Is It Time to Remove Detroit Schools' Emergency Manager?

by | September 22, 2014

By Ann Zaniewski

The Detroit Public Schools board is going to court in its quest to remove the district's emergency manager.

Some board members believe Jack Martin's tenure should end in late September, a year-and-a-half after the current emergency manager law took effect. They've asked a judge to declare that they can immediately remove him. A hearing is set for Oct. 1 in Ingham County Circuit Court.

Attorneys representing Martin, meanwhile, argue that the board is misinterpreting the law.

The law, PA 436, says if an emergency manager has served for at least 18 months after being appointed, a governing body can remove the manager by a two-thirds vote. The dispute centers on whether that period started when the law took effect in March 2013, or when Martin was appointed four months later.

School board attorney Herb Sanders said PA 436 was never intended to give each new manager 18 months on the job.

Otherwise, "the governor could then continually appoint EMs within the DPS as long as he removed or replaced each appointment prior to the expiration of the 18 months," Sanders wrote. He did not return messages seeking comment.

The Detroit school district has been under emergency management since 2009. Gov. Rick Snyder appointed Martin, the district's third emergency manager, in July 2013. His $225,000-a-year contract has no expiration date.

Michelle Brya, an assistant state attorney general, wrote in court filings that the board can't remove Martin until January, when his 18 months end.

The state also is arguing that because the board already voted out Martin, no controversy exists. It has asked for a summary judgment. John Philo, legal director for the Detroit-based Sugar Law Center, said the clock started ticking in March 2013, and state officials have publicly flip-flopped on the issue.

"When the law was passed, they represented to the people that the 18 months is an 18-month limitation on emergency managers," and not just individual managers, he said. "At other times, they have stated the opposite." Philo is working with Sanders in a federal court lawsuit over the law.

Eric Scorsone, an MSU economist who advised the governor on PA 436, said: "I think 18 months from the appointment of Jack Martin is a fair interpretation, but again, I can understand the other side."

Left powerless under emergency management, the school board has accused Martin of running up the district's deficit and keeping members in the dark. They voted in July to remove him, but the action had no teeth. The district has a $127-million deficit.

School board President Herman Davis said the board wants to regain the leadership it was elected to provide.

(c)2014 Detroit Free Press