Nick Krieger (@nckrieger):
By now, you’ve probably seen Ann Zaniewski’s excellent article in the Detroit Free Press examining the nature and extent of the control that the Financial Review Commission will exercise over the new Detroit school district.
According to the article, Financial Review Commission executive director Ron Rose authored a memorandum last month in which he stated that “the commission can exercise oversight of administrative matters and even academics, not just finances.” (Emphasis added.) This came as something of a surprise for many — apparently, including transition manager Steve Rhodes — who believed that the role of the commission would be confined to matters of financial oversight.
So let’s dig a little deeper. What do the statutes actually allow the Financial Review Commission to do? And, specifically, do they give the commission any power to oversee “academics”?
Last March, the Legislature made several amendments to the Michigan Financial Review Commission Act (“MFRCA”) by way of 2016 PA 53. These amendments extended the reach of the Financial Review Commission to the new Detroit school district; they also increased the commission’s membership from 9 to 11 by adding the Detroit school district superintendent and school board chairperson. (Note that the state treasurer serves as chairperson of the Financial Review Commission, and the Governor directly appoints a majority of the members of the commission.)
The bulk of the Financial Review Commission’s powers are defined by §§ 6 and 7 of the MFRCA. Under these sections, the Financial Review Commission is required to approve or reject the new Detroit school district’s budget, approve or reject all contracts that exceed $750,000 (unless a higher amount is set by the commission) or two years in duration, “establish and maintain programs and requirements for the responsible fiscal management of th[e] . . . school district,” “streamlin[e] the provision of . . . school district services,” “[i]mprove collection of outstanding tax revenues,” “[r]eview . . . the compensation and benefits of . . . school district employees and recommend . . . adjustments where necessary,” and approve or reject collective bargaining agreements and addenda to those agreements. The Financial Review Commission also has the power to “[r]eview and approve requests by [the] . . . school district to issue debt,” “[r]equire the development and implementation of financial best practices,” require school district employees to attend financial or managerial training sessions, require school district employees to provide records or information that the commission considers necessary, make contracts and retain legal counsel, and recommend the adoption or amendment of bylaws, policies, or operating procedures by the district.
In addition, the Financial Review Commission has other powers under the recent amendments to § 387 of the Revised School Code. For instance, the commission must approve or reject the appointment of the new Detroit school district’s chief financial officer, and must give its approval before the school board may terminate the employment of the chief financial officer or superintendent.
None of these duties and powers sounds too academic, right? At least I didn’t think so at first. To a certain extent, academics are tangentially related to everything a school district does. But none of these provisions specifically confers upon the Financial Review Commission any authority to oversee or manage teaching, instruction, curriculum, or academic administration.
And then I noticed § 6(3)(e)(i).
I have to confess that in all the times I’ve read over the MFRCA in the last several months — or at least I thought I was reading it — I somehow missed § 6(3)(e)(i). Maybe it’s because § 6(3) is short; maybe it’s because I was skimming too quickly. I don’t know. But as I perused the statute this afternoon, there it was:
(3) The commission shall ensure that . . . a . . . qualified school district complies with the provisions of all of the following, as applicable, and may request verification of compliance:
* * *
(e) For a qualified school district, all of the following:
(i) The revised school code . . . .
Yep. The Revised School Code. You know, the voluminous state law that governs almost everything a school district does — including the hiring of teachers and staff, the use of substitute teachers, evaluation of teachers and administrators, classroom instruction, tests and standardized assessments, accreditation, special education programs, transportation of pupils, classroom safety and security, the length of the academic year, selection and approval of textbooks, social studies curriculum, government and civics curriculum, vocational education, school lunch programs, kindergarten enrollment, the teaching of health and physical education, bilingual instruction programs, sex education, mandatory genocide awareness instruction, the conduct of school board meetings, professional development, the placement of the American flag on school property, the recitation of the pledge of allegiance, use of school lockers, participation in interscholastic athletics, and much, much, much more.
Apart from funding (which is generally addressed by the State School Aid Act), the Revised School Code deals with nearly every school-related issue under the sun. It therefore strikes me that, when read broadly, the statutory authority to “ensure that . . . a . . . school district complies with the provisions of . . . . [t]he revised school code” carries with it the power to almost completely micromanage the district, including with regard to various matters of curriculum and instruction. This, of course, is very unwelcome news for proponents of local control over Detroit’s public schools.
Is the micromanagement of academics what the Legislature had in mind when it enacted 2016 PA 53? I have no way of knowing. But it certainly isn’t what we were told by lawmakers at the time, many of whom suggested last spring that the role of the Financial Review Commission would be much more limited in scope.
Ron Rose told the Detroit Free Press that he “envisions the commission working with the district in the same way it works with the city,” and doesn’t foresee the commission making academic policy decisions for the district. If that’s the case, however, why did he write the memorandum in the first instance? Was it merely informational? Or was it intended as some kind of warning from the Governor and state treasurer (something like “do as we say or we’ll take over your academics in addition to your finances”)? Rhodes is an attorney; he can certainly read the MFRCA and Revised School Code as well as Rose or I can. That’s why I question the memorandum’s true purpose.
We don’t yet know how ardently the Financial Review Commission will implement its authority to ensure compliance with the Revised School Code under § 6(3)(e). Perhaps it won’t at all. Nor do we know how broadly the commission will interpret its powers under this provision. But you really have to wonder what other bits of unpleasantness the folks at the Financial Review Commission are waiting to share through their legal memoranda in the weeks and months ahead.