By Harold C. Ford
“We should’ve never moved in that [Northwestern] building.”
…Vera Perry, trustee, Flint Board of Education
“We create the instability that we face.”
…Diana Wright, vice-president, Flint Board of Education
At its meeting June 9, the board of education of Flint Community Schools (FCS) was informed that it would cost the school district an estimated $4 million to bring the Northwestern campus up to speed in terms of heating, ventilation, air conditioning, plumbing, and other needed upgrades such as roofing and parking lot repairs.
As a result, the 2020-2021 location of Flint’s 7th and 8th graders, as well as the location of the district’s central kitchen services operated by Sodexo MAGIC, is uncertain.
A campus in disrepair:
The June 9 presentation to the board of education by two representatives from Johnson Controls very familiar with the district’s infrastructure—Daniel Mack, energy solutions account executive, and Herb Cavendish, project team superintendent—described a facility in a serious state of disrepair.
Johnson Controls, a company with nearly 20 offices in Michigan and a history stretching back to 1885, has serviced all FCS buildings that remain open.
Cavendish spoke of the possibility of a “catastrophic failure (meaning) the system will go completely down and the building would have to be closed.” Or worse.
“He (Cavendish) probably knows this building better than anyone else on the planet,” Mack said.
Mack and Cavendish presented their findings to the board in a report titled “Performance Infrastructure for Flint Community Schools, Change of Work at Northwestern Jr. High.” Board members seemed stunned by the extent and gravity of the report’s findings:
- Control valves decaying as well as condensate piping
- Heat exchanger pumps in severe disrepair and decayed piping
- Abandoned/missing equipment
- All AHUs (air handling units) need refurbishment
- Classroom reheat coils plugged and in disrepair
- Many heating and cooling coils burst and need replacement
- Boiler feed system decaying and in need of replacement
- Condensate pumps missing/condensate system in severe disrepair
- Piping in tunnels in poor condition
- Boiler needs repair
- Pneumatic controls not functioning properly and in severe disrepair
- Digital controls not functioning properly and in severe disrepair
Deleterious impact on learning and health:
“When building automation equipment doesn’t work, when mechanical equipment doesn’t work, you don’t control the learning environment,” said Mack.
“The classroom was very hot in the wintertime as well as in the summertime,” Mack reported. “In the wintertime we saw some classrooms that were 80-85 (ºF); some were 90.”
Trustee Blake Strozier, as knowledgeable as anyone on the Flint board about infrastructure, warned of “older equipment that, in some cases, hasn’t been reviewed, updated, or even looked at since 1964.” Northwestern High School was opened in 1964.
“You’re absolutely right,” responded Mack.
“I worked in that building when it first opened and I don’t ever remember the cooling system working very well,” recollected Betty Ramsdell, board trustee.
“The biggest concern I have with that building is the airflow, especially with what we’re going through right now,” warned Mack, an obvious reference to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We have kids with asthma, all kinds of problems going on,” observed Ramsdell. “It would really, really concern me.”
“We should’ve never moved in that building,” said Vera Perry, board trustee.
“If we had known all this before, we would never have opened that building and used it,” said Ramsdell. She then cautioned against “putting good money after bad.”
The reopening of the Northwestern building to 7th and 8th grade students for the 2019-2020 school year was done during the administration of now-suspended FCS Superintendent Derrick Lopez. As reported by The Flint Journal-MLive which obtained a suspension memo via a Freedom of Information Act request, one of five reasons listed for the suspension was “lack of a plan while reopening the district’s Northwestern school building as a junior high school.”
Before his suspension, during emotionally charged building consolidation/closure meetings, Lopez appeared to lobby board members for moving junior high students out of the Northwestern building.
“We have too much infrastructure for the number of students we’re trying to educate,” said Lopez in November 2019. A key component of his administration’s proposed deficit elimination plan was closure of “the former Northwestern High School, the largest Flint campus still open at 212,000 square feet.”
“We don’t like closing buildings at all,” Lopez said in January 2020, “but I tell you that is one of the things we have to consider.”
Lopez noted that the Northwestern building, which has a seating capacity for 1551 students, housed only 400 junior high students at the time. He said that cleaning and electricity for the building alone respectively cost $141,500 and $328,000 annually.
Of the five consolidation options offered by the Lopez administration, two plans would have middle school students remain at Northwestern, two would have sent them to Holmes, one would have sent them to the Scott building.
“But where are we going to get the money?”
The prospects for finding money in the FCS budget seemed bleak after a review of district finances by Carrie Sekelsky, FCS executive director of finance.
