TIME Education

Inside Detroit’s Plan to Woo Middle-Class Parents to Its Public Schools

Detroit Public School
Detroit Public Schools has closed more than 80 schools due to severe drops in enrollment. Sarah Butrymowicz—Hechinger Report

A central office war room and customer-service tips from Target

Dara Hill diligently scribbled notes as the principal of Detroit’s Nichols Elementary-Middle School led her and several of her neighbors on a tour of the school. A room for special education students was brimming with stuffed animals, but the hallways were sparsely decorated. Work displayed in the kindergarten classroom was charming and developmentally appropriate. But why were there six students sitting to the side during gym class?

Hill has two more years before she has to pick a school for her four-year-old daughter, but she and her husband are starting their search now because she is overwhelmed by the number of options in Detroit, and underwhelmed by the quality of many of them. To help with the decision, Hill joined The Best Classroom Project, a Facebook group formed to help parents navigate Detroit’s large and under-resourced school system. Since beginning in 2013, the group has grown to more than 250 parents, a mostly middle and upper-middle class mix of life-long residents and recent transplants. Several of them care about sending their children to public schools. And they are precisely the type of people Detroit school officials need to court as the city claws its way back from bankruptcy.

Thirteen years ago, Detroit’s school system had 200,000 students. Today, it has less than 50,000. It’s saddled with a $127 million deficit and its students perform well below the rest of the state. In the 2013-14 school year, for instance, just 14.6% of Detroit third-graders and 7% of city 11th-graders passed the state math test, according to Michigan education data. And graduation rates also lag. Sixty-five percent of students graduated from Detroit public schools in four years in 2012-13. The state average is 77%.

Such numbers make it tough to convince parents like Hill, a professor of education at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, to commit to the city’s public schools. A statewide school choice system allows students in Detroit to attend any school in the district or pick from dozens of charter schools, but it also lets them apply to suburban schools. And many families with the means choose to bypass the system entirely and send their children to area private schools.

Keeping middle class families in the Detroit school system is particularly important because there are only so many of them. About 38% of Detroit households earn more than $35,000 compared to 56% of households across America, according to 2012 American Community Survey figures published by the Census Bureau. For the city to grow its tax base, the schools need to improve. But to significantly improve, the school system needs more students – and the money that comes with them.

“We recognize we’re a central anchor to the city,” says Roderick Brown, the district’s chief strategy officer and the man charged with finding ways to convince more families to pick the public school system. “Our success is tied to the success of the city.”

The War Room

Hill should be an easy mark for the school district. The daughter of German and Jamaican immigrants, she graduated from Detroit Public Schools in the 1980s and fondly remembers a time when black and white students would walk together to the Detroit Public Library after middle school. She met her husband in high school and stayed in the city after graduating, teaching first in the city and then in a nearby suburb.

She watched as Detroit continued a decline that began in the 1960s. And the city’s decades of struggle have been intertwined with those of the school system. Detroit Public Schools was first placed under state control in 1999 and then again in 2009 as test scores continued to falter. The district’s enrollment has fallen to 49,800 students as families moved or opted for charters that promised — but didn’t always deliver — better results. Nearly 40,000 students in the city now attend charter schools. Detroit Public Schools has shuttered more than 80 schools and the state has taken over 15 of the lowest performers in the past 5 years.

On top of that, in May, the district missed the deadline for applying for about $4 million in federal Head Start money because of technical problems. Officials said they would find money elsewhere to offer preschool to all students this school year, not just low-income ones, but to Hill, the incident is indicative of larger administrative problems. “There are things going on that are really good at many of the school levels, but as a district, it’s like, ‘Oh get it together,’” she said. “It just makes you wonder.”

The process of reassuring her begins in a conference room in the school system’s downtown headquarters that has been turned into a campaign-style war room. A translated quote from Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” hangs on one wall, next to a poster titled., “THE QUESTION: How shall DPS compete and win the marketplace?” The answer: “Empowered DPS employee’s operating via synchronized, lean agile and leveraged work efforts.”

