The Flint water crisis that has garnered so much national attention is only the beginning of Gov. Rick Snyder’s problems.
The Republican, a former venture capitalist who was seen as one of the shining gubernatorial lights who could march into Washington and show the federal government how to run the nation, is being dragged into federal court by the Detroit Board of Education.
The Motor City’s school board has filed a federal class-action lawsuit on behalf of approximately 46,000 Detroit Public Schools students, along with 12,000 students enrolled in Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority, a state-run district that operates the state’s lowest-performing schools.
The Board of Education’s attorneys didn’t satisfy themselves with complaining about school buildings that are falling down, or students who are failing to achieve proficiency ratings on state tests, or even the district’s declining enrollment.
The board’s suit also points out more than a dozen former district administrators have been charged in connection with a bribery and kickback scheme.
At least three of the emergency managers appointed by the Snyder administration to run the Detroit Public Schools, which has been under state oversight since 2009, are also named in the suit.
However, the real focus of the Detroit Board of Education lawsuit, as it has been with legal action in connection with the lead-tainted water in Flint, is that the Snyder administration sacrificed the good of the people for the satisfaction of balancing a budget.
“Michigan’s Emergency Manager Law and related practices were used to compromise and damage the quality of education received by all [Detroit public schools] students with life-long consequences in the name of financial urgency,” the lawsuit claims.
Board President Herman Davis told Michigan Public Radio he believes the lawsuit will bring even larger instances of mismanagement and corruption to light.
“We want to expose those folks that have been taking our kids’ money, and putting it in their pockets,” Davis said.
A Snyder administration spokeswoman said the governor’s office could not comment on “pending legislation.”
The Detroit schools are a mess. The buildings are in such bad shape teachers staged rotating walkouts to attract attention to leaking ceilings, warped floors, dead rats and mice in bathrooms, and moldy, rotten cafeteria food.
And then there’s the district’s finances. The DPS has to spend $26 million a month just to service its debt.
Gov. Snyder approved $48.7 million in emergency funding for the Detroit schools in late March to keep the district open through the end of the academic year, June 30.
The governor also signed legislation expanding the role of the Financial Review Commission that works with the city of Detroit on its finances to include the school district as well.
“There was a pressing need in Detroit that lawmakers from all across the state came together to address, and they got it done quickly,” Snyder said. “This continues to demonstrate that the challenges at DPS aren’t just Detroit’s problem, they are concerns for all of Michigan. We are committed to academic improvement and long-term financial stability at DPS.”
However, Snyder also admitted the splash of emergency funding will not solve the district’s underlying problems.
“This supplemental funding doesn’t change the fact that a long-term legislative solution is still needed to bring about fiscal stability and responsibility as well as improved academic outcomes within DPS,” Snyder said.
The Detroit Board of Education lawsuit is not the only legal action that Rick Snyder faces because of what his administration has done in Detroit and Flint.
The Detroit News reported that at least 82 separate lawsuits had been filed against Snyder by April 24.
John Truscott, who was former Gov. John Engler’s (R-Mich.) chief of staff, said it is not unusual for the governor of a state to be sued. But he has never seen anything like this.
With (former Gov. John) Engler, we were notified almost weekly. But they were all on different issues,” Truscott said. “With Snyder, it’s so concentrated, and that’s why people take notice.”
The Flint and Detroit lawsuits have brought into question Snyder’s strategy of using state-appointment emergency managers to run cities and school systems in Michigan crushed by the weight of the 2007 economic recession.
Fitch Ratings, one of the top credit rating agencies in the nation, pointed out the fallacy of the concept of business people running governments like businesses.
“States that grant emergency managers or control boards the broadest powers may not be much more successful than those that grant fewer controls, and outcomes within a single state can vary widely,” the Fitch report noted.
Fitch pointed out the city of Detroit, which was run by an emergency manager, had to file for the largest municipal bankruptcy in history.
“Detroit’s bankruptcy filing demonstrates that, even with such powers, emergency managers may not stop credit deterioration or default,” the Fitch report said. “The appointment of emergency financial managers is no panacea.”
The Detroit Board of Education attorneys would agree. They argue in the lawsuit against Snyder that the school system was in relatively good shape before Snyder’s troops came to town.
“The Emergency Manager Law is predicated on the concept that a local financial crisis is due to the inability of local officials to address the problem. In fact, beginning in 1999 the State took over the management of the DPS which was functioning financially ‘in the black’ and with its student body performing at a level on average with the school districts of the entire state of Michigan and, in the seventeen years since, have turned the district into a virtual financial hell-hole.”
There is another connection between the Detroit Public Schools and the contamination of city water in Flint.
Darnell Earley, who was the state-appointed emergency manager of Flint at the time of the water contamination, was appointed as emergency manager of the DPS in January.
He didn’t last long in Detroit. Teachers and community activists were outraged. Earley resigned one month later.
Even though Earley’s tenure was brief, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan has followed the recommendation of the city’s public health department and ordered inspections of drinking water in all of the Detroit Public Schools.