Detroit’s public schools are failing academically and nearly insolvent, leaving residents to wonder how the city can recoup its lost population

Crumbling, Destitute Schools Threaten Detroit’s Recovery

DETROIT — In Kathy Aaron’s decrepit public school, the heat fills the air with a moldy, rancid odor. Cockroaches, some three inches long, scuttle about until they are squashed by a student who volunteers for the task. Water drips from a leaky roof onto the gymnasium floor.

“We have rodents out in the middle of the day,” said Ms. Aaron, a teacher of 18 years. “Like they’re coming to class.”

Detroit’s public schools are a daily shock to the senses, run down after years of neglect and mismanagement, while failing academically and teetering on the edge of financial collapse. On Wednesday, teachers again protested the conditions, calling in sick en masse and forcing a shutdown of most of the city’s almost 100 schools.

As Michigan’s governor, Rick Snyder, grapples with the crisis in Flint, where residents have been poisoned by the local water supply under a state-appointed emergency manager, he has also had to confront the emergency here, another poor, largely African-American city with a problem that has also festered under state control.

The empty swimming pool at the Spain school in Detroit. Credit Salwan Georges for The New York Times

Things have become so bad, district officials say, that the Detroit public school system could be insolvent by April.

“They’re in need of a transformational change,” Mr. Snyder, a Republican, acknowledged in his State of the State speech Tuesday. “Too many schools are failing at their central task. Not all Detroit students are getting the education they deserve.”

Many worry that the state of the schools will hamper Detroit’s recovery from bankruptcy, a recovery evident in the new loft-style townhouses and the bustling Whole Foods that Ms. Aaron passes near her school, where she teaches fifth grade.

Residents wonder how the city can ever recoup its lost population and attract young families if the public schools are in abysmal shape.

“As we begin to rebuild this city and we’re seeing money and development moving in, people are understanding that there is no way we can improve Detroit without a strong educational system,” said Mary Sheffield, a native of Detroit and a City Council member. “We have businesses and restaurants and arenas, but our schools are falling apart and our children are uneducated. There is no Detroit without good schools.”

In protest over the conditions, teachers began a series of sickouts in recent weeks, inconveniencing many families and reducing classroom instruction time for many students who could ill afford it, but pushing the matter to the forefront.

The problems predate the municipal bankruptcy. One of the biggest is enrollment, which has been in free fall. In 2000, Detroit Public Schools had close to 150,000 students; this year, there are fewer than 45,000.

In recent decades, large numbers of people have left Detroit, which was once the nation’s fourth most populous city. Many of those who stayed chose to enroll their children in traditional public schools in the suburbs, or in charter schools, which more than half of school-age children from Detroit now attend.

Lockers near the swimming pool typify the decay at the Spain school. Credit Salwan Georges for The New York Times

According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, about 20 percent of school-age children in Detroit were attending charter schoolsin 2006. By 2014, that number was up to 55 percent.

Most of the charter schools are outside district control but receive public money, drawing funds from the traditional system that would be used for its overhead and wages, critics complain.

Even after closing schools and reducing its work force, the Detroit Public Schools have $3.5 billion in outstanding debt, much of it from pension liabilities, according to a report this month from the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, a nonpartisan public affairs research organization in Lansing.

The appointment in 2009 of an emergency manager to take charge of the struggling district has not turned the finances around. (The appointment predates the election of Mr. Snyder in 2010, but he has elected to maintain the arrangement.)

“We’re on our fourth emergency manager here,” said Craig Thiel, a senior research associate for the Citizens Research Council. “They each seem to be borrowing from the same playbook: figure out a way to get through the current year, end the year without going insolvent, and then push costs onto the next year in the hopes that things will improve in some way. They’re dealing with these debts that should have been paid off years ago that have instead been put on future budgets.”

Academically, the district’s performance is also alarming. Among big-city school districts, Detroit has come in last every year since 2012, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam. Only 27 percent of fourth graders are proficient in reading; 36 percent are proficient in math.