The business jargon is evidence of Brown’s time at General Motors, where he was a manager of strategic facilities planning at the nation’s largest automaker. He’s brought more than the lingo with him to DPS. Brown thinks in terms of markets and supply chains, and argues that along with improving academics, Detroit Public Schools also must improve the overall customer experience for students and parents. That’s why district officials invited Target to train school office workers in customer service. Among the tricks: smile when answering the phone to sound friendlier. “We didn’t do the best job of serving our existing customer base,” Brown says.

The effort to change that started in 2009, when then-Emergency Manager Robert Bobb launched an “I’m in” campaign encouraging families to enroll in Detroit Public Schools. Since then, improvements such as universal pre-kindergarten and increased test scores, have been advertised with flyers, open houses and old-fashioned door-knocking.

“You can’t win this on the defensive,” says Steve Wasko, the district’s assistant superintendent for community relations. “The only way to survive and thrive is to be on the offensive.”

The first step was trying to ensure basics like making schools safe. District officials gathered community volunteers to walk with children to school and are working with the city’s lighting authority to get broken streetlights near schools replaced before all of the other busted ones in town. And they designated 20 schools as community hubs, to be open 12 hours a day as resource-centers for parents.

The district has also launched new academic programs, including the three-year-old Benjamin Carson High School of Medicine and Technology, named for the retired Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon who attended Detroit public schools. Many students there said they returned to the district from charter schools because they were attracted by Carson’s small size and focus on science. Yet even Carson has struggled. In the spring, in the school’s first year of state testing, only 9% of 11th-graders passed the state math test and just 1% passed the science exam. They fared better in reading and writing, with about 40% considered proficient.

Similarly, music or art is now taught at every elementary school, but many schools can’t afford to offer both.

But there has been progress. Last fall, enrollment barely dipped after a more than a decade in which it dropped by about 10% every year. Daily attendance is up to 86%, which is meaningful for a system that in 2011 had to return more than $4 million in state funding for having an average daily attendance rate below 75%. And some schools have begun to make gains on state tests that outpace the rate of improvement in the rest of the state.

Uphill Battle

Three weeks before Hill and her peers observed classes at Nichols, a group of volunteers with the nonprofit group Excellent Schools Detroit wandered around two pre-kindergarten classrooms at Bow Elementary School in a heavily blighted neighborhood in the Northwest of the city. In one room, a handful of children gathered around an iPad, while another group paraded through the classroom playing tambourines and wooden blocks. The volunteers made careful notes as the lights flickered. The day before, the power had gone out entirely. (Some schools in Detroit lost as many as 13 days of school last year because of power outages caused by the city’s outdated electrical grid.)

Bow, where 86% of students receive free or discounted lunch, is emblematic of the obstacles DPS faces as it attempts to shed its poor reputation. The school was one of 29 to receive a D this year in the influential rankings published by Excellent Schools Detroit. Only one K-8 Detroit Public School got an A.

For parents in the neighborhood, with few resources to get their children to schools miles away or little knowledge of how to navigate the school-choice process, the only other option is a similarly low-performing K-8 charter school across the street, which Bow’s former principal, Ernestine Woodward says has been drawing away students for years. Last summer staff from Bow knocked on every door in the neighborhood trying to get families back.

The school is doing the best it can with the resources it has, says Woodward, who retired at the end of last year. There’s not nearly enough money for the technology she would have liked, nor for social workers and other services to meet the needs of her students. But they do have afterschool and arts programs and make an effort to get parents into the school whenever possible.

Yet with a reputation for poor performance, it’s a school that Hill would never consider. And Nichols is out of the running, too, even though it should have been a good option. Nichols typically performs at or slightly above average on state tests. And it’s a five-minute walk from Hill’s home in Indian Village, one of the few neighborhoods that look untouched by Detroit’s downturn. But Hill found the class sizes were too large, and she didn’t like that the English curriculum required teachers to follow a script. She’s now leaning toward sending her daughter to a private school, underscoring how difficult it will be for Brown and DPS to convince parents like her.

