Detroit’s decrepit schools could stall city comeback. Does Lansing care?

Mercedes Boulding, senior director of facilities for Detroit Public Schools Community District, said the most common problems districtwide are worn out roofing and windows. When those fail, leaks cause additional problems with electrical systems, walls and floors. (Bridge photo by Anthony Lanzilote)

Pershing High School on Detroit’s east side is missing some basics such as sturdy bleachers, a dependable heating system and bathrooms that provide a basic human expectation of privacy.

Some of the stalls are missing doors.

The 90-year-old building needs $28 million in repairs, the highest tab among the 103 schools in the Detroit Public Schools Community District, according to a 2018 district facilities report.

“It makes me feel like they don’t really care about us,” said sophomore Anasia Dorris, 16. “Maybe other people’s city and county or whatever care about them, but not ours.”

Three miles away, Osborn High is not too much better. Drafty 62-year-old windows near the auditorium are fogged over in winter, and during physical education class kids have to dodge buckets placed around the gym to catch rainwater. Osborn’s long list of repairs adds up $14 million.

RELATED: See photos of Osborn High School in Detroit

The two schools aren’t alone: Detroit schools may require $1.4 billion in repairs in coming years. The looming crisis not only inconveniences children, teachers and staffers, but is also worries investors who say the condition of Detroit schools could hinder the city’s comeback, five years after emerging from bankruptcy.

This month, S&P Global Ratings upgraded the City of Detroit’s credit rating from B+ to BB-, three rungs below what’s considered investment grade or a “good” credit, according to Crain’s Detroit.

But analysts noted the schools are hurting the city.

“A major factor still holding back this progress continues to be the struggling state of the Detroit public school system,” S&P told investors.

Those remarks echo similar findings from Moody’s Investor Reports, which in November concluded the Detroit’s rebirth will be stalled until the state steps in to help fix the disrepair in the schools.

The district is at its limit for borrowing for major repairs, and a school-by-school facilities report last fall projected a $500 million maintenance shortfall will balloon to $1.4 billion by 2023.

Deteriorating schools contribute to blight, force residents to leave the city even as its population stabilizes following a 60-year decline, and put a crimp on tax revenues, Moody’s warned.

“The city may also struggle to attract new businesses, as decommissioned school buildings may contribute to urban blight that can discourage neighborhood improvement.”

The situation is so dire that even new buildings, such as the acclaimed Cass Technical High, need extensive repairs.

Built in 2004 for about $115 million, the school will need $46 million in repairs by 2023. The school’s football team, which has won three state titles, has a tattered field that can’t be used for practice. And its heating and cooling system broke down last summer.

The district’s audits don’t detail how a relatively new school could fall so quickly into disrepair, but records show the district overall has delayed maintenance for years to save money.

The state could take steps to help the schools and the city. But Moody’s analysts and others say it would a big ask from a Legislature that had to ante up $617 million just two years ago to eradicate a Detroit Public Schools deficit that built up when the district was operated for eight years by a string of five state-appointed emergency managers.

Mayor Mike Duggan is aware of the crisis, but isn’t saying much about how to fix it.

“The mayor recognizes the severity of the challenge,” Alexis Wiley, the mayor’s chief of staff, wrote in an email. “We’re committed to working with DPSCD and other partners to identify potential solutions.”

Nor does the problem rank high on the agenda in Lansing, where talk of how to “fix the damn roads” is paramount now.

At Osborn High School on Detroit’ east side, students have to go to a nearby recreation center to workout because the school’s weight room suffered water damage last year. (Bridge photo by Anthony Lanzilote)

Sen. Lana Theis, R-Brighton, the chair of the state Senate education committee did not respond to requests for comment from Bridge Magazine. Neither did Pamela Hornberger, R-Chesterfield Township, the chair for the House education committee chair.

Nikolai Vitti, the superintendent for DPSCD, said he hasn’t heard of any conversations among legislators about the issue, but he’s optimistic new governor, Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, would support policy changes or laws to help the district, such as increasing its borrowing threshold.

