federal bankruptcy code and the federal constitutional supremacy clause and the Michigan Constitution’s provisions to protect pensions. But there were also a lot of other really important issues: The tenor of the security instruments, of the finance instruments, the level and tenor of their security, were all major issues in the bankruptcy, whether they could be crammed down all across the rope line on the financial creditors’ side were really first-impression issues.” He added: “Overwhelmingly, the most challenging issue for me was an assetless bankruptcy—other than the art. I’ll never forget when I was reading Kevyn Orr’s proposal for creditors, coming to the asset section and realizing that there really weren’t any assets other than the art…It was devastating. Kevyn, he had just hired Christie’s to appraise the art, so he was clearly serious about it. I remember thinking, ‘What the hell have I gotten myself into?’ My job is to get deals. To get deals, you have to have revenue or assets that can be monetized into revenue, and the cupboard was pretty much bare. There didn’t seem to be much to work with for deals, other than the art.

There were other aspects to the DIA that I was concerned about. This was a time when Detroit was cannibalizing its heritage to mortgage its future, consistently over the decades. In terms of Detroit’s future, it didn’t make sense to me to do that again, but I was realistic.

Time was Detroit’s enemy. The only way to get through the bankruptcy in any sort of expeditious way was through consensual agreements, and the only asset that could be monetized was the art. So that’s basically what led to the idea of the Grand Bargain—trying to figure out a way to monetize the art without liquidating it, and giving the proceeds to the retirees. Neat trick.

I’ll never forget sitting in this little condo (in Florida) thinking, “What the hell have I gotten myself into? Is my legacy going to be that we liquidated one of the great art collections in the world for sheikhs in Dubai and oligarchs in Russia?” I wasn’t very excited about that.

There was another aspect too. One of the few nascently growing areas in Detroit was Midtown. I went on the DIA website and I saw that the DIA attracted over 600,000 people a year to Midtown. I thought, “Gee whiz, liquidating the DIA would be like dropping a hydrogen bomb in Midtown.” It would suck the life out of it. So there was that part of it.”

What would be the theme song for Detroit’s bankruptcy case?

“Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow.”

We might be having some new City Council members a year from now. What would you suggest to the new ones potentially coming on board?

“I’m not in politics. I’m not a political person in the sense of being involved in the political maw, but my observation is that Mayor (Mike) Duggan is working very positively with President (Brenda) Jones and other members of the council in a way that has not been done by any mayor in years and years.

“At the same time, my word of caution is that we have to be careful to continue to provide the fertile ground that Detroit is for investment for people coming in. Part of that is not placing onerous regulation on people coming in, with artificial employment requirements. I understand the social need for that and I applaud it. I think if Detroit is going to continue the comeback that we are on, the neighborhoods have to be part of it and the African-American population has to be part of it. But you can’t disincentivize people coming in.”

You think that’s been done recently?

“I’m a little bit concerned about the community benefits ordinance. The one that was passed was certainly better than the alternative, but I’m still leery of it because it’s creating entry barriers.”

What was the most surprising individual (Kwame Kilpatrick text) message you saw?

“A lot of that is sealed. I would just refer to it generically by saying there was very little public business conducted by the Mayor and his associates. I’m sure they conducted business by communication means other than texts, but these were city-provided pagers. I assume that the city provided the pagers for people to be able to conduct city business on them, and I saw very little. I learned a lot of new text language that I hadn’t known before, and I appreciate urbandictionary.com.”

Twenty-four hours left in the Obama administration. It’s pardon and commutation time. Does the former mayor deserve one?

No. Absolutely not. I have to be a little cautious, but I presided over that grand jury for 2 ½ years.

