Duggan: Way forward runs through Detroit’s schools

Detroit — Moving well beyond addressing basic city services he was tasked with to begin his first term, Mayor Mike Duggan is focusing his second on fixing some of the longstanding issues holding back Detroit: a broken school system, a lack of developed talent and neighborhoods forgotten in the city’s resurgence.

The mayor discussed his plans for the city’s future — chief among them investing in Detroit’s youth — for more than an hour on Tuesday night in his fifth State of the City address.

“We are going to start today by saying to the children, ‘We want you to stay,’” Duggan said.

The mayor emphasized the city’s children have been among the most forgotten in the last decade. As a result, Duggan noted more than 32,000 Detroit children now attend school outside the city.

“That says what we are doing is not working,” he said.

Duggan highlighted the city’s commitment to its students by touting the Detroit Promise, a scholarship that covers college tuition and fees for graduates of the Detroit’s school district. There are 1,182 students benefiting from the program this year at community colleges and four-year universities.

“We are going to make sure that our kids not only go to school, they succeed at school,” Duggan said.

He said Detroit must develop expanded after-school programs for students that can be accessed through buses. He announced a transportation initiative that will include a shared route, or loop system, that buses children across the city to both charter and public schools.

The bus routes, Duggan said, will also have licensed day care centers on them where children can go until their parents get off work. The centers will offer tutoring and homework help for students.

Duggan said the city and schools also are forming an advisory committee that will produce a report card — or rating system — that provides information on academic performance, teacher turnover and other factors at individual schools.

The advisory committee, he said, would include officials from charter schools and the Detroit Public Schools Community District and parents.

“Parents need to have information to choose their schools,” Duggan said.

Both initiatives are set to launch this fall, the mayor said.

The mayor delivered his speech in the auditorium of Western International High School — a fitting scene for his focus on schools. The school also had a sentimental meaning for Duggan, who said his grandmother attended Western International and became a teacher in Detroit Public Schools.

The city’s school district had been run by a state-appointed emergency manager from 2009 to 2016. Its school board had its powers restored early last year, and Superintendent Nikolai Vitti came on shortly after.

The district endured significant financial stress before the current regime took over, relying on a $617 million state aid package to begin its current chapter.

Duggan and Vitti came together Tuesday night for a symbolic gesture, exchanging a brick to show a commitment to rebuilding the school system.

Vitti said better schools will be critical to getting residents to stay in the city or move here.

Funding for the bus program will be split, Vitti said. The city, DPSCD and charter schools will each contribute a third of the total cost.

“At the end of the day, we shouldn’t be fearful of competition,” Vitti said. “Our students and parents are walking out of the city because they don’t believe the quality (of schools) is high enough in Detroit. This is a step in the right direction.”

City officials agreed Tuesday night that transportation is a barrier for students getting to schools they want to attend.

“I know we are losing a lot of students go to River Rouge because of transportation,” City Council President Brenda Jones said. “We have had a transportation issue.”

Detroit school board member LaMar Lemmons said the mayor’s focus on education comes after years of a troubled relationship between the city and school district. Previous administrations have tried to “encroach on the school district’s authority,” he said.

“They supported takeovers that were disastrous,” he said. “I am very, very cautiously optimistic that he (Duggan) will not fall into the trap of encroaching and overreach that his predecessors have been involved with.”

In recent years, city and school officials have worked together on recreational programs, summer jobs and transportation, Lemmons said.

Officials partnered last summer to unveil the Randolph Career Technical Education Center, which offers skilled trades and training to youth and adults, which was highlighted in Duggan’s address. The mayor said 300 are enrolled in the programs there this year, and he expects 400 will be there next year.

“Our young people are learning electrical and plumbing and carpentry, and next year, we’re going to add robotics and welding,” he said. “We’re doing it right here in the city of Detroit.”

Lemmons said he wants to create a better school-to-work pipeline for Detroit youth. Students, he said, need training and access to municipal jobs such as police, fire and administrative work.

“The quality of our schools directly impacts the ability to attract citizens to the city and businesses as well,” Lemmons said. “Conversely the city services and state of the city directly impacts our ability to attract students and families.”

The second-term mayor has mostly focused on rebuilding neighborhoods, job training and affordable housing during his time leading the city.

Duggan announced Tuesday that he will recalibrate his troubled demolition program, which initially sought to demolish 40,000 houses over five years. The city has taken down 14,000 structures under the federally funded program, but while doing so, the effort has under come scrutiny amid concerns over bidding practices and soaring costs.

The city’s demolition program is under investigation by the FBI and Office of the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or SIGTARP, as well as a grand jury.

“I feel really bad about all the people that got into trouble because I tried to push them to do 8,000 a year,” he said. “But the truth is with our contractor capacity, we can’t do it.”

So by the end of 2019, Duggan wants 8,000 more abandoned houses demolished, 2,000 houses sold by the city’s Land Bank, 1,000 homes renovated by owners and 11,000 others to be boarded up.

The mayor on Tuesday night also credited the city’s drop in homicides last year to the expansion of two initiatives: Project Green Light, a surveillance program at hundreds of gas stations, fast-food restaurants and other businesses in the city, which provides high-quality video to investigators; and Operation Ceasefire, a program in which police partnered with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and Wayne County prosecutors to identify gang members and others who are likely to commit crimes or be victims.

In 2017, Michigan’s biggest city posted its lowest tally of criminal homicides in more than a half-century: 267.

Although Detroit’s homicides dropped 30 percent between 2012 and 2017, “it’s nothing to be proud of,” Duggan said Tuesday night. “Every city in America does not live with this violence.”

Duggan also emphasized the city’s success in reducing gun violence, increasing affordable housing units, providing jobs for more Detroiters and attracting major companies to the city.

The economy has been boosted by banks, industrial companies and major corporations opening facilities in Detroit, he said. Hundreds of jobs have been created by this trend, he said.

And as the city revives itself, Duggan said his goal has been to ensure that Detroit residents are the first to be considered for new jobs.

“We have not seen this type of movement in the city in decades,” Duggan said. “It’s been going the other way.”

Source: The Detroit News