This spring, he intends to hold public conversations in the schools to help Detroit residents understand the crisis, to attract investments from philanthropy and encourage businesses to use their political clout to pressure Lansing.

“People don’t seem to have the political will” to fix the schools, he said. “There has to be a sense of civic responsibility for this.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

How the state can fix it

In 2016, the state Legislature passed a law to rid the city’s schools of more than half a billion in debt that largely accumulated when the district was under state control from 1999 to 2005 and again from 2009 to 2016.

The new law created the Detroit Public Schools Community District, a debt-free entity that educates students, and left the old entity, Detroit Public Schools, holding the bonds. The old DPS exists solely to collect taxes and pay off debt. The last of the debt is set to be repaid in 2046, according to the Michigan Department of Treasury.

All that debt has put the city’s school system at the legal limit for state-backed borrowing. That means the state would have to pass a law to give DPSCD new borrowing capabilities to fund districtwide improvements.

But even that would be problematic for the future of the city of Detroit, said Craig Thiel, research director or the Lansing office of Citizens Research Council, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy research organization.

More borrowing would make tax bills go up. But in Detroit, a city that’s trying to attract new residents, property owners already pay a lot of taxes for debt, ranking in the top five in Michigan, Thiel said.

The overall tax rate in the city of 70 mills, one-third higher than nearby suburbs such as Grosse Pointe.

“Could the state pay for the debt service for (Detroit)? Technically, yes,” said Thiel. “But what’s to stop every other school district from asking for the same?”

Tonya Allen, CEO of the Skillman Foundation, and a leader in the effort to dig the schools out of deficit in 2016, said the debt was the state’s priority, not the facilities or positioning the district to be successful.

Even though the Legislature gave us $617 million, we knew that was the bare minimum,” she said. “I think there’s a body of unfinished work that the Legislature is going to have to do.”

Moody’s concluded the same. Its fall report on Detroit stated:

“The district's ability to access the capital markets at affordable rates is also limited. While the City of Detroit's fiscal fortunes have improved, it is unlikely to offer meaningful assistance to DPSCD.

“The State of Michigan is therefore the most viable source of support for DPSCD's sizable capital needs, though political appetite so soon after the bailout is uncertain.”

$500 million and rising

Detroit’s schools need $500 million in fixes despite spending $2 billion since 1994 on construction, Vitti said. Voters approved a $1.5 billion bond in 1994 and another $500 million one in 2009 for school updates.

So how did the district get here?

The school system has lost 100,000 students since 2001 and is down to about 50,000 students, largely due to competition with charter schools and inner ring suburbs as well as the city’s population loss over that time. (In recent years, the annual declines in Detroit’s population have nearly stopped).

Declining enrollment drained funding and led to huge operating deficits. In response, maintenance employees were laid off, services were privatized and reduced and maintenance projects were put on the back burner, Vitti said.

And the problems piled up.

Today, about 57 percent of buildings as “good” or ”fair,” while 43 percent are in “poor” or “unsatisfactory” shape, the facilities report shows. By 2023, about 84 percent will be in bad shape.

Pashawn Johnson is principal at Osborn High on Detroit’s east side which needs $14 million in fixes that are expected to reach $39 million by 2023. Old, drafty windows near the auditorium are covered in condensation every winter. (Bridge photo by Anthony Lanzilote)

A month ago you could see your breath if you walked into the auditorium at Osborn High on Detroit’s east side due to a heating system break down that was recently fixed.

And a few buckets are scattered around the gym to catch water to keep it from warping the floor. Again.

Duct tape holds some windows together in a special education room on the first floor. Only one window opens and it is typically kept open in the winter, hanging crooked off the hinge, to cool off the piping hot room.

“It’s a trick window. You’ve got to know the trick to how to close it,”  said teacher Patricia Moore. “If it’s not open, it’s 500 degrees in here.”

It’s a constant struggle to keep the district’s buildings warm, said Mercedes Boulding, senior director of facilities for DPSCD.

Often, schools will be too hot in one section and too cold in others.

The average school is 60 years old. The most common problems districtwide are worn roofing and windows. When those fail, leaks causes additional problems with electrical systems, walls and floors, Boulding said.

