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Detroit Public Schools Emergency Manager To Step Down


In Detroit, the state-appointed emergency manager for the city's school system is calling it quits. Darnell Earley faced criticism during the year he was in charge, but he was also a target because of his previous job. He had served as emergency manager of Flint, the city with a public health crisis due to lead contaminated drinking water. Michigan Public Radio's Rick Pluta reports.

RICK PLUTA, BYLINE: Darnell Earley seemed to have the right temperament to be one of Governor Snyder's go-to emergency managers. Tough-talking, no nonsense and thick-skinned, Earley was able to step in and wield the budget ax, first in Flint and then as the Detroit schools' fourth emergency manager in six years. But Earley was bedeviled in recent weeks by investigations that turned up mold and rodents in classrooms. Frustrated teachers engaged in periodic sickouts that shut down many of the city's schools. Here in January, Darnell Earley is jeered when he tries to talk to reporters about the sickouts. The scene was captured by a reporter for the news site MLive.


DARNELL EARLEY: I think that everybody understands the issues, OK?


EARLEY: But the bottom line is that...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Get out of Detroit, Earley. Get out of Detroit. Nobody wants you here.

PLUTA: The clamor for Earley to quit or be fired only grew with the controversy over Flint water. Earley was one of a series of emergency managers in Flint who carried out a decision to use the Flint River as a temporary source of drinking water. That decision had disastrous consequences as untreated corrosive river water caused lead in old pipes to leach into the drinking water. Back in October, Earley conceded the decision was a mistake, but insisted it was one made before he became Flint's emergency manager.


EARLEY: Well, I think in retrospect if we all had, you know, 20/20 hindsight, we'd do a lot of things differently. But I think it was important at the time to make sure that the people of Flint had a water source.

PLUTA: Earley's critics want him to be forced to explain his actions at a congressional hearing on the Flint water crisis. State Senator Jim Ananich is a lawmaker from Flint.

JIM ANANICH: It's important for the public to know what he knows, what documents he has regarding Flint. You know, this is not a way to sneak out of his responsibility to make sure the public knows what's happening.

PLUTA: The Flint water and Detroit school troubles have focused a lot of attention on emergency managers and Michigan's emergency manager law. Emergency managers are sent in when the state determines local officials aren't making the tough calls necessary to deal with budget deficits.

ERIC SCORSONE: Very few states give the kind of authority and power that we do.

PLUTA: Eric Scorsone is an economist at Michigan State University who studies local government finances and says about 20 states have laws allowing state intervention in local finances. But Michigan's arrangement goes farther than most. Once an emergency manager is sent in, that person has sweeping power to take an ax to spending, eliminate jobs and renegotiate agreements regardless of what residents or local elected officials want.

SCORSONE: It's seen as, you know, a very aggressive approach to local financial emergencies.

PLUTA: Aggressive and controversial. In fact, Michigan voters rejected a souped up version of the emergency manager law in 2012. Governor Snyder and the Republican-led legislature turned around and adopted a new law keeping intact the authority of emergency managers. They also used a technicality to make sure the law would not face another ballot challenge. But even Governor Snyder says emergency managers are a last resort. Here he is in 2011 after the law was adopted.


RICK SNYDER: My goal is to ever avoid having to employ an emergency manager. That's a failure point.

PLUTA: Snyder, Earley and others say the law has been helpful in putting troubled communities on a path to solvency. In fact, they say 16 of the 18 local governments that were taken over by the state are now back under some measure of local control. That includes Detroit's city government, which emerged from bankruptcy last year under the guiding hand of an emergency manager. But emergency managers can't fix every problem in a city like Detroit or Flint. They can't force families or businesses to move to a city or a school district. And, of course, an emergency manager can't fix the root of most of the problems - the economic distress that leads to a city or a school district's financial woes in the first place. For NPR News, I'm Rick Pluta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987. His journalism background includes stints with UPI, The Elizabeth (NJ) Daily Journal, The (Pontiac, MI) Oakland Press, and WJR. He is also a lifelong public radio listener.
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