“Can the public schools really appeal to us?” she says. “I don’t know that they have the resources or the ability to do that right now.”

This story was produced by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.

TIME cities

Marion Barry and the Legacy of America’s Black Mayors

DC Councilman Marion Barry may be facing censure after a council vote today.
Marion Barry at a DC Council Meeting, March 2, 2010. Linda Davidson—The Washington Post/Getty Images

"Within 15 years you went from having racially segregated water fountains to African-American mayors."

As a person and a politician, former Washington, D.C., mayor Marion Barry Jr. left a conflicted legacy: a charismatic voice for the voiceless whose legacy was scarred by a 1990 arrest for cocaine possession among a collection of other scandals.

As a black mayor who held office in the nation’s capital in the wake of the civil rights movement, Barry was part of an unmatched era in our nation’s political history.

“The importance of the moment cannot be overstated,” says Jeffrey Adler, a history professor at the University of Florida. “In some cities, within 15 years you went from having racially segregated water fountains to African-American mayors.”

Between 1967 — when Cleveland’s Carl Stokes became the first black person elected as mayor of a major U.S. city — and 1995 around 400 African Americans had been elected to lead American cities both large and small, according to Adler. By the late ’80s, Washington, Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and even Birmingham, Ala., had all had elected black mayors. Adler calls it a stunning transformation given the nation was barely two decades removed from Jim Crow.

“There was a joke around the time the first black man was elected mayor of Newark, that went something like ‘But, who would want to be mayor of Newark?’” recalls David Dinkins, who was elected as the first and only black mayor of New York City in 1990. “It was a tough time, but it was also a moment of significance that some of us were able to ascend and to reach high offices.”

The impact of that achievement meant a lot to people beyond just the political realm, Dinkins says, calling mayors the “ Jackie Robinsons and Althea Gibsons of their era.” Yet, black mayors, including Barry who was first elected in 1978, came to power at a time when the urban areas they led were rife with issues. Blacks had ascended in the wake of Jim Crow-era policies, but the cities they often occupied were in decline. Unemployment and crime rates were high. And as more blacks migrated to urban centers, more whites migrated out.

“It was summed up well by first President Bush,” says Kurt Schmoke, the first black person elected mayor of Baltimore. “There was more will than wallet. You had an electorate that hoped you could achieve a great deal, but resources were limited.”

Among the high-profile group of black mayors, Barry had some of the greatest impact on marginalized communities—the Washington Post calls him a”national symbol of self-governance for urban blacks”— but he has also had some of the most visible shortcomings. In the eyes of his critics and detractors, the work he did to provide jobs for youth and bring business to blighted areas was overshadowed by a fateful night at the Vista Hotel, where an FBI sting birthed the phrase “bitch set me up” and led to a circus-like trial, a stint in federal prison and, eventually, to a political redemption with another term as mayor and a city council seat he held until his death.

Barry, who long ago earned the moniker “mayor for life,” was long past his political prime when he died, and to many, he remained an imperfect figure. But still, his years as mayor were inspiration to some.

He was a transitional figure whose roots in the civil rights movement were a major factor in his governing, says Kurt Schmoke, the first black person elected mayor of Baltimore. Schmoke, who served as mayor from 1987 to 1999, credits Barry with helping him to “mold his approach to office” in his early years.

“Mayor Barry’s career certainly was tainted, but I hope people will remember the full context of a long career,” Schmoke says.” There was a time when he was a real contributing member not only to the African-American community, but to society as a whole.”