The $500 million worth of maintenance problems within the Detroit school system are not only an annoyance, but sometimes a danger.

Last year, Palmer Park Preparatory Academy closed for the last three months of school after a leaky roof caused mold problems.

At Pershing, maintenance needs are expected to reach $43 million ivy 2023.

Jeremiah Aly, 16, a sophomore at Pershing, ticked off the countless deterioration issues that already exist inside the school from flooding, drafty windows and dingy floors to antiquated equipment that interferes with learning.

A person doesn’t need to go into the building to get an idea of how bad the facility is, he said, just take a look at the football field.

“Our field is terrible compared to every other field, our students had to make some of the bleachers by hand; they spray paint the lines on the ground instead of actually nurturing and taking care of it. It’s like they don’t really care about us for real,” he said.

Vitti echoed that sentiment. He said the neglect of the buildings reflects the harsh reality of how children in Detroit are treated.

“I often hear people say facilities don’t determine how well kids do in school. There’s some level of truth to that,” he said.

“But apply these same conditions to middle-class, white school districts and some of our schools would be completely unacceptable. It’s acceptable or ignored because we’re talking about poor children of color. I don’t have any facts to tell me otherwise.”

Maurice Cox, Detroit’s director of planning and development, said there are opportunities for the city and school district to increase collaboration and reuse empty buildings.

By year’s end, the city plans to complete a facilities audit of the 57 empty school buildings the district turned over to the city in 2014 exchange for forgiveness of $11 million in past due electricity bills, Cox said.

He said S&P and  Moody’s were not wrong when they concluded that the condition of the schools will impact Detroit’s revitalization.

“It’s a fair observation,” he said.

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Nathan McAlpine
Tue, 02/26/2019 - 10:04am

It's sad to think of all those children who feel like nobody cares about them. And they feel that way because it's true. The article doesn't even mention the lead in the water. DPSCD schools had to shut off their water at the beginning of this school year. I don't hear anything about that. Did that problem ever get resolved? Is anybody doing anything to help these public schools? This really should be a top priority.

James F Bish
Tue, 02/26/2019 - 10:26am

Anasia is correct. They don't care. Our children, except for the chosen few, are throw away kids, not needed in the new high tech economy. If you don't educate them, you shrink the pool of young folks competing for the limited well paying jobs of the future.
This is part of the process of driving "non middle class" families out of the city so the city can be re-molded according to the "Detroit Future City" corporate vision.

Paul Martinsky
Tue, 02/26/2019 - 11:15am

What an excellent, well researched report!! I live in Northeast Detroit-District 3, and have noticed the decline of schools in my part of town over the years, including nearby Pershing HS. I've also noticed schools that were demolished and others that are abandoned(such as the beautiful Courville School building at Nevada@St.Aubin). There are also former DPS buildings that are now charter schools(Atkinson, on Nevada, east of Ryan, is now Legacy Academy, White is now GEE White, Charles near Fenelon, and former Cleveland Middle School is now GEE Frontier International Academy High School, Charles@Conant, south of Davison). Enrollment at Historic Pershing is low these days, down to about 400 students in a building built for 2 or 3 thousand. I know of two former Catholic Schools that are now charters too. Plus there are students in aforementioned zipcodes who attend schools in neighboring or near suburban schools of choice, north of 8 Mile. Northeast Detroit public schools need growth, need programs designed to both maintain and increase enollment, attract new families . How about a Renaissance Northeast High School(woudn't that be nice!), or moving Davis Aerospace to part of the Pershing HS building(which isn't far from City Airport), a foreign language immersion grade school, etc..... Something different to help Norheast Detroit neighborhoods make a comeback!

Tue, 02/26/2019 - 1:21pm

How is it that the charters with less to spend are able to attract kids away from DPS? Without to local operating funds their schools must really be a mess.

Tue, 02/26/2019 - 2:23pm

They aren't.... Charters in Detroit score worst on standardized tests and are in the same poor condition as the public schools. Stop trying to sell an unreal narrative.

