By Harold C. Ford
“When parents are looking at where to send their kids (to school), there’s an awful lot of faith involved in the sense that, you may not have any money, but you’re investing your kid in a school district. It’s the job of the school district, the challenge of the school district, to be worthy of that faith.”- Paul Jordan, member Flint Board of Education, 2005-2009
In a widely reported March 20 press release, the Flint Community Schools (FCS) announced it “will undergo improvements to 10 buildings throughout the district…to improve heating, cooling, lighting, air, energy, water, and other improvements.”
What was not so widely reported is that the district is contemplating moving its middle school students to the Baker College campus in Flint Township for the upcoming school year, scheduled to begin the first week in August 2019.
The district has been less than transparent and numerous attempts to nail down the facts from district officials have met resistance or no answers at all, leaving a reporter (and district parents) to go from clues buried in agenda items of the FCS board–just four months before the start of school.
In January, Baker announced it would be “consolidating” its Flint operations into its Owosso location, presumably opening up space at the Hemphill campus, though classes reportedly still are to be offered there through August, 2020.
At a regularly scheduled meeting of the Flint Board of Education on the same day of the aforementioned press release, FCS Superintendent Derrick Lopez distributed a document titled “TEAM FLINT, ‘FOUR-LEGGED STOOL,’February 2019.” The fourth leg of the ‘stool,’titled “Visioning-The Restoration of Flint Community Schools” included “FCS High Tech Junior High (Grades 7-9).”
The bulleted list under “FCS High Tech Junior High (Grades 7-9)”(emphasis added) included:
- One-to-One Laptop—$423,000 Musk Foundation Grant
- The Algebra Project—$300,000 CS Mott Foundation Grant
- Project Lead the Way
- Cultural Literacy
- @Baker College Next Year (emphasis added)
At the end of the document, in a footnote, was a section titled “FLINT COMMUNITY SCHOOLS PORTFOLIO 2019-2020” indicating building destinations for FCS students next year. Beneath “Grade 7-8” was “FCS High Tech Junior High (7-8) @ Baker College.
Whether or not Grade 9 would be included, the fact that FCS is contemplating a move of its middle school students to a campus in Flint Township is unmistakable.
Stakeholders tight-lipped, unavailable, or unaware
Harold Woodson, past president of the FCS Board of Education, came to the March 20 board meeting to speak about the possible move of middle school students to the Baker campus. After taking a seat at the table designated for those who wish to address the board, and a brief exchange with FCS officials, he had little to say. He declined to discuss the matter with East Village Magazine (EVM).
Two subsequent attempts by EVM seeking comment from FCS Superintendent Lopez were unsuccessful. Morgan Greenberg, a representative of Lambert, Edwards & Associates, a public relations firm that has represented FCS since 2016, did not respond to a March 22 email seeking comment from Lopez. In a separate email sent on the same day, FCS Executive Assistant Monaca Wood informed EVM, “Unfortunately Mr. Lopez is on vacation next week.”
Baker’s business neighbors have not been informed of the possible move. Managers at nearby Rite Aid, G-4033 Fenton Rd., and Walgreen’s, G-4010 Fenton Rd., were unaware of the move and unwilling to comment due to corporate restrictions. When informed of the possible move, Tammy Prieur, assistant manager of Donna’s Donuts, 1135 Bristol Rd., said, “It is what it is. Hopefully it brings us more business.”
Flint Township officials who would need to plan for transportation, safety, and other concerns, have little or no knowledge of the possible move. Tracey Tucker, Flint Township’s economic enhancement director, did admit, “We’ve had a lot of people interested in that campus.” A sergeant of the Flint Township Police Department, who preferred to remain anonymous, said that the department had not been informed of the possible move.
After two visits to the Baker campus and a recorded phone message, Baker’s Gerald McCarty, vice president of student affairs, responded to an email message with the following statement: “I have spoken to the President [Wen Hemingway] and at this time the College has ‘no comment’ other than what was reported on ABC12.”
ABC12 breaks the Baker story:
According to a March 22 report by WJRT/ABC12:
“The (Flint) Board of Education authorized the creation of a STEM junior high in December…’Currently we’re actually in exploration with Baker College to use part of their building to actually house our junior high school next year,’ Lopez said…The building under consideration is the Center for Undergraduate Studies.”
“‘It’s a big state-of-the art facility,’ she [Wen Hemingway, Baker president] said in an interview by phone. ‘Most areas have just recently been redone, the technology enclosed in the building would lend itself wonderfully to STEM education.’ If selected, Baker College would serve as an interim location for the high tech junior high until the district selects a permanent location.”
One year, three superintendents, and four plans for middle school:
Flint schools have had three superintendents in the past 12 months. In March 2018, Bilal Tawwab was replaced by Gregory Weatherspoon on an interim basis. Derrick Lopez came on board as superintendent in August 2018.
