State takeover is the assumption of control of a school district or municipality by the state as the result of fiscal insolvency and/or lack of academic achievement. Takeover eliminates the control and ability of local communities to appoint democratically elected and locally responsible officials in favor of a state-appointed emergency manager.  The job of the emergency manager is to cut costs, produce fiscal solvency, and, sometimes, improve education outcomes. In other words, democratic processes, control, and accountability are dispelled in favor of top-down unilateral control in the hands of a single person appointed by the state. This person is also shielded from most forms of liability to the communities which they serve.

The first state takeover law was the result of nearly two decades of litigation known as the Robinson and Abbott cases; the plaintiffs were suing the state of New Jersey arguing that the state funding schemes did not provide sufficient resources to all schools to achieve a “thorough and efficient” education as outlined in the state’s constitution. These lawsuits, for the first time, ruled that the state was responsible for providing an adequate education to its students. They provided the inspiration for many similar lawsuits in other states, prompting many to respond with new litigation of their own. Since state takeovers’ original conception in 1989, more than 20 states have adopted laws which allow the state to control local governance to promote educational and financial stability. The proliferation of state takeover laws has only been supported by federal policy and litigation despite local contention. The results of some of Michigan’s state takeovers, the Flint Water Crisis and the continued deterioration of the Detroit Public School system, act as a foil to the perceived wisdom of these laws.  

In 1988, the state of Michigan proposed its first state take over law: the Government Fiscal Responsibility Act. The law explicitly allowed the state to intervene in financially dysfunctional municipalities. However, the law did not extend its powers to school districts. This is why some legislators proposed, in 1989, that the law is repealed and replaced with an extension for the intervention of financially unstable school districts. The bill was passed and would become to be known as Public Act 72 (1990). Kristi Bowman notes that proponents of the law believed it provided a clear path for the state and local districts to resolve fiscal crises which escalated in accordance with the gravity of the situation, while opponents stated that the law ultimately threatened local control and transparency of government.

Public Act 72 spelled out the procedures that the state and local governments would take should a school district fall into fiscal distress;

  1. An agreement would be made between the state and local governments to minimize the distress;
  2. If the financial insecurity continued, the state could appoint an Emergency manager;
  3. In the case of a school takeover, the manager was selected by the governor from a shortlist preapproved by the state superintendent for public instruction and the state board of education;
  4. The emergency manager had the authority over the school district’s or municipality’s finances and could authorize the filing for bankruptcy.

According to Eric Scorsone, an economist at Michigan State University, the law was rarely used in the 20 years under Governors Blanchard, Engler, and Granholm. Governor Rick Snyder would change this by not only utilizing the law with unprecedented vigor but by expanding its powers in favor of the state.

In 2011, one of the first pieces of legislation signed by newly elected Governor Snyder was Public Act 4 which essentially strengthened state power in the event of a fiscal crisis. Public Act 4 clarified the definitions of the degrees of fiscal distress, required more frequent and extensive reporting by the emergency manager to the state, maintained the principle of escalation over time, and gave significantly more power to the emergency manager by extending his powers to the day to day management rather than simple control of the finances. Basically, the law made the local school board, superintendent, and municipal government obsolete as they could provide no function without the express permission of the emergency manager. The extensive power of the emergency manager can be found most poignantly in section 20 (f) of Public Act 4:

“[The emergency manager may] exercise solely, for and on behalf of the school district, all other authority and responsibilities affecting the school district that are prescribed by law to the school board and superintendent of the school district” (2011).

Another major provision of Public Act 4 was that it allowed the governor to appoint an emergency manager to a municipality or school district without conference with the Senate or any other body of government, expanding the governor’s unilateral control over the selection of the emergency manager.

Public Act 4  was highly controversial, leading to a long string of litigation and the complete dissolution of public school districts in favor of charters. Stand Up for Democracy fathered 203,238 valid signatures to recall the law. Following intervention by the Michigan Supreme Court, the measure was added to the November ballot. In 2012, Public Act 4 was rejected by statewide referendum by a vote of 52% against.
The legislature responded almost immediately to Public Act 4’s failure with Public Act 436. This law made some changes to Public Act 4, ie. making the state pay the salary of the emergency manager instead of local government, allowing the local government to remove the emergency manager by vote after 18 months, and providing that the law cannot be overturned by the public. The final provision, making Public Act 4 virtually immune to repeal, continues to be controversial because of the state’s increasing use of takeover on local governments. Michigan’s citizens view the inability to overturn the law and the act of takeover itself as a violation of their rights as democratic citizens. This has disproportionately affected Michigan’s African American community. Half of Michigan’s black residents have lived the control of the state and seen their local governments made obsolete.