TIME Transportation

Taxi App CEO: Uber Is an ‘A–Hole’

136011080
View of taxi board Thomas Bonfert—Getty Images/Flickr RF

Rakesh Mathur wants to help cab drivers disrupt the disruptors

As Uber weathered a storm of bad publicity this week, a relatively small competitor put a new CEO at the helm. Rakesh Mathur is a serial company-founder who worked at Amazon after it bought his e-commerce startup Junglee. He’s now running Flywheel, an e-hailing app that everyday taxi drivers can use to pick up smartphone users and fight back against the disruptors.

Flywheel is in a mere three cities, compared to Uber’s 220 worldwide. And while the company just announced $12 million in funding, Uber is raising rounds by the billion. TIME spoke to Mathur about privacy, the pros and cons of Uber’s creative destruction and how the company plans to take over America despite the competition.

TIME: In a recent email, one of your company representatives described Flywheel as the “non-a–hole” alternative to Uber. Can you comment on that positioning?

Mathur: I think the last couple of days have been pretty shocking, right? Where you’re not just being told, “Hey, I know how to violate your privacy. I do that all the time. But I’m even worse than the [National Security Agency]. I’m going to take that information and do bad things to you.” I think a–hole is probably a mild word. And the fact that across the organization they feel so open using things like their God View, where you can see anybody who rides in an Uber car. Every driver that drives for Uber is tainted.

These transportation startups generally have the ability to know where their drivers are and where customers are needing to be picked up. What is your policy at Flywheel about who has access to that information and when?

It exists for some complaint or something that we’re solving, like disputing a fare. Certainly we can collect all the data on trends, so we know where demands are peaking and so forth . . . No one should have access to this information. It shouldn’t be called out. It should be available to solve consumer-initiated complaints. I don’t think monitoring individual information about people’s individual rides is something that is anybody’s right to know.

How do you see Lyft as a competitor that is different from Uber?

Their corporate philosophy projects as a lot kinder, gentler. Lyft is every bit as fierce a competitor.

Do you see Uber as a more direct competitor, more similar to a taxi service than Lyft, where riders are invited to sit in the front seat and chat?

We don’t need to obsess about Uber and Lyft beyond a certain point. Our primary job right now is to get into this huge supply that is available to us. And that’s going to keep us busy for a few years, making sure we are in all the cabs in America. I would liken worrying to much about Uber and Lyft to driving by looking in the rearview mirror.

What are your plans for expansion?

There’s so much inbound interest right now from markets all over the country. We’re going through them and figuring out which of the fleets in which markets give us critical mass. There’s also a lot of interest from software service providers within the taxi industry. So we’ve got our plate full.

We do you think you’ll go next?

We’re in San Francisco. We have toeholds in Seattle and Los Angeles. And in the next three-to-six months, we should be in many of the bigger cities in the United States.

Are we talking another three cities? Another dozen?

More like another dozen than another three.

I know you said you try to keep Uber in the rearview mirror, but how do you compete with a service that is raising funds a billion dollars at a time?

In terms of capital, I’ve built multiple companies. In the past 20 years, I’ve sold six companies. I’ve got pretty deep connections in the venture, finance and angel world. With any luck, we’re going to raise all the capital we need. The other part is that if I had $100 million right now and I felt compelled to spend it, I could make some terrible mistakes that I haven’t thought through. And it’s very hard to scale back.

You have a lot of advantages in leveraging the already-existing taxi industry. No surge pricing. Allies in some transportation authorities. You may have an easier time getting legal access to airports. What do you see as your key advantage?

Taxi companies offer a more safe and knowledgeable environment. Safe, as in taxi drivers, for all the insults that are hurled at them, have to go through fingerprinting and checks against national databases, including the FBI’s. The standard Uber or Lyft driver is, maybe, slightly more checked out than the general population. I’m fiercely concerned about how unsafe the unregulated part of the industry is. And in many to most instances, you’re dealing with people who know their city very well if you’re dealing with a taxi. . . . It’s a regulated industry with a huge supply. We don’t have to recruit supply. It’s a more stable model.

