scorecardHere's what led up to those disturbing images of mold, mushrooms, and bullet holes in Detroit's schools
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Here's what led up to those disturbing images of mold, mushrooms, and bullet holes in Detroit's schools

Here's what led up to those disturbing images of mold, mushrooms, and bullet holes in Detroit's schools
PoliticsPolitics4 min read


REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

Images of fungus growing on classroom walls, rat droppings littering hallways, and bullet holes set off a mass teacher "sickout" that closed nearly all of Detroit's schools on Wednesday.

Eighty-eight of the roughly 100 Detroit schools closed for the day amid claims they were hazardous to students and teachers - providing another reminder the Motor City is still far from its glory days despite hopes that it's making a comeback.

The images have given a platform to frustrated teachers and community members who say they demonstrate the wanton neglect of Detroit's schools and, in effect, its youth at the hands of its appointed officials.

But in reality, Detroit Public Schools has been languishing for years for two main reasons: 1) a ballooning school-system deficit; and 2) a shrinking student population.

Emergency management

In this Aug. 19, 2009 photo, emergency financial manager Robert Bobb points while talking with Markita Wells, left, holding her son Keenan, while walking neighborhoods trying to convince parents to enroll their children in Detroit Public School in Detroit. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

AP Photo/Paul Sancya

Robert Bobb, then Detroit's emergency financial manager, talking to Markita Wells, holding her son Keenan, in 2009 while walking neighborhoods trying to persuade parents to enroll their children in Detroit Public Schools.

In 2009, to tamp down on budgetary issues, Jennifer Granholm, then Michigan's governor, asserted that the DPS was in financial emergency, and she removed the district's publicly elected school board. In their place, she appointed former city manager Robert Bobb to take financial control of the district and tackle the roughly $400 million budget deficit.

He was seen as a potential savior to Detroit Public Schools. A turnaround expert with a background in improving dire financial situations in Washington, D.C., he was blunt in his assessment of Detroit.

"I think Detroit is on life support," he said in an interview with the Detroit Metro Times in 2009. He pledged to reform the school system.

But a year after Bobb was appointed, the deficit was about $100 million higher, according to the school system's financial statements.

Rick Snyder

AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan.

Now, six years since emergency management took hold of Detroit's beleaguered school district, there have been four different emergency managers, and financial concerns are even more extreme.

At the end of the 2008 fiscal year, the net deficit was $369.5 million, according to the Detroit Metro Times. That was the last year the publicly elected school board had control over DPS.

For the 2015 fiscal year, the net deficit had exploded to $1.66 billion. About $900 million of the nearly $1.7 billion deficit is related to unfunded pension liabilities, a new balance-sheet item.

While it's clear that emergency management hasn't been effective at reducing the deficit, Gov. Rick Synder of Michigan has signaled he still believes DPS is in better hands with an emergency manager than with a locally elected school board.

Dwindling school enrollment

Some of the budgetary problems at DPS exist because of a funding policy that was voted into policy more than two decades ago. Michigan's Proposal A was approved in 1994 and essentially changed the education-funding structure to a per-pupil state allocation.

In this Feb. 25, 2014 photo, Golightly Education Center students work on projects at the school in Detroit. After years without comprehensive sports and arts/music programs, those are now being restored at all DPS elementary and middle schools, thanks in part to foundation grants. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

Students working on projects at their school in Detroit in 2014.

That change hit Detroit particularly hard, as the city faces declining enrollment at its schools. In 2009, for example, DPS had roughly 95,000 students, according to the Detroit Metro Times.

F0r the 2014-2015 school year, DPS had about 48,000 students.

Similarly, in 2008 there were 198 schools in the district, while today there are about 100, according to the Detroit Metro Times.

That 50% drop in enrollment has a direct financial impact, as the district receives less funding from the state for every student not enrolled.

Much of that drop is due to students enrolling in public schools in the suburbs outside Detroit, or into charter schools.

Within Detroit, many are looking to the state to help relieve what seem like insurmountable financial difficulties. But other Michiganders are unsure that the state should be on the hook for Detroit's local fiscal issues.

"They're in a dire crisis level," Camille Wilson, an associate professor of education at the University of Michigan, told The New York Times. "On one hand, the state has a tremendous amount of responsibility to help with some financial relief, given that they've managed and controlled part of the system for many years now. On the other hand, I think the local people and the citizens should be allowed to play a role as well."

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