Amid Bankruptcy, Detroit Public Schools Struggle to Balance Operations

Three days before the City of Detroit filed bankruptcy, Jack Martin took office as emergency manager for Detroit Public Schools. Martin, who was touted as the “saving grace” for Detroit classrooms, will now have to try to live up to that expectation in an environment of economic chaos, reports Daniel Arkin of NBC News.

Martin’s predecessor Roy Roberts made key improvements including lowering the deficit by $251 million and raising graduation rates by 5%. Still, the schools remain in poor condition, and Roberts alerted earlier in the year that he would be leaving his post.

The school system’s biggest problem is the dramatic decline in population. The city’s economic decline has left the district at a loss to balance its operations while emptying.

The city’s population plunged by over a quarter of a million between 2000 and 2010, to just over 700,000 people, according to The Associated Press.

What does that mean for public schools? Population projections suggest that, by 2016, public school enrollment will slip to just 40,000 kids, according to the AP — a relatively meager number for a once-bustling American city.

The large schools feel extremely empty with the loss in population. Raising enrollment will be a top priority for Martin.

The schools are also feeling the weight of old debt that has been building. Administrators have no choice but to pull from the budget for school resources to cover the costs.

“Schools of today have less money to spend on their students because they’re paying off the debts of yesteryear,” she said.

That’s one of the reasons why state officials declared a financial state of emergency in public schools across Detroit in late 2008, five years before billions of dollars of debt forced the city to file Chapter 9, according to Terry Stanton, the communications director at the Michigan Department of Treasury.

This will be the third time an emergency manager has presided over Detroit schools since 2009. Martin is seen as a good fit for the position because of his background in public accounting, finance, public policy, and his experience as the CFO of the U.S. Department of Education and CFO of the City of Detroit.

It has yet to be seen if Detroit will be forced to shut down its schools as it did back in 2011 during a budget-balancing wave. Martin may be able to find a way to avoid closing the struggling classrooms.

However, it is important to remember that public education should not be seen as a “numbers game”.

“Everybody is worried about the numbers and the money, but the bottom line is that we also need to think about improving the quality of teaching and learning in these classrooms.”