What do you see as your disadvantage in the market?

At an overall level, the regulatory system is a dual-edged sword . . . We’re on the right side of the law everywhere. That said, we don’t feel that it would make any sense to come up with rules to govern how we price, how we behave, et cetera. To the extent that regulators want to try to regulate us, that would be a bad thing.

How do you plan, as a new CEO, to do things differently at the company?

My main charter is scaling, to make sure that the technology that worked in San Francisco is applicable and scales, all while eliminating things like ridestacking [when drivers accept a ride through the app and then pick up a street hail], more integration with other systems inside the cab, making it much more bullet-proof and delightful for the consumer. The other part of it is dealing with the ecosystem in a very aggressive way and making sure our deployment into all the cabs in America goes as fast as possible.

Before they had this new competition, were taxi companies too lax in customer service?

Absolutely. Uber has been a godsend for the taxi industry. They’re starting to realize who they serve, the person who gets into the taxi. The service levels have gone up. The importance of hailing from a smartphone has been recognized. I think they’ve also unified the taxi industry. It’s been good for the taxi industry. Uber and Lyft have delivered very valuable service to everybody, despite the fact that one of them seems to be a company that only has sharp elbows.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

 

TIME Crime

U.S. Cities Brace for Unrest As Ferguson Grand Jury Decision Nears

Demonstrators yell "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" alongside a highway overpass to voice their opinions as the area awaits a grand jury decision near Ferguson, Mo. on Nov. 15, 2014.
Demonstrators yell "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" alongside a highway overpass to voice their opinions as the area awaits a grand jury decision near Ferguson, Mo. on Nov. 15, 2014. Joe Raedle—Getty Images

Jury will decide whether Officer Darren Wilson should be indicted for the killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown

(BOSTON) — From Boston to Los Angeles, police departments are bracing for large demonstrations when a grand jury decides whether to indict a white police officer who killed an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri.

The St. Louis County grand jury, which has been meeting since Aug. 20, is expected to decide this month whether Officer Darren Wilson is charged with a crime for killing 18-year-old Michael Brown after ordering him and a friend to stop walking in the street on Aug. 9.

The shooting has led to tension with police and a string of unruly protests there and brought worldwide attention to the formerly obscure St. Louis suburb, where more than half the population is black but few police officers are.

For some cities, a decision in the racially charged case will, inevitably, reignite long-simmering debates over local police relations with minority communities.

“It’s definitely on our radar,” said Lt. Michael McCarthy, police spokesman in Boston, where police leaders met privately Wednesday to discuss preparations. “Common sense tells you the timeline is getting close. We’re just trying to prepare in case something does step off, so we are ready to go with it.”

In Los Angeles, rocked by riots in 1992 after the acquittal of police officers in the videotaped beating of Rodney King, police officials say they’ve been in touch with their counterparts in Missouri, where Gov. Jay Nixon and St. Louis-area law enforcement held a news conference this week on their own preparations.

“Naturally, we always pay attention,” said Cmdr. Andrew Smith, a police spokesman. “We saw what happened when there were protests over there and how oftentimes protests spill from one part of the country to another.”

In Las Vegas, police joined pastors and other community leaders this week to call for restraint at a rally tentatively planned northwest of the casino strip when a decision comes.

Activists in Ferguson met Saturday to map out their protest plans. Meeting organizers encouraged group members to provide their names upon arrest as Darren Wilson or Michael Brown to make it more difficult for police to process them.

In a neighboring town, Berkeley, officials this week passed out fliers urging residents to be prepared for unrest just as they would a major storm — with plenty of food, water and medicine in case they’re unable to leave home for several days.

In Boston, a group called Black Lives Matter, which has chapters in other major cities, is organizing a rally in front of the police district office in the Roxbury neighborhood the day after an indictment decision.