Political Leadership & Municipal Insolvency. In Virginia, Petersburg residents who blame their elected municipal leaders for their city’s collapse into insolvency have filed dual petitions to oust both the incumbent and former mayor from their City Council seats—after, over months, gathering the legally required number of signatures from registered voters of Wards 3 and 5 to ask for the removal of Mayor Samuel Parham and W. Howard Myers, whose term as mayor ended this month; both are up for re-election next year. According to the petition, Mayor Parham “has conducted himself in the office of City Councilman, Vice Mayor and Mayor in such a way to govern the City of Petersburg chaotically, unpredictably, secretly and wastefully.” The two-page cover sheet to the petition has garnered 276 certified signatures. (Virginia law requires the petitioners to gather signatures equal to 10 percent of the voter turnout in the contest that resulted in an official’s initial election. For Parham, the number is 160.) The petitions were filed on January 20th in Petersburg Circuit Court under a provision in Virginia law which allows the court to remove officials for specific reasons, which includes certain criminal convictions. Here, in this instance, petitioners cited “neglect of duty, misuse of office, or incompetence in the performance of duties,” faulting the current and former mayor with failing to heed warnings of Petersburg’s impending insolvency, but also alleging ethical breaches and violations of open government law. “Nothing has happened in the new year, with the installation of new council officers, to demonstrate that Myers or Parham are any more capable of providing effective oversight of city government than they have over the past two years,” according to Ms. Barb Rudolph, a local activist and organizer of the good government group Clean Sweep Petersburg. The effort came as Petersburg’s mounting legal claims have now exceeded nearly $19 million in past-due invoices and the city’s budget which was $12 million over budget: the municipality has experienced a stretch of structurally imbalanced budgets dating back to 2009. The City Council fired former City Manager William E. Johnson II last March. For his part, Mayor Parham defended his decisions since taking office, reporting he has done the best he could with the guidance he has received, and noting: “I serve at the pleasure of the people of Petersburg and, with God as my witness, I have tried my best.”

The ouster filings came as former Richmond City Manager, now consultant Robert Bobb, has been hired by the City Council to try to put the city back into solvency. Mr. Bobb has issued a request for a forensic audit of spending over the past three fiscal years—notwithstanding reservations expressed by City Attorney Joseph Preston, who noted that the city’s finances are included in a special grand jury investigation which began as a probe of the Petersburg Police Department. Petersburg obtained short-term financing last month to help meet payroll and other ongoing expenses, with Mr. Bobb reporting the cost of Petersburg’s outstanding invoices has been cut from nearly $19 million to about $6 million. Next comes a session to meet with about 400 of the city’s vendors to try to begin to sort out what they are owed, with a city spokesperson Thursday stating the Petersburg has entered into a payment plan to make good on Petersburg’s share of employee and school worker pensions overdue to the Virginia Retirement System: Petersburg and the city school division collectively owed just over $4.2 million to the system as of last week; however, current payments have resumed, and plans are in place to pay down the balance by $100,000 each month, officials said.

The citizen petitions focus largely on events from last year, but reference years of mounting trouble. The issue for the courts is sufficiency, as a judge in Bath County last week demonstrated when the judge dismissed a similar petition to remove three members of the county’s Board of Supervisors, finding the complaints raised by residents there were insufficient to require a judicial reversal of election results. However, Ms. Rudolph said the Petersburg petitions contain more serious charges, noting: “We believe that, on its merits, it’s far more substantive than the Bath County removal action that was recently rejected by the circuit court there.” Included among the two-page list of grievances documenting reasons for Mayor Myers’ removal were allegations he had “flagrantly and repeatedly acted in contravention of the City of Petersburg’s Code of Ethics” by attempting to “intimidate and silence a critic,” who remains unnamed, by “attempting to harm the citizen’s good standing with her employer.” Petitioners also criticized the Myers-led council for possibly violating the Council’s own rules and the city charter in holding a re-do of a vote to bring in the Bobb Group two days after an initial measure to hire the firm failed. City Attorney Preston has said that the Council did nothing wrong.

Quake & Shake. San Bernardino, on track to end the longest chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history next month, now faces a physical and fiscal challenge not listed in its plan of debt adjustment: a substantial earthquake risk. San Bernardino has two independent engineering evaluations — from 2007 and 2016 — saying City Hall would be unsafe in an earthquake. Specifically, the February 2016 study concludes a magnitude 6.0 earthquake would lead to “a likelihood of building failure” for City Hall, which was designed before code updates following the 1971 Sylmar and 1994 Northridge earthquakes. The building sits along two fault lines. That means the City has plans for vacating City Hall by April, as all employees move out of a building determined to be a substantial earthquake risk, with the approximately 200 municipal employees set to relocate to several leased sites set by a unanimous Council vote. A public information counter will direct members of the public to whatever service they’re seeking, as will signs.

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