The Flint Water crisis was the result of the emergency manager’s decision to cut costs by switching Flint’s main water source to the Flint River and subsequent failures on the part of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In April 2014, Emergency Manager Darnell Earley oversaw the switch of Flint’s main water supply from the Huron river via Detroit to the Flint River until a direct source from Lake Huron to Flint could be constructed. The decision to switch the water was primarily an economic one. Officials had increased the price of Detroit city water and in an attempt to save money, Flint looked for other options.

The fact that the switch occurred due to economic concerns is often overlooked and monumentally important: emergency management, by nature, forces administrators to cut costs wherever possible to attain fiscal solvency. After Flint switched sources, they began to experience a series of problems which went partially ignored by all three levels of government (municipal, state, and federal). E.coli outbreaks forced the water treatment plant to add high levels of chloride to the water, making it highly corrosive to the lead pipes. The MDEQ and municipal government did not add a commonly used protective agent to the water to prevent the pipes from corroding. This led to lead leaching into the water and poisoning the citizens of Flint.

Concerned citizens like Lee Ann Waters contacted city officials, the EPA, and a professor at Virginia Tech to test the water. Waters’ contact at the EPA, Miguel Del Toro, “blew the whistle” that the water was possibly dangerous, but was silenced by the larger federal bureaucracy.  City officials, the MDEQ, and EPA all insisted that the water was safe to drink. With the help of a team of students from Virginia Tech, Waters helped citizens become scientists and collect samples from their water supplies. Local Dr. Hanna-Attisha also performed blood tests on children in Flint to prove that the water was contaminated. The combined findings proved that Flint residents had in fact been ingesting dangerous levels of lead through their water and that the MDEQ, EPA, and local government had all covered up the state of the water. The tragedy in Flint was caused by the cities need to reach fiscal solvency and was prolonged by glaring failures at bureaucratic oversight at the municipal, state and federal levels. Unfortunately, Flint is not the only Michigan community to be unjustly harmed by state control.

The most recent state takeover of Detroit Public Schools began in January 2009 when Governor Jennifer Granholm appointed emergency manager Robert Bobb under Public Act 72. Bobb’s management was wrought with controversy over the meaning of Public Act 72. In theory, the law is meant to create a power-sharing authority between the emergency financial manager – who would control district finances – and the school board – who would retain control of academics. Bobb interpreted that the law gave him total authority: “If a penny touches any of the issues involving the Detroit Public Schools system, then I am engaged and involved”.

Throughout his reign, Bobb closed of 59 DPS schools in the course of 2 years, fired and rehired teachers and counselors, privatized the custodial staff and left DPS with a $284 million deficit. Far from reaching his goal of putting DPS in the black, Bobb would, like the reform board before him, actually leave the district worse off than it had been before. One of the major unanticipated problems of cost-cutting measures is as schools close and quality deteriorates, enrollment in DPS also drops. The district had lost “‘83,336 students in the last decade, representing a decline of more than 50 percent and at a rate much higher than the loss in population within the city of Detroit,’ Bobb told legislators. That resulted in ‘a related decline in state aid of more than $573 million since 2000 alone’”. Bobb’s successor’s Martin and Roberts had no easier time running DPS and both left the district with higher deficits, lower student populations, and fewer schools than before. According to Mason and Reckhow in a report on the effects of Michigan state takeover policy: “Despite the state’s efforts, financial and academic problems have become worse. Budget shortfalls continue, with a projected accumulated deficit of $335 million in June of 2016, up from $238 million a year earlier” (2016).

State takeover in Detroit has been wildly unsuccessful in turning around the district’s financial downslide. In fact, it has made it worse by driving down the quality of education, alienating itself from the community, and incentivizing students to leave in droves. Legal scholar Krisit Bowman of MSU states: “To remove local control over a district’s educational program without evaluating the quality of that academic program is to unfairly impose a radical executive branch remedy for a violation that has not been proven”.

In Michigan, state takeovers are the culmination of years of state divestment, segregation, and poverty – none of which authoritarian unilateral control can cure. This is often because emergency managers make decisions which are adverse to the needs of the community. Furthermore, these communities have no way of regaining or asserting control over their neighborhoods and schools because of the insulation emergency managers receive under the law. Takeovers disproportionately affect communities of color, making the policy racially charged and institutionally discriminatory. Thus, the theoretical underpinnings of state takeover and its tangible benefits most certainly do not under weigh its negative consequences. While the state of Michigan should unquestionably be held responsible for the quality of its schools and the future of its cities, it is clear that the current state takeover law is insufficient in meeting those demands. Therefore, the state should eliminate the ability to dispel the local governing structures in favor of a state-appointed emergency manager and, in the future, try to work with localities to improve fiscal distress and the quality of living.