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Shrinking population, heavy debt make turnaround tough for Detroit schools

Clarence Tabb, Jr. / Detroit News via AP

Jack Martin speaks after being named the Detroit Public Schools' newest emergency manager by Governor Rick Snyder at Davison Elementary-Middle School Auditorium in Detroit on July 15.

Michigan’s governor on July 15 appointed a seasoned financial guru to run Detroit’s ailing public school district, a move that many observers hailed as a saving grace for the city's classrooms in decline.

Three days later, Detroit filed for bankruptcy.

Jack Martin, who took office as emergency manager for Detroit Public Schools last Monday, is now tasked with overhauling Motown's rusting educational system during a period of economic calamity.

Roy Roberts, Martin’s predecessor and a former General Motors executive, had signaled earlier this year that he would leave his post.

And although Roberts made key strides — including dragging down the deficit by $251 million and ramping up graduation rates by five percent — the Detroit public schools system is nonetheless in rough shape, according to Professor Elizabeth Moje of the University of Michigan School of Education.

And that’s been the case for years.

“The district was in dire straits long before the bankruptcy,” Moje said.

One of the biggest problems facing the school system: Detroit’s dramatically shrinking population. The economic collapse has reduced the sprawling metropolis to a veritable ghost town.

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.

“These schools are enormous,” said Moje. “But inside, there’s very few students.”

Martin said last Monday that boosting enrollment will be a top priority during his time overseeing public schools.

“I’ll first focus on starting school on time and without incident,” Martin said. “Enrollment is a major focus.”

What’s more, Detroit’s public schools are weighed down by mountains of debt, according to Moje. School administrators are sometimes forced to dip into the budget reserved for school resources to cover old debts, she added.

“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.

Four other Michigan school districts have received the same grim prognosis — and all are now overseen by emergency financial managers, rather than traditional administrators, such as a superintendent, Stanton said.

Martin, 74, a certified public accountant, is the third emergency manager to preside over Detroit’s public schools since 2009. He has a lengthy resume at the intersection of finance and public policy — most notably, stints as the CFO of the U.S. Department of Education and CFO of the city of Detroit itself — which makes him a good fit for the numbers-crunching business of budget administration.

“The opportunity will allow me to continue offering leadership and making a positive impact in the Detroit community,” Martin said in a statement. “Fixing education in Detroit is foundational to addressing the myriad of other critical issues facing our community—locally and statewide.”

Corey Williams / AP file

A teacher works with students at Timbuktu Academy of Science and Technology in Detroit in 2011.

It remains to be seen if the confluence of Detroit’s bankruptcy and the city's public schools' woes will force officials to shutter more schools, as they did at a staggering rate during a budget-balancing wave in 2011, according to Moje.

Martin, widely seen as a financial wizard, may find a way around closing the doors to classrooms across the struggling city. And yet, ultimately, we shouldn't treat public education strictly as a "numbers game," Moje said.

"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."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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