Sekelsky said FCS could squeeze about $2.8 million out of current financial resources for the purpose of upgrades at Northwestern, “but it would be a severe cut on our general operating fund.” She concluded: “There would be virtually nothing left in the budget for needed maintenance and upgrades at the other 12 buildings in the district.”
“We have a lot of roofing issues…we have severe leaks, we have major parking lot issues throughout the district,” said Sekelsky. “We will have a very difficult time to do any other repair at any other building.”
She explained that voter approval of the March 10 millage diverted funds from the district’s 4.0 mill sinking fund used for infrastructure needs: 2.82 mills are now used to pay off the district’s debt; the remaining 1.18 mills are used for infrastructure needs.
Comments by Diana Wright, board vice president, seemed to capture the air of resignation and financial reality that consumed the board’s discussion: “My position is, no, I don’t want to abandon the north end; yes, I want our students to have a quality learning environment; but where are we going to get the money?”
North and south:
For a short time, the Flint board’s discussion devolved to familiar territory: the needs of the city’s northside residents versus the needs of its southside residents.
“We have to invest in something on the north side” to prevent Flint students from going to suburban schools like Hamady, Beecher and Carman-Ainsworth, proclaimed Carol McIntosh, board trustee. “Avoiding the north side, avoiding Northwestern, avoiding Northern, and running to Southwestern has not helped us.”
“I do not want to desert the north end,” responded Ramsdell. “I do not want to desert our families…We’re going to have to listen, adjust, and compromise.”
“You can’t call yourself a community school when you’ve gotta’ go across town to go to school,” replied McIntosh.
“It sounds like we just have to move (out of Northwestern)”, said Perry with an air of resignation, as it would deplete the district’s sinking fund monies and leave no money for the needs of other buildings.
What to do?
A brainstorming session led by Anita Steward, FCS interim superintendent, resulted in four options.
Option 1 was to continue to use the Northwestern building for the district’s 7th and 8th graders. The challenge, of course, is finding the funds necessary to upgrade infrastructure.
Option 2 would relocate the students from Northwestern to Holmes. “I’m not comfortable putting all those children into the same building unless you have Joe Clark as a principal,” said Strozier. Clark was the no-nonsense principal of Eastside High School portrayed by Morgan Freeman in the 1989 film “Lean on Me.”
Option 3, proposed by Strozier, would send the 7th and 8th graders to the elementary schools in their own neighborhoods making them K-8 buildings. Citing maturation issues, at least one board member objected to the idea of putting elementary and middle school children in the same building.
Option 4, proposed by Perry, would return 7th and 8th graders to the Northwestern building and then to other campuses in phases.
Itinerant middle schoolers:
Since 2018, FCS leaders have mulled over multiple plans for the location of its middle schoolers.
- In the 2018-2019 school year, middle school students were housed at the Southwestern, Scott, Potter, and Holmes buildings. Then-Superintendent Bilal Tawwab revealed a plan to construct a new facility at the abandoned Central-Whittier campus for secondary students that may have included middle schoolers.
- FCS leadership envisioned housing students at a newly reopened Northern building for the 2019-2020 school year, but the $20 million estimated cost of upgrading the building squelched those plans.
- In March 2019, a plan to move FCS middle school students to the Baker College campus in Flint Township was leaked to the media and then quickly abandoned.
- Alas, middle school students ended up at the Northwestern building in 2019-2020, a building that was woefully ill-equipped to receive them.
“The more we move people, the more they leave,” lamented Strozier.
Indecision, the central kitchen, and the FCS budget:
The board’s indecision about the Northwestern building has an impact beyond the location of its middle schoolers.
FCS spent approximately $1 million to centralize and equip its food services at the Northwestern campus. “Are we talking about complete closure of the facility?” asked Steward during the board’s brainstorming session about the future of the campus. If so, then the district would also need a plan for the relocation of its food services presently managed by Sodexo MAGIC.
Further, uncertainty about future use of the Northwestern building resulted in the board’s only nondecision at its recent marathon discussions of the budgets for 2019-2020 and 2020-2021. After lengthy back and forth, the board tabled a decision on the Food Service Fund line item for 2020-2021. FCS decisions on the budget are due to the Michigan Department of Treasury by June 30.
Time is running out:
FCS board members are chagrined by the possibility of moving their middle schoolers yet again. “We are moving those kids at the most developmentally fragile time of their lives,” lamented Strozier.
Nonetheless, with its balanced calendar, FCS students return to school the first week of August. Steward had earlier advised the board that parents start making their decisions about school choice in May and June. She urged the board to make a decision about Northwestern by the first week in July.
EVM Education Beat reporter and staff writer Harold C. Ford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.