In a March, 2017 interview with EVM, then-Supt.Tawaab said 2020 was the target date for the opening of a new, consolidated Flint high school at the now-abandoned Flint Central High School campus. The location of middle school students under that plan seemed uncertain.
In the current 2018-2019 school year, Flint’s middle school students have attended, based on their addresses, either Scott School or Southwestern Classical Academy. Both campuses have been upgraded in the past year.
In December 2018, EVM reported: “Beginning in the 2019-20 school year, FCS hopes to house grades 7-9 in a newly reopened Northern High School building…It is estimated that $20 million is needed to reopen the facility.”
But now the Baker plan seems front and center.
“An absence of medium- or long-term planning”
“One of the great deficits I’ve seen in the Flint district over the years has been an absence of medium- or long-term planning,” observed Paul Jordan, a former member of the Flint Board of Education from 2005 to 2009. I realize the difficulty of doing that when schools are underfunded by the state, and they’re having to meet the changing priorities of the state, and it’s very difficult not to be chaotic under those conditions.”
“So the state bears a substantial amount of responsibility,” Jordan continued. “Nonetheless, if planning is for next August or September and…if it hasn’t been decided upon by now then that’s a massive failure of planning.”
“The effect of the lack of planning is the same whether it has an explanation or not,” Jordan said.
Not necessarily the fault of superintendents
Jordan suggested responsibility for the lack of planning should not fall entirely upon the shoulders of superintendents with short tenures:
“Doesn’t it seem like the district ought to have a plan that the superintendents are required to work within rather than expecting a superintendent, who may only be in place for a couple of years, to have the long-term plan?” he asked. “They’re not going to be able to fulfill it.”
“I think it’s hard for a district even to fulfill its basic functions under circumstances like that,” he continued, “buying stuff, purchasing, hiring people, supervising people, evaluating people.”
Not necessarily the fault of school boards
Jordan also suggested the challenges facing many local school boards in Michigan may be insurmountable and largely the fault of the state:
“Serving on a school board in a district like Flint, a district that is struggling with totally inadequate support, with challenges that are purposefully built in, legally at times, is perhaps the most challenging job in public service that any elected official could have,” said Jordan.
“They’re swimming with anvils strapped to their backs,” he said. “They are volunteering to struggle when they are being set up by the state to fail.”
Jordan’s view is supported by a Jan. 25, 2019 opinion piece in the Detroit Free Press titled, “Michigan Schools Stink Because We Stopped Paying For Them”:
“While other states have increased the amount of money they spend on education, Michigan’s inflation-adjusted allocation has dropped 30 percent since 2002. It’s worse for at-risk kids, for whom school funds have dropped 60 percent since 2001.”
“Michigan’s students’ scores on national tests are among the worst in the nation. The amount of money we’re willing to spend on schools has not grown. Sometimes, correlation is causation.”
Locating a campus outside the city not a first for FCS:
Jordan recollected that an FCS move outside the city limits would not be a first.
“Back in the district’s heyday, the district and the entire city assumed that Flint would keep on growing, so they built Northwestern outside the city limits and annexed that property,” he said. “They built Northern outside the city limits and annexed that property. So there’s a long history of doing that.”
“We’re not going to be annexing Burton,” advised Jordan, a lifelong Flint resident.
“You could maybe understand the optimism of the time (of annexations) because nobody could really anticipate that GM was going to gradually abandon Flint and automation would make even more jobs unnecessary and that the city would lose population as it has,” said Jordan. “Charter schools would attract over half the children to them.”
Flint’s precipitous loss of student population:
“When I was on the board, members quite confidently predicted that the student population would bottom out at 10,000 students,” Jordan recalled. “I don’t think there was any reason to believe that…and it’s proven that there’s no bottom reached so far.”
As of Nov. 30, 2018, Flint’s student count stood at 4,331 according to a “membership report” presented to the board. More than two-thirds of Flint’s school-aged children opt to attend other schools.
Baker plan likely to be targeted by critics:
Sending Flint kids to a campus located one-half mile beyond the city’s limits is likely to be targeted by critics. Count Jordan as one of the first.
“Parents who live on Carpenter Road would be expected to get their kids to school outside the southern border of Flint,” Jordan observed. “That seems to me to be flaky. They have to plan how they’re going to get kids there because it’s a half a mile outside the city of Flint.”
“I don’t see how in any manner, shape, or form that it is realistic,” he continued. “If they haven’t made a decision yet, a firm plan yet…they’re going to have to put this before the community in order to get some sort of buy-in from the parents of those 7th, 8th, and 9th graders.”
EVM Staff Writer Harold C. Ford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.