The 2 main reasons behind the crisis gripping public schools in a major US city

Images of fungus growing on classroom walls and rat droppings littering hallways recently 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 currently appointed officials.

But in reality, Detroit Public Schools (DPS) have been languishing for years for two main reasons: 1) a ballooning school-system deficit and 2) a shrinking student population that’s making the problem even worse since the schools get funding “per pupil.”

Emergency management

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

He was seen as a potential saviour 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.

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

At the end of the 2008 fiscal year, the total 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 fiscal year 2015, the total 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, Michigan Governor Rick Synder has signalled he still believes DPS is in better hands with an EM than with a locally elected school board.

Dwindling school enrollment

Some of the budgetary problems at DPS exist due to 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.

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 of Detroit, or into charter schools.

Within Detroit, many are looking to the state to help relieve what seems 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 have 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.”

NOW WATCH: Teachers are calling in sick to protest the deplorable condition of Detroit public schools

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