State wants to keep school manager despite ruling

By Tim Martin

Associated Press

LANSING (AP) -- An Ingham County judge on Wednesday voided decisions made by a financial review team whose findings led to the appointment of an emergency manager in the Highland Park public school system, but the state plans to keep the manager on the job.

Ingham County Circuit Judge William Collette's ruling said the state-appointed review team violated Michigan's Open Meetings Act. Collette also maintained his earlier order -- that a similar team reviewing the city of Detroit's finances must meet in compliance with the Open Meetings Act.

Robert Davis, the Highland Park school board member and union activist who filed the lawsuits, said the ruling means that Gov. Rick Snyder's recent appointment of an emergency manager for the school district is wiped out.

"It was a monumental victory for democracy," Davis said. "It opens up the doors of government as it relates to this very important matter."

Michigan officials say they are reviewing their legal options, but they don't think the ruling affects Snyder's appointment last month of Jack Martin -- a former chief financial officer for the U.S. Department of Education -- as the Highland Park district's emergency manager.

"The ruling only really addressed review teams and the Open Meetings Act," Snyder spokeswoman Sara Wurfel told The Associated Press in an email.

The state review team found that the Highland Park district, located near Detroit, was struggling with mounting budget deficits, primarily from declining enrollment. The school district had more than 3,000 students in 2006, but is estimated to have less than 1,000 now. In Michigan, much of a district's funding is directly tied to its enrollment.

Emergency managers are appointed by the state to help fix the finances of fiscally troubled local governments and schools. They have broad authority including the power to toss out union contracts and strip power from locally elected officials.

Last week, Collette said state-appointed financial review teams that can result in the appointment of an emergency manager should be subject to the state's Open Meetings Act because their powers go well beyond those of an advisory committee. The Snyder administration believes the teams' meetings shouldn't be subject to the Open Meetings Act.

Michigan officials have appointed emergency managers in Benton Harbor, Ecorse, Flint, Pontiac and the Detroit public school system, along with the Highland Park schools. A review team is now looking at Detroit's finances to determine whether an emergency manager is needed in Michigan's largest city.

The Snyder administration said Wednesday the Detroit review team's work will "continue in accordance" with the Open Meetings Act.

Davis said it is possible that Wednesday's ruling could prompt legal questions about the actions of review teams in other locations, depending on if they have operated in the same fashion as review teams for Highland Park schools and the city of Detroit.

Davis' lawsuit is just one way opponents are trying to slow down or derail the state's emergency manager law. In June, the Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice sued over the law, saying it violated the state constitution. Snyder has asked the Michigan Supreme Court to fast-track the case so it doesn't get hung up in the appeals process, but the court has not yet decided whether it will review the case early.

Other opponents are gathering voter signatures to try to force an election aimed at repealing the revised law, known as Public Act 4. If enough signatures are collected to make the ballot, the law could be suspended before the November election.

Published: Fri, Feb 17, 2012