Chanelle Walker
Thu, 02/28/2019 - 9:57am

You can debate the facilities issue, Jim, but don't spread mistruths about charter school performance in Detroit. Charters score twice as high as DPSCD schools on the M-STEP, and vastly outperform DPSCD schools on the SAT. Even Vitti admits that. It's not an "unreal narrative." It's fact.

Thu, 02/28/2019 - 1:58pm

Nice work on trying to use an opinion article as actual news. Reality is Charters do not include special education students and do not have to take every child. When you factor everything in equally, then Charters do no better, nor have they ever faired any better than public schools. If you want to keep pushing the trap of privatizing public tax dollars into for-profit hands then go ahead, but perhaps you should research how Michigan schools have slid and have performed worst since the 1990's when the charter school flood gates were opened up by Engler. I get it though, if the narrative goes against those looking to profit off the education dollars that otherwise would be used to educate children, then by all means sell that greedy agenda with opinion pieces from those with their hands in the cookie jar. Pathetic.

Thu, 02/28/2019 - 10:05pm

You are dead wrong.

On the 2016 and 2017 M-STEP exams, charter schools in Detroit had roughly twice as large a percentage of students who scored proficient in math and reading as Detroit Public Community School District schools did.

Most charters have to lease their buildings, but the building owners apparently do a much better job than DPS and DPCS maintenance staff has done over the years. All charter schools pay for their buildings out of the per-pupil Foundation Allowance, and like students who change districts under Schools of Choice, charter schools students bring the state minimum Foundation Allowance to contribute to the charter school operating budget.

Detroit's school buildings are in terrible shape because the decision makers in Detroit Public Schools spent huge amounts of money on keeping the Central Office staff large, well paid, and in beautiful offices while students were leaving the Detroit school system in droves and property values across Detroit plummeted.

Tue, 02/26/2019 - 4:23pm

I don't think schools in disrepair is the problem with Detroit schools. People want safe schools where kids are engaged in learning. Let's take a look at how the school district used Detroit bond money to build new schools and see how the students are performing academically compared to those in poorly maintained schools. Would surely want to know how all of the "newer" schools are being maintained. Now that DPPS is in control are they budgeting anything for maintenance in any schools and are they showing they are smart decisions or is the strategy to not maintain schools at all and keep writing articles like this to goad the state into repairing Detroit schools when people across the state still remember how much they paid to eliminate debt?. With 50,000 students the district needs to take a look at its enrollment and figure out how many buildings it wants to run. More and more this looks like a one two punch. Get someone else to eliminate the debt and get someone else pay to repair the buildings.

Ben W. Washburn
Tue, 02/26/2019 - 5:53pm

Let me chime-in and try to throw some longer term historical perspective on this story. For 10 years, from 1989 until 1999, I was the point person on the elected Board of Ed with regard to building maintenance. The neglect of building maintenance had begun 60 years earlier, in 1929. With the onset of the Great Depression, building maintenance was deferred to better times. Then it was deferred to support the War effort. Then it was deferred to enable the construction of more schools in the 1950s, because the population of the city had doubled and all of the existing schools were way over-crowded. And next, it
was deferred because the Legislature authorized teachers to bargain, and every extra dollar went into improving teacher pay. During all of this time, however, the district was authorized by law to raise separate funds for building maintenance (a capital improvement millage), but the Detroit Chamber of Commerce successfully killed all of these efforts.
I get the sense sometimes that most folks all across this State think that the current state of the Detroit schools is the fault of the black folks who inherited this mess in the late 70s, when in fact, it was created by the neglect of and passed-on by the white folks who had run the system for the previous 60 years.

Thomas Wilson
Tue, 02/26/2019 - 6:40pm

I remember reading a report which was publicized in early 1990's that the average age of a DPS was 67 years old. It's painfully obvious that the changes that the winds of time brought to the district were not good. The buildings which were constructed during Detroit's heyday were meant to last a long time. But the buildings, some if not most, were neglected and needed repairs were not made so we have what we have today because of the neglect, As the adage says, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." But those ounces of prevention were ignored! Therefore we are now looking at a "$500 million short fall which will balloon to $1.4 billion by 2023." If the schools don't get some serious improvements in increased test scores and graduation rates and students adequately prepared for college and graduate Detroit's comeback/revival will continue to be delayed. And lastly, not a DPSCD problem, the crime rate will have to be significantly reduced.