In response to the sickouts, the mayor of Detroit, Mike Duggan, has ordered a districtwide inspection of each school. Last week, while touring the schools, he came upon a dead mouse in an elementary school.

Mr. Snyder has pushed a plan to create a new school district to run the existing schools, spinning off the old one as a subsidiary that would exist solely to pay down debt. In his speech Tuesday, he urged lawmakers to pass that legislation.

Kathy Aaron, a fifth-grade teacher at the Spain school, at home with her son Kameron, 8, helping him with his homework. “We have rodents out in the middle of the day,” she said of conditions at the school. Credit Salwan Georges for The New York Times

Last week, the Michigan Senate introduced legislation that would establish a nine-person school board, appointed by Mr. Snyder, a Republican, and Mr. Duggan, a Democrat, which would eventually hire a district superintendent.

Many people in Detroit worry that it will not be enough to save their schools. They want a school board that will be elected locally, bringing an end to state-appointed emergency management. And they are calling for more immediate intervention to address the deteriorating state of school buildings.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Snyder, who was also dealing with the public health crisis in Flint caused by an emergency manager’s decision to switch the city’s tap water source to save money, said he understood the frustrations.

“Governor Snyder is working to improve academics and finances in Detroit schools,” said Laura Biehl, the spokeswoman. “Right now, the district pays a figure equal to $1,100 per child for debt service. That’s money that can best be spent in the classroom.”

Last week, many Detroit schools were shuttered and empty because of the sickouts. Outside the Durfee Elementary-Middle School on the city’s west side, where heating problems have been so severe that the school has relied on portable heaters, a handwritten sign on the door announced “School Close.”

At Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, a school that the Detroit Federation of Teachers said was ridden with rats and crumbling ceilings, parents said they were exhausted by the problems.

Tanya Cox, who sends three of her children there, said there are 42 students in her son Damir’s fourth-grade class. “With so many kids in the classroom,” she said, “I don’t think the teachers can teach.”

Not everyone has been sympathetic to the teachers’ protest. “There is no excuse for the illegal teacher strikes that have closed dozens of schools in the past week,” an editorial in The Detroit News said last week.

Damir Cox, left, a fourth-grader at Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, walked with his siblings, Janiah Armstrong, 10, center, and James Armstrong, 6, to their ride home. The school is said to be ridden with rats and crumbling ceilings. Credit Salwan Georges for The New York Times

On Wednesday, the Detroit Public Schools sought a temporary injunction against more than two dozen teachers in response to the sickouts, arguing that they had deprived students of access to education.

Michelle Zdrodowski, a spokeswoman for Detroit Public Schools, said in a statement, “These ongoing illegal actions chosen by teachers represent an extreme disservice to the more than 44,790 students and their families who today lost another day of instruction and were again inconvenienced or caused to lose wages due to these closures.”

Many state legislators from outside Detroit have balked at having the state take on the school district’s substantial debts. Yet they are hesitant to allow the district to continue on a path to insolvency, given the level of urgency.

“They’re in a dire crisis level,” said Camille Wilson, an associate professor of education at the University of Michigan,. “On one hand, the state has a tremendous amount of responsibility to help with some financial relief, given that they’ve 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.”

Last week at the Charles L. Spain school in Midtown, where Ms. Aaron teaches, staff members pointed out their building’s deterioration. In the gym, the air was filled with a stifling, moldy smell. The floors were buckled and partly ripped out, revealing a damp, black substance underneath.

“You hear the water dripping?” said Lakia Wilson, the guidance counselor, nodding at the spot on the floor where water from the roof had accumulated into a cloudy pool. The day after a reporter and a photographer were given a tour of the building, health officials arrived at the school and blocked access to the gym with sheets of plastic, a teacher said.

Andre Harlan, the gym teacher at the Spain school, said he had breathing problems that he traced to the air quality in the gym, which the school stopped using two months ago.

Until further notice, gym class is held in the hallway.

“There’s progress in Detroit,” Mr. Harlan said. “But not inside the schools.”

Correction: January 21, 2016
An earlier version of this article misstated the university where Camille Wilson is an associate professor. It is University of Michigan, not Wayne State University.