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Detroit Public Schools are in deep financial trouble, so deep the state has ordered that half of them be shut down within the next two years. The district's state-appointed manager has a plan to avoid some of those closures. He's offering dozens of schools up to charter operators.
Sarah Hulett of Michigan Radio reports.
SARAH HULETT: In the last two years, Detroit has closed 59 schools and cut 30 percent of its workforce. But the school system is still staring at a deficit of more than $300 million, and thousands of students continue to flee the district every year.
Anthony Adams is the president of the Detroit Board of Education.
Mr. ANTHONY ADAMS (President, Detroit Board of Education): If you do the math and you look at the numbers, the question is, do we continue to close schools here in the city of Detroit to have more vacant and burned-out buildings, or do we take a bold step forward to create DPS as a service provider of education?
HULETT: The bold step Adams wants to see would convert as many as 45 of the district's traditional schools to charters. Financially, the district would shed staffing expenses, including costly pension obligations. It would get management fees and lease revenues from charter operators, and it wouldn't have to shoulder the costs associated with shutting schools down, securing them and demolishing them. Academically, the hope is that charter operators would be able to turn around schools with low achievement.
Robert Bobb is the state-appointed emergency manager for Detroit Public Schools, who proposed the charter idea.
Mr. ROBERT BOBB (Emergency Financial Manager, Detroit Public Schools): Let me be clear: We will only accept proposals from those that have been successful in terms of student achievement.
HULETT: Jose Afonso says his company's schools have that track record of success. He's with SABIS Educational Systems, which operates schools in nine cities across the U.S. Afonso attended a bidders' conference the district held recently to answer questions about the plan. He says SABIS is interested in taking over more than one Detroit school, but he says getting a school ready by this fall won't be easy.
Mr. JOSE AFONSO (Director, U.S. Business Development, SABIS Educational Systems, Inc.): There just is not a whole lot of time to recruit staff, to diagnose the students, to enroll the students. And it's doable, but it's going to be challenging.
HULETT: So far, 18 companies have submitted bids to take over schools this fall. Only two of them are national operators. And charter school experts say many of the well-known, high-caliber companies are reluctant to sign on. Partly, that's because many of those companies focus on starting schools from scratch, and partly, it's because the school district's leadership is in flux.
Robert Bobb's term expires at the end of June. Michigan's governor has appointed a former General Motors' executive, Roy Roberts, to take over then. Critics of converting traditional schools to charters say it's troubling that Bobb put the plan in motion on his way out the door.
Keith Johnson is the president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers.
Mr. KEITH JOHNSON (President, Detroit Federation of Teachers): It sounds to me, and it looks to me like this is planned liquidation.
HULETT: But Johnson says he's heartened by the fact that Bobb's successor has said he'll look over the restructuring plan and make changes if they're needed.
As for parents, many aren't sure what to think of the plan. Some say they'd rather see their children's school convert to a charter than close. Others are more skeptical. Nicole Chapman's two boys are each in a school that's targeted for closure or charter conversion. She worries her sons might not get the special-ed services they need in a charter school. And she also wonders whether they would continue to get bus service.
Ms. NICOLE CHAPMAN: I don't have friends that have cars and family that have cars and stuff like that. So my kids are out of options. Every school is closed. So walking distance is not an option.
HULETT: No matter what, Chapman's sons will find themselves in new schools this fall. They'll find out by June whether their schools will close or convert to charter.
For NPR News, I'm Sarah Hulett in Detroit.
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