By Harold C. Ford
Editor’s note: This story was updated March 1 to include a statement from Supt. Derick Lopez (see below) regarding school closures.
At the Feb. 19 meeting of the Flint Community Schools’ (FCS) Board of Education, Superintendent Derrick Lopez announced a public information campaign that seeks voter approval for a March 10 millage restructuring proposal. Lopez emphasized that the proposal is not a millage increase. Rather, it’s a restructuring of a 4.0 mill currently assessed property owners.
For the moment, however, the FCS board is setting aside any action on a consolidation plan critical to the success of any debt elimination strategy. A consolidation plan would likely include the closure of some school buildings.
In a statement issued in late February, Supt. Lopez confirmed, “While the consolidation plan is still in working form, one option is off the table: the closure of elementary school buildings. We heard loud and clear from our residents that closing elementary schools would not be a viable path forward. We listened to that feedback and, as a result, are removing that element of the plan.” The full statement is available here.
The announcement of potential building closures turned out representatives of individual school communities—especially Brownell, Holmes, Eisenhower, and Pierce partisans—at the November, December, and January meetings of the board to passionately advocate against closure of their buildings.
Earlier retirement of debt
The goal of the March 10 millage proposal is an earlier retirement of FCS’s massive debt caused by multiple factors including declining student enrollment and resultant loss of state aid, underutilized school buildings, legacy debt from a 2014 loan totaling nearly $20 million, and alleged underfunding of special needs programming by the Genesee Intermediate School District (GISD).
“The issue at hand is this,” said Lopez at a January meeting, “the district has a budget deficit of $5.7 million a year resulting from a legacy debt (loan) of $2.1 million a year and an additional $3.6 million annually in special education services.”
According to financial information posted at the FCS website, the projected annual deficit by 2026-27 is expected to grow to a whopping $25,952,246. FCS debt would not be retired until the 2035-36 school year, some 16 years into the future.
If the March 10 millage proposal is passed by Flint voters, FCS officials predict that the district’s debt can be retired in seven years and still provide funds for infrastructure upgrades.
The proposal calls for a restructuring of the 4.0-mill rate that is currently assessed district taxpayers. “(The proposal) would keep the bonding at the same amount of 4 mills, but 2.82 of those mills (an increased amount) would actually be put towards debt elimination and 1.18 of those mills (an equivalent decreased amount) would be for the sinking fund.
Sinking fund millage is applied to business/commercial properties only, said Lopez. “The sinking fund is actually for infrastructure…boilers, technology.” Some of that work has already been completed by the district.
A mill is one-thousandth of a dollar, and in property tax terms is equal to $1 of tax for each $1,000 of assessment. Thus, 2.82 mills is equal to $2.82 for every $1,000 of assessed property value; 1.18 mills is equal to $1.18 for every $1,000 of assessed property value.
So, 2.82 mills assessed on a $20,000 home would be $56.40; 1.18 mills assessed on a $20,000 home would be $23.60. Four mills on a $20,000 home is $80. The current median price of a home in Flint is $24,920 according to Zillow.com.
Building consolidation likely needed to reduce debt
Lopez has described the options for building consolidation as the most reachable goals to trim the massive FCS debt. “The low-hanging fruit…is the underutilization of space we use in the district…”.
Lopez cited the Northwestern building which has seating capacity for 1,551 students but currently houses about 400 junior high students. Cleaning and electricity for the building respectively cost FCS $141,500 and $328,000 annually.
“To not make a decision about one school being closed, you are now saying that instead of putting the money in the pocket of a teacher, it’s okay to put money into a space,” Lopez observed.
Nothing, however, generated more community interest and controversy than five consolidation options floated to the public. The options revealed deep divisions along geographic and racial lines as various school communities packed board meetings in November, December, and January imploring FCS board members to keep their schools open. Spokespersons predicted further abandonment of Flint’s public schools by its students and parents unless schools remained open.
“We have too much infrastructure for the number of students we’re trying to educate,” warned Lopez. “We have to get to a number that will allow us to be a viable district.”
FCS backs off consolidation efforts
For the time being, FCS officials have backed off any decisions about building consolidation. A planned public meeting on Jan. 30 to announce a consolidation plan was called off. In a vaguely worded “Consolidation Plan Update” posted at the FCS website, the FCS board conceded, “This process will take more time than has been allotted for the Board to make an informed decision.”
Lopez warned board members about the consequences of not moving affirmatively on reducing the district’s debt. “We are in a space of self-determination right now,” he said in January. “People are looking to see if we are willing to make decisions that are fiscally responsible.”
The “people” referred to by Lopez are obviously State of Michigan officials at the Departments of Treasury and Education who are closely monitoring the district in terms of meeting substantial academic and financial goals.
$20,000 voter education campaign
At its Jan. 23 meeting, the FCS board allocated $20,000 for a voter education campaign in hopes of passing the March 10 ballot proposal. The campaign includes an information blitz on social media platforms and paper fliers to be sent home with every student in the district.
The flier states, in part, that “FCS is working to consolidate school buildings to invest in the future of our students and our community while strengthening our district.”
Public information meetings are scheduled at four sites on four separate dates:
- Feb. 24, 4:30, Pierce Elementary
- Feb. 25, 4:00, Doyle-Ryder
- March 3, 4:30, Freeman Elementary
- March 5, 4:15, Holmes Elementary
Flint’s millage proposal will share the March 10 ballot with presidential candidates and a countywide millage proposal by Flint-based Mott Community College (MCC) which asks for approval of a .79 millage assessment. The impact of a competing millage on Flint’s chances is uncertain. MCC millage proponents have been conducting a visible voter information campaign since December.
Flint proponents claim underfunding by GISD
FCS has lodged a formal complaint with the GISD about its formula for allotting special education funding to member school districts. “We don’t get what we should be getting in terms of our special needs students in my opinion,” Lopez told the FCS board in November.
A report by Michigan Public Radio showed that, among Genesee County’s five largest districts, Flint received the lowest per-pupil funding for special needs students:
District SpEd Pop. $ Allocated Per-Pupil Amt.
Grand Blanc 956 $483,762 $506
Davison 615 $335,735 $546
Carman-Ainsworth 617 $280,307 $454
Flint 874 $279,747 $320
Flushing 544 $250,791 $461
The formal complaint by FCS will trigger a process, according to Lopez, that will play out over the next 30 to 90 days and involve the Michigan Department of Education as well as the GISD. “The board is fully aware of and supportive of the petition that was filed,” said Lopez.
Staff attrition continues into 2020
Steady attrition of FCS education staff continued into 2020 as six more educators with over 75 years of experience in Flint schools retired or resigned in January. In 13 months, from Jan. 2019 to Jan. 2020, 84 educators have departed the district taking with them 1,089 years of experience.
Short and free of controversy, a rarity
The Jan. 19 meeting of the FCS board was a rarity in that it was short, less than an hour, and virtually free of controversy. With consolidation plans off the table at present, there were very few audience members and no speakers.
The relative peace of the Jan. 19 meeting stood in sharp contrast to several meetings in November, December, and January which featured plentiful audience members, an abundance of speakers, and an emotionally charged atmosphere.
Casey Lester, board president, expressed chagrin that more members of the Flint community were not there to observe a “cohesive, functioning group.”
EVM Staff Writer and Education Beat reporter Harold C. Ford can be reached at email@example.com.