In Albuquerque, New Mexico, police are expecting demonstrations after having dealt with a string of angry protests following a March police shooting of a homeless camper and more than 40 police shootings since 2010.

Philadelphia police spokesman Lt. John Stanford said he anticipated his city will see demonstrations, regardless of what the grand jury returns.

But big-city police departments stressed they’re well-equipped to handle crowds. Many saw large but mostly peaceful demonstrations following the 2013 not-guilty verdict in the slaying of Florida teen Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch coordinator George Zimmerman. In New York, hundreds of protesters marched from Union Square north to Times Square, where a sit-in caused gridlock.

The New York Police Department, the largest in the nation, is “trained to move swiftly and handle events as they come up,” spokesman Stephen Davis said.

In Boston, McCarthy said the city’s 2,200 sworn police officers have dealt with the range of public actions, from sports fans spontaneously streaming into the streets following championship victories to protest movements like Occupy.

“The good thing is that our relationships here with the community are much better than they are around the world,” he said. “People look to us as a model. Boston is not Ferguson.”

TIME chicago

Jane Byrne, Chicago’s First and Only Female Mayor, Dies at 81

Portrait of American politician and mayor of Chicago Jane Byrne, early to mid 1980s.
Portrait of American politician and mayor of Chicago Jane Byrne, early to mid 1980s. Robert Abbott Sengstacke—Getty Images

Elected in 1979 and served until 1983

Former Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne, the city’s first and only female mayor, died at age 81, her daughter said Friday.

“She looked down on the city she loved,’’ Kathy Byrne, the late mayor’s daughter, told the Chicago Tribune. Her death followed a week in hospice care in a downtown high-rise. “She has lived a very amazing and satisfying life.”

Byrne was elected in 1979, after an unexpected primary victory over an incumbent, and served until 1983.

TIME Transportation

Lyft Gets Into the Commuting Business

Lyft ride share car
A woman is driving a car for the rideshare company Lyft with a fake jumbo pink mustache that attaches to the grille of the car, in June 2014. Frank Duenzl/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Will give Uber for Business some competition

Clarification appended, Nov. 14, 7:40 p.m.

Ride-sharing company Lyft announced the launch of a commuting service Thursday, bringing some new competition to Uber in the employee-travel market.

Lyft for Work allows employers to purchase and issue credits to employees each month, which they can dip into for commuting to the office or traveling to and from certain company events. In July, Uber launched Uber for Business, which allows multiple employees to use a company credit card for billing their work-related car rides, rather than each using individual company cards (or their own and then seeking reimbursement).

The two companies are positioning their employee-centric programs as different types of solutions. Lyft touts Lyft for Work as a social good more than a way to streamline tedious expense accounting. “Across the country, nearly 80% of workers drive to work alone. Imagine if that 80% filled the seats in their empty cars through Lyft,” the company said in their press release announcing the service. “We could eliminate rush hour congestion, drastically reduce travel time and make the commute more enjoyable.”

Uber, on the other hand, bills their service up front as “uncomplicating [sic] business travel for your entire company.” In October, the company claimed that businesses opting for employees to use the lower-priced UberX (rather than cabs or limos) may be saving around $1,000 per employee.

When asked how the new service differs from Uber’s offering, Lyft spokesperson Paige Thelen says it’s more customizable. Employers can set up their workers’ accounts so that funds can be used only to and from preapproved addresses. If a worker takes a Lyft to the office, for example, the app can detect the drop-off point and automatically apply the commuting credits rather than the user’s personal credit card.

Employees can also be left to manually apply the credits, just as Uber for Business users simply toggle to the company credit card as their billing option. Uber emphasizes that using “U4B” gives administrators oversight by cataloging trips and is integrated with an expense management tool, taking another step out of the expensing process for companies who use it.

