Compromise Gives Archer Control of Detroit Schools

Engler Ally Appointed to Board; Mayor Promises Not to Privatize

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 debate.

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 services—reforms 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 in 1996.

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.