Kevin Grand
Thu, 02/28/2019 - 1:19pm

Didn't DPS float something like $2-BILLION in school building bonds over the past two decades?

Why is this never mentioned?

Thu, 02/28/2019 - 1:54pm

Because Emergency Managers and a state appointed Kenneth Burnley squandered and wasted the money instead of investing it into the schools and students. The agenda to privatize education has been happening for decades. Profiteers look at Detroit children as easy targets. The state panders to these profiteers who are healthy donors towards their campaigns. In Detroit it is never about education or children, but instead always about money and the greedy folks looking to get their hands on the public tax dollars funding education.

Thu, 02/28/2019 - 2:01pm

Start with a state appointed Kenneth Burnley, then go through a decade of Emergency Management that did nothing but funnel money away from the schools and you'll see where that bond money went. I'll help you out, not to the schools or the children. The problem when Lansing controls things is there is NO ACCOUNTABILITY. Lack of accountability was even written into Snyder's Emergency Management Law that I remind you that the people voted against. When people in power have an agenda, there is always a price to pay. Detroit students, teachers, and schools are still paying for that agenda.

Kevin Grand
Fri, 03/01/2019 - 6:08am

On the part about Lansing's EM law, I agree with you 100%.

That law should NEVER have seen the light of day.

Failed municipalities and school districts should be allowed to collapse on their own, and elected "leadership" should be arrested and have all of their assets seized to make amends for their actions.

But to even imply that DPS leadership is not above getting funny with the money?

Want more?

Fri, 03/08/2019 - 12:33pm

You are pointing out a few principals. That was nothing compared to the amount of money stolen from the state. Engler forced Burnley to be appointed once thatbond money was passed. He then siphoned that money away from the schools on the order of Engler. You tack onto this the appointment of several EM's who did nothing but bring in their friends and drive the district even further into debt. The end game was to financially destroy DPS so that they could justify chartering off the entire district and the school funds be placed into for-profit private hands. It was politics run by the agenda of an otherwise pile of bought politicians in the pockets of for-profit charter operators. Most of which was paid for from the DeVos foundation. Think about that, a foundation buying politicians to force the failure and destruction of the states largest public school system for their own financial gain. That is the only truth. One that should sicken all those who have children.

George Eyster
Sun, 03/03/2019 - 6:26am

I believe that there is a need for more $ for schools. But if I was trying to make that point, I would use another example rather than a weight room with a bad roof. Why can't schools get their priorities right? Maybe a science lab needing a roof would do better.

Ken Tokarz
Sun, 03/03/2019 - 6:52am

If the Mayors office and the City if Detroit are committed to DPSCD they would immediately pass legislation exempting the school district from DRAINAGE FEE'S wjr a stipulation that the $$$$5+ million dollars a year are ear marked for roofs (40%) and windows (60%). If the city wants to sweeren the pot and be a true partner they could additionally waive all building department and fire department inspections fee's.

Sat, 06/27/2020 - 2:40am

No, no, no..... we're making too much headway now to let "lack of money" get in the way of true progress. Yes, billions have been wasted by previous school boards (you know those idiots that humiliated and embarrassed Detroit in front of the entire nation with Dan Rather). They were filling their own pockets when they were supposed to be fixing schools. But we must move forward and we, the Community are no longer stupid, ok? This country has plenty of money for what it WANTS to have, so you just called up the Federal Reserve to turn on their little computer and add 8 zeros to the DPSCD Building fund. If you need a line item, just call it Reparations, ok, but let's not get stupid now that we can't find any money to fix a long failed school system run by crooked adults. We finally have a leader who is really gonna do this, so write the check. Go on now.... it's not gonna hurt anyone. Funny how white people always seem to find the billions for their new schools.... Time to do it for the black and brown kids too.