The two companies—which at their heart share the mission of making local transportation easier—already have several competing services, including a pair rolled out within a day of each other. Lyft Plus is a fancier, more expensive option than a standard ride, which competes with Uber’s signature black car service. UberX is a lower-cost, less formal option that is more on par with the average Lyft, a ride in a non-professional’s personal car. This August, Uber and Lyft both announced new carpooling options, Lyft Line and Uber Pool, cheaper rides available to passengers who are willing to share their vehicle with other travelers going in the same direction.

Uber for Business and Lyft for Work may share a grammatical construction but, as pundits have noted, it’s not necessarily easy to say who really had an idea first. Perhaps with allegations of mimicry in mind, Lyft pointed out in their press release that this type of service has been in line with the company’s mission since it was called Zimride, a precursor to Lyft that was founded before Uber. “From the earliest days, Zimride’s platform was powered through partnerships with companies and college campuses where individuals shared common starting points or destinations,” the company wrote in their release.

“It’s going back to our initial vision,” Lyft spokesperson Paige Thelen says of the new service, “to fill the empty seats in our cars and on our roads.”

Lyft also announced partnerships with 29 companies in place before the launch, including headliners like Yelp. In October, Uber announced that “thousands” of small to mid-sized businesses signed up within the first three months.

Clarification: Lyft announced Adobe as a partner, but that company participated in a pilot program that is now completed and contacted TIME to clarify that Lyft for Work is not currently a transportation option provided to their employees.

TIME cities

Marijuana May Soon Spark Just a Ticket in New York

Pot Marijuana Weed
Getty Images

Amid legalization drive in states across the country

New York City officials are considering issuing tickets for possession of small amounts of marijuana instead of arresting people, officials said.

The new guidelines would allow people with low-level marijuana possession to be issued a court summons rather than requiring them to get handcuffed, arrested, and brought into the precinct for finger-printing, the New York Times reports.

Police arrested some 50,000 people a year on minor marijuana charges during the administration of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Numerous states and localities have decriminalized marijuana for medical or recreational use in recent years.

[NYT]

TIME cities

Judge Approves Detroit Bankruptcy

The Motor City just took a major step toward recovery

Detroit marked a major milestone along its road back to economic health on Friday, when a judge approved its economic recovery plan, less than a year and a half after the Motor City became, by far, the biggest-ever U.S. public entity to declare bankruptcy.

The Michigan metropolis had been gripped in a steep decline for years leading up to its declaration of bankruptcy on July 18, 2013. The departure of the auto industry from Detroit took with it a large chunk of employment opportunities, and precipitated a mass movement of people out of town, spurring urban decay that was exacerbated by the housing and financial crises.

In February 2014, the city presented its plan, which included deep cuts to pension payments for general city retirees and smaller cuts to police and fire pensions, as well as new funds pledged to improve city services and speed up demolition of empty and decrepit buildings strewn throughout the city.

The plan that Judge Steven Rhodes approved on Friday cuts pension payments by just 4.5%, averting deeper cuts with an infusion of cash into the pension system from the state of Michigan and private foundations. Under the plan, Detroit sheds $7 billion in debt and invests $1 billion in city services. Detroit’s bankruptcy timeline, under a year from the day the city turned out its pockets to a judge approving the recovering plan, is unusually quick—Vallejo, California, for instance, spent three years in bankruptcy.

The deal also negates the need to sell off the city art museum’s world class collection.

[AP]

TIME 2014 Election

Big Soda Fights Bay Area Tax Proposals

Sugary Drinks
A shelf of soft drinks are shown in a refrigerator at K & D Market in San Francisco, on Oct. 1, 2014. Jeff Chiu—AP

The beverage industry has spent more than $10 million to persuade the liberal enclaves Berkeley and San Francisco to vote against taxing sugary soda on Nov. 4

If not here, where? On Tuesday, voters in the progressive California cities of Berkeley and San Francisco will decide on whether to tax sugar-heavy beverages like soda. Similar measures have failed in dozens of other cities, including reliably blue New York, and the association representing beverage giants like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo has donated more than $10 million to defeat the Bay Area levies. Players on both sides of the fight say that if taxing soda fails to win enough support in these liberal enclaves, it’s hard to imagine where else in the nation it could succeed.

