Detroit Set to Close Half of City Schools

A budget gap of $327 million has forced Detroit Public Schools officials to propose massive operational cuts. A recent plan approved by the Michigan Department of Education includes closing 70 of Detroit's 142 schools by 2013.

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By Douglas Fehlen

Detroit Public School close half of city schools budget cuts mismanagement declining enrollment deficits state of Michigan

Cuts Have Severe Consequences

Robert Bobb, emergency financial manager of Detroit Public Schools, is the first to admit that closing half of the city's schools is going to adversely affect the quality of students' education. Bobb maintains, however, that there is no other way to make up a deficit of $327 million. The state of Michigan has mandated that the school system make cuts of this magnitude to balance the budget.

Just what will these closures mean for the students of Detroit? Many children will undoubtedly have to travel much further from their homes to attend school, commuting to facilities in other neighborhoods. More shocking, however, is the fact that classrooms in Detroit schools may contain up to 60 students. In a time when reform advocates are championing smaller school sizes, this reality is in stark contrast to where education experts suggest schools need to be.

Detroit Public School close half of city schools budget cuts mismanagement declining enrollment deficits state of Michigan

Departing Detroit Schools

The budget woes of Detroit's schools have been caused by many factors, including rising employee entitlements, fund mismanagement and sharply declining enrollment rates. In the past decade, the city's schools have seen student population declines of 50 percent. This has in part resulted from an overall drop in population - Detroit has seen a 30 percent reduction in population over the past ten years. Many of the families that remain are sending children to private or suburban schools.

With each child that leaves Detroit Public Schools, $7,660 in state funding is lost. In a disturbing cycle, a school system already plagued by deficits sees even less money come in because of declines in student population, which may in turn lead to further declines. Projections show that as a result of the proposal to shutter schools, enrollment in Detroit Public Schools will shrink even more - from the current 73,000 students to 58,000 by 2013. Making the situation even more dire is the fact that state per-pupil funding is expected to be reduced by several hundred of dollars.

Detroit Public School close half of city schools budget cuts mismanagement declining enrollment deficits state of Michigan

A Grim Reality

David Bing, mayor of Detroit, opposes the plan for wholesale school shutdowns. 'These kids are not throwaways,' Bing said in an interview with CNN. 'The question becomes where are they going to go. . . . We've been losing population in our school system and this will accelerate that even more.'

Robert Bobb acknowledges this fact, noting that the plan he's putting in place isn't economically viable in the long term. Its purpose, he says, is to balance the budget - a requirement of Michigan law. In the next few months, Bobb plans to close between 20 and 40 schools. By the end of 2013, only 72 schools will remain open in all of Detroit. The emergency financial officer concedes that families will be angered and student academics will be harmed, but he says there are no other options in his power.

One last remaining hope to stave off the full impact of proposed cuts is an alternative restructuring plan that would allow Detroit Public Schools to borrow money to get back on fiscal track. Lawmakers, however, would have to approve any such plan - a prospect that seems less than likely given mistrust of the system. Said lawmaker Paul Scott, 'I don't feel the taxpayers of Michigan are willing to become liable for that money with all the structural and institutional problems that exist.'

Learn about how cuts in public funding are affecting the nation's colleges and universities.

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