By Harold C. Ford
The Board of Education of the Flint Community Schools (FCS) will hold a special meeting at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 19, at Southwestern Classical Academy, 1420 W. 12th St., to consider a controversial deficit elimination plan. The plan is expected to result in the closure of several buildings in the financially besieged district.
Four schools—Eisenhower Elementary, Pierce Elementary, Scott School (now Accelerated Learning Academy), and Flint Junior High School (at the site of the now-closed Northwestern High School)—are targeted for closure, according to a plan presented to the board Nov. 7 by FCS Superintendent Derrick Lopez.
Board members emerged from a two-hour closed session during their Committee of the Whole (COW) meeting Nov. 13 and quickly moved to adopt the framework of a deficit elimination plan without providing details.
“You’re not voting on particular closures tonight at all,” Lopez confirmed to members when they came out of the closed session, as a group of about 35 waited for their chance to speak about the proposals closures.
The reason for the lengthy closed session, ostensibly, was to discuss a “legal opinion regarding personnel and contract issues” and a “litigation update” on the lawsuit brought against FCS by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan (ACLUM). The ACLUM has filed two lawsuits against the district in recent years.
Arising out of the water crisis, a 130-page complaint seeking injunctive relief for “the academic and behavioral needs of all Flint students” was filed by the ACLUM in October, 2016. A second lawsuit was initiated in July 2018, which included the City of Flint and the Flint & Genesee Chamber of Commerce, over the handcuffing of a seven-year old student during an after-school program.
Audits and declining enrollment signal persistent financial challenges
The motion to adopt 15 items offered up by the board’s finance committee—including “acceptance of an audit”—was adopted by a 6-0 vote. A seventh member, Blake Strozier, the board’s vice-president, was absent from the meeting.
The latest audit, performed by Plante Moran, discovered that the current financial profile of the district is a dismal one exacerbated by decades of declining enrollment and years of spending that exceeded revenues. A system that enrolled nearly 47,000 students in 1970 now has a student population well below 4,000.
With the loss of a single student, FCS also loses more than $8,000 in state aid. The “per-pupil foundation allowance” for Flint schools in fiscal year 2018-19 was set at $8,114 per student, according to Michigan’s Senate Fiscal Agency. Thus, 100 fewer students, for example, would result in a loss of more than $800,000 in state aid.
FCS enrollment in the last decade dropped from 11,765 in 2009 to last year’s total of 3,937 according to the Center for Educational Performance and Information.
Financial audits in recent years have consistently sounded alarm bells about the district’s finances. A November 2014 audit by Plante Moran revealed a deficit that had grown to nearly $22 million. That audit revealed several weaknesses including:
- delinquent payments to the Office of Retirement Services and the Unemployment Insurance Agency (often cited as legacy costs);
- financial ledger errors;
- expenditures and revenues recorded in the wrong accounts;
- inadequate monitoring of bank accounts for individual buildings;
- accounting errors;
- poor management of grants.
An audit report by Plante Moran released one year earlier in November 2013 revealed 18 “deficiencies in internal controls.” The 2013 audit also discovered an operating deficit of $19 million.
While the district has undergone several leadership changes in the past decade, the district’s deficit has remained a constant. The massive deficit has grown and persisted through the administrations of Linda Thompson (2008-12), Lawrence Watkins (2012-15), Bilal Tawwab (2015-18), Gregory Weatherspoon (2018) and Derrick Lopez (2018-19).
Target date for deficit elimination is 2035-2036:
Lopez, while declining to speak with reporters following the Nov. 13 meeting, released a statement which read, in part:
“The Flint Community Schools district is working closely with the Michigan Department of Education to pursue a deficit elimination plan to manage the district’s long-term debt. The district’s current financial hardship is a result of longstanding loans to be repaid, in combination with a disproportionate number of students requiring special education services, compared to state averages.”
Even with an austere budget augmented by massive cuts in spending, the FCS deficit would not be erased until the 2035-36 school year, some 17 years into the future. The Nov. 13 Committee of the Whole meeting, including the two-hour closed session, was immediately followed by a Special Board Meeting during which the board voted in favor of the nonspecific “Enhanced Deficit Elimination Plan.”
Agenda item language read, in part: “Successful execution and management of costs would result in a surplus at the end of FY (fiscal year) 2035-2036.” The plan is to be submitted to the Michigan Department of Education and Department of Treasury.
Proposed building closures spark public outcry, especially about Pierce
The plan to close buildings resulted in a larger-than-normal turnout at the Nov. 13 meeting(s) of the Flint board. About 35 were in attendance in addition to an estimated half-dozen members of the local media.
Several voiced their concerns about building closures, particularly Flint citizens served by Pierce Elementary located at 1101 W. Vernon Dr. in Flint’s College Cultural Neighborhood. “I believe that I speak for many of my neighbors,” said local attorney Alec Gibbs, “when I say that we were disappointed to hear that there was a proposed closure.”
“I’m very happy to be in the neighborhood I’m in,” Gibbs continued. “And Pierce [Elementary] is at the center of that neighborhood…We have the most successful school as measured by performance data.”
“It is a failure of our imagination,” Gibbs charged, “to close a school that is performing at the highest standards in the district and to force students who are at Pierce to attend schools that have lower performance indicators.”
He reasoned that the move would be inconsistent with the spirit of the district’s partnership agreement with the Michigan Department of Education.
Gibbs forecast a quickened exodus of students from Flint’s schools. “I’ve spoken with families…who have indicated that, if Pierce closes…they’re going to leave Flint schools altogether.”
Resident Christina Rasins criticized the closure decisions made “by administrators who do not live in our community.” Rasins suggested that FCS “aggressively liquidate” closed buildings to raise revenue to keep buildings open.
Monica Galloway, councilperson for the Seventh Ward including Pierce and the newly elected president of the Flint City Council, harkened back to a deficit elimination plan during the 2014-15 school year. The plan included the closures of Scott, Cummings, and Carpenter Road elementaries and, ultimately, did not resolve the district’s continuing financial crisis.
“As a community, we were told that was the answer,” Galloway recollected, “and here we are today seeing that it was not the answer. It devastated a lot of children.”
Banner photo: Residents waiting their opportunity to speak about prospective school closures by the Flint Board of Education Nov. 13 (Photo by Harold C. Ford)
EVM Staff Writer and Education Beat Reporter Harold C. Ford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.