“It’s important because it’s a first step,” says Berkeley City Councilman Laurie Capitelli, one of the unanimous votes in favor of putting the tax on the Nov. 4 ballot. “There’s a serious public health issue that needs to be addressed.”

Advocates for the taxes tout research linking sugar consumption to conditions like obesity and Type 2 diabetes. Some studies have shown that raising the price of sugary beverages causes sales to go down. In a 2013 study, Harvard researchers found that increasing the price of a 20 oz. soda by 20 cents led to a 16% sales drop.

Food policy writer Michael Pollan, a professor at the University of California—Berkeley who has endorsed the city’s measure, wants Berkeley to be a sort of pilot program. “I’m eager to see this experiment perform. We haven’t had a chance to see if taxing soda will reduce consumption because the industry has fought it so ferociously,” he says. “We need to try everything … I think there are still a lot of people out there who haven’t gotten the message that soda is bad for you.”

In Berkeley, Measure D would impose a one-cent-per-oz. tax on distributors of sugary drinks. If that tax was passed onto consumers, as the opposition argues it almost certainly will be, a $1.99 bottle of Coke at a Walgreen’s in Berkeley would cost $2.19. In San Francisco, Proposition E could institute a two-cent-per-oz. tax. Though the shorthand for the measures highlights soda, the taxes would apply to all high-calorie, sugary drinks. In San Francisco’s proposal, that means any beverage that contains added sugar and 25 or more calories per 12 oz.

Lower-income consumers, who both drink more soda and are more likely to be obese, have been at the center of the debate. San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener, who supports the tax, says that education about the potential dangers of excessive sugar consumption has not been enough of a deterrent. He and other advocates hope that the levy will help push consumers to choose healthier beverages, reducing soda consumption and, hopefully, improving people’s health.

Critics of the measures see the taxes as another form of government intrusion into personal behavior. “When the government decides they want to tell you what you should and shouldn’t be eating, where does it end?” asks Roger Salazar, the spokesman for campaigns opposing both soda taxes. “Do they decide at some point that eating too many burgers is bad for you, so all burgers are going to be taxed?”

The campaign against the San Francisco tax has raised $9.1 million, while the Berkeley equivalent has raised $2.4 million. In both cases, almost all the money has come from the American Beverage Association’s political action committee.

Since no U.S. municipality has adopted a soda tax, it is not known how it would affect beverage sales. Ads opposing the taxes have made the case that the measures would lead to a drop in revenue for small businesses like convenience stores. Wiener calls that fear spurious. “If people drink less sugary drinks, they’re not going to stop drinking or buying drinks,” he says. “They’re just going to buy different drinks.” As evidence, he points to Mexico, where sales of high-calorie beverages dropped after a similar tax was instituted in January, while sales of low-calorie beverages and consumption of water increased.

The tax may stand a better chance of passing in Berkeley, partly because it will require only a majority of votes. Even the beverage association’s Salazar admits the political reality of the college town with a proud activist history. “Berkeley is an eclectic city. It’s different,” he says, “unlike any other city in California.”

The odds are tougher in San Francisco. Because the measure earmarks proceeds for health and nutrition programs, rather than going into the city’s general fund, two-thirds of voters must back the measure for it to pass. Wiener says they made the decision to set that higher bar after polling showed stronger support for a soda tax with revenue dedicated to the same cause behind the levy: promoting better habits.

To some tax supporters, even the debate around the issue is a win. Soda consumption has been slightly declining since 2005, and Pollan credits ballot measures like this one for creating awareness and making people think twice before they start swilling. “If [the tax proposal] fails, it could drive a stake in the heart of these efforts, at least for a while,” he says. “But even when these fights lose, they succeed in pointing the finger at soda as a problem.”

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