Detroit Public Schools Claims The State Is Violating Students’ Civil Rights In Federal Lawsuit

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder pauses while testifying before a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing in Washington, Thursday, March 17, 2016. CREDIT: ANDREW HARNIK/AP
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder pauses while testifying before a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing in Washington, Thursday, March 17, 2016. CREDIT: ANDREW HARNIK/AP

After months of public uproar over the poor condition of Detroit schools, Detroit Public Schools filed a federal lawsuit against the state Thursday, Detroit Free Press reported.

The lawsuit claims that the state has violated the civil rights of students through its emergency manager law, since the district has been run by emergency managers since 2009. The law weakens the authority of the board of education and allows the unelected emergency manager to make major decisions about cuts and selling off assets. The lawsuit includes Gov. Rick Snyder (R), a few former emergency managers, a couple Republican lawmakers, and administrators and a vendor who were recently indicted on a bribery scheme involving school supplies.

Before the emergency manager law, there was a state takeover of schools in 1999, which removed the elected board of education. It was a called a “reform board” and members were appointed by the mayor and governor. In 2004, the state takeover was sunsetting and and voters chose to have an elected school board again. But in 2009, Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) chose an emergency manager, Robert Bobb. The lawyer working on the case, Thomas Bleakley, pointed out that during that time the district had a near $100 surplus when the 1999 takeover happened and academic achievement has declined since.

DPS is hoping to get the lawsuit class-action status approved by a judge. The class would include the 58,000 students enrolled in the school system and the Education Achievement Authority (EAA), which the governor created to turn around 15 low-performing schools. Critics, including Democratic legislators, say the EAA effort isn’t working and that the schools should be returned to the DPS system, a possibility Snyder said he is open to.

Detroit Public Schools is going through a major financial crisis. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder had to sign legislation providing $48.7 million in emergency funding to keep the school system going through the end of the school year. DPS’ payments to service its loans ballooned to $26 million each month recently, causing school district officials to worry about the possibility of bankruptcy by April. Teachers and parents are also worried about the conditions students are learning in. Teachers protested these conditions, which included moldy or rotten cafeteria food, ceiling leaks, warped floors, dead rodents, and bathrooms that appear uninhabitable, by calling in sick for work and demonstrating.

Concerns over school conditions are overlapping with anger over the water crisis in Flint, where drinking water became contaminated with lead. The emergency manager of Flint at the time of contamination was Darnell Earley, who became emergency manager of DPS in January. Teachers and community activists called on his resignation and he stepped down in February. Since the protests, public officials have become more involved in monitoring school conditions. The Detroit Public Health Department recently recommended all DPS schools should test the schools’ drinking water for lead and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan ordered inspections of all of the schools.