SIDNEY — Throughout Montcalm and adjacent counties, it’s been evident that public school districts have been in tough times.
Major cuts in the state budget, many directed toward education, have forced districts to close buildings, consolidate classrooms, cut crucial sports and education programs and lay off teachers.
However, according to State Rep. Rick Outman, R-Six Lakes, there is one specific school district, Highland Park, just eight miles northwest of downtown Detroit, which had the state Legislature scrambling to keep afloat last week.
“A lot of the oxygen was sucked out of the room last week with this Highland Park fiasco,” he said during the monthly legislative luncheon at Montcalm Community College Monday. “That pretty much consumed our whole day on Thursday and part of our day on Wednesday of last week.”
The Highland Park Public School district ended the 2011 year with an $11.3 million deficit. Enrollment has dropped by more than 300 percent following school closings and budget cuts, dropping from 3,179 in 2006 to less than one thousand students currently.
“I don’t know that it’s a big issue here (in Montcalm County),” he said. “We’re probably making it a bigger issue here than we should, but it’s something to focus on. The problem is, there was no preparing. We had the issue solved. We had an emergency manager in place and they fought it. Had they not fought it, it would be business as usual there.
In late January Jack Martin was appointed as the emergency manager for the district and he immediately ordered the closure of Barber Focus School for grades K-12, which was one of three schools still open in Highland Park. According to Outman, the announcement provoked widespread outrage among parents and staff.
“Highland Park is almost like the test cast for public schools, much like Benton Harbor was for cities,” he said. “Benton Harbor came to the table kicking and screaming with their heals dragging, mad as hell, no doubt about it — but it worked and we turned them around and they are now on the right path. Highland Park took a different path, they said we don’t care what you do and you’re not going to put an emergency manager here because we can handle it.”
State Sen. Judy Emmons, R-Sheridan, said the issue comes down to a problem with fiscal responsibility in the district.
“This is a case of folks failing to recognize the changing climate,” she said. “In 2006, they had about 3,000 students but they are currently under 1,000 students this year. They managed to lose student population but failed to bring their funding and their finances into balance with the students they were using.”
According to Emmons, Highland Park received about $14,000 per student, but was spending nearly $16,000 per student. In comparison, Emmons said districts in Montcalm and Ionia counties receive about $6,900 per student.
“It’s a great concern because in the 1990s the Kalkaska School District had a similar situation where they ran out of money and had to close their doors in March and reopened again in the fall,” Emmons said.
“However that was not an option with (Highland Park) this past week, so we did fund some more money with them. They were given a certain allotment that will follow the students to any public Michigan school they attend.”
The state gave the district an advance of $188,000 in January and $261,000 in February. Wednesday an advance of a $178,000 March 20 state payment was given so the district could pay its teachers, which went last week without a paycheck.
“This is something to stay tuned on,” Emmons said. “It’s a big concern for the students themselves, they already have plenty of challenges to deal with in that area.”
Martin has been temporarily suspended of his duties as emergency manager because of a court order that determined a state review team whose recommendations led to his appointment did not compile with the Open Meetings Act.
That could change tomorrow, however, as Gov. Snyder can reappoint Martin after the seven day waiting period from when he was suspended last week.
“This really is an 11th hour moment. We had a plan in place with an emergency manager and it fell through,” Outman said. “The idea behind the emergency manager bill was not to put emergency managers in place. That’s the last thing we want to do. The idea was to create a huge early warning system to set off these alarms so we can fix the problems before they get worse. But if you don’t fix it, we’ll give you an emergency manager. That’s not something that’s new. Gov. Granholm had emergency managers; the difference is they didn’t have any power. Highland Park basically thumbed their noses at us, and that’s not right. They looked for a legal technicality to keep us from putting an emergency manager in place. Hopefully this all gets resolved soon.”