By Harold C. Ford
“The big question: What to do with Northwestern?”
… Carrie Sekelsky, FCS executive director of finance, Sept. 9, 2020
“N-Dub” is the nickname proud graduates of Flint’s Northwestern High School often use to reference their alma mater, including a former colleague of this writer. Wildcat pride has been obscured, however, by the financial dilemma the Northwestern campus has become for Flint Community Schools (FCS).
For more than a year, FCS leaders have wrestled with possible uses for the deteriorated facility. What to do with Northwestern’s 212,000 square feet has recently occupied more FCS board of education public meeting time than any other subject.
On Sept. 9, the FCS board quickly dispatched more than two dozen agenda items, usually with unanimous votes, in a meeting that lasted nearly 2.5 hours. However, more than 50 per cent of the board’s time (73 of 143 minutes) was spent on what to do with Northwestern, without resolution.
Five days later, at a special meeting called for the sole purpose of deciding Northwestern’s fate, the FCS board used the entirety of a 26-minute meeting as it decided to close the building except for that portion occupied by the district’s central kitchen.
Tradeoff: Northwestern closure for AC in elementary schools
In the end, the FCS board was faced with a clear choice: either address needs at Northwestern at an estimated cost of $4 million, or provide infrastructure upgrades to its elementary buildings, particularly heating and air conditioning.
At a June 9 FCS board meeting, Carrie Sekelsky, FCS executive director of finance, told the board that trying to make the Northwestern campus habitable for students and staff “would be a severe cut on our general operating fund. There would be virtually nothing left in the budget for needed maintenance and upgrades at the other 12 buildings in the district.”
At that same meeting, representatives from Johnson Controls Inc. (JCI) painted a bleak picture of the infrastructure needs at Northwestern. Necessary repair work included: control valves; condensate piping; heat exchanger pumps; air handling units; classroom reheat coils; other heating and cooling coils; boilers; piping in tunnels; pneumatic controls; digital controls; and so on.
Herb Cavendish, JCI project team superintendent, warned board members of the possibility of a “catastrophic failure (meaning) the system will go completely down and the building would have to be closed.” Or worse.
It’s likely that Northwestern’s infrastructure has never had meaningful upgrades since the building’s opening in 1967. “We should’ve never moved in that (Northwestern) building,” said Vera Perry, board trustee, on June 9 about the return of middle school students to the building last school year.
Nonetheless, the campus was reopened to FCS 7 th and 8th graders for the 2019-20 school year during the administration of Derrick Lopez. Lopez was suspended from his position as FCS superintendent in April 2020 and dismissed two months later. He was replaced by Anita Steward, Flint’s current superintendent.
One of five reasons given for the dismissal of Lopez was “lack of plan while reopening the district’s Northwestern school building as a junior high school.” “If we had known all this before, we would never have opened that building and used it,”
observed Betty Ramsdell, FCS board secretary.
“We were not prepared to go to Northwestern,” reiterated Perry at the Sept. 9 meeting. “That’s why we’ve gotten dinged by OSHA (Occupational Safety and Healthazar Administration) withtwo fines because we actually put children in a dangerous situation.”
At their meetings on Sept. 9 and Sept. 14, FCS board members moved assuredly toward using the district’s available funds for upgrades at its elementary buildings rather than Northwestern.
“The elementary schools have just got to be a major project for us,” argued Ramsdell, “… for those kids to come in and have good air to breathe, to be warm in the winter and cool in the summer. If we can give them a positive environment, that’s got to be our first priority.”
“A majority of our kids are in elementary buildings,” added Blake Strozier, board trustee. “Every child should have a comfortable learning environment.” “I concur,” said Steward. “All of our elementary buildings need air.”
FCS enacted a balanced calendar beginning with the 2019-20 school year. Thus, Flint students start school earlier than most, in August, one of the hottest months of the year in Michigan when high temperatures average 81.4 degrees Fahrenheit.
The eight FCS buildings newly targeted for heating and cooling upgrades include: Brownell; Eisenhower; Pierce; Doyle/Ryder; Freeman; Holmes; Pierce; and Potter. Four buildings that already have implemented upgrades, or have plans for upgrades, include: Southwestern; Accelerated Learning Academy (formerly Scott); Neithercut; and Durant-Tuuri-Mott.
This plan of action received unanimous support from the FCS board on a 5-0 vote at its Sept. 16 meeting. JCI officials said implementation of the plan in the next four to six weeks would involve its engineering and equipment teams. “From there, we would start installs,” said Cavendish. Thus, infrastructure upgrade installations would likely begin in late -fall or early – winter.
In less than a year, a board that seemed opposed to closing Northwestern to the possibility of use by students is doing just that.
“I would never, ever support closing Northwestern,” declared Carol McIntosh, board trustee, in Nov. 2019. “Avoiding the north side, avoiding Northwestern… and running to Southwestern has not helped us.”
At that time, other board members seemed in solidarity with McIntosh’s sentiments:
- Diana Wright: “With my one vote, I will not vote to close another school.”
- Betty Ramsdell: “I can’t vote to close any schools, either.”
- Vera Perry: “I’m having a hard time with the closing of schools.”
- Casey Lester: “I wouldn’t vote to close any school before we closed the administration building.”
The considerable price tag for keeping the campus at G-2138 W. Carpenter Rd. open to students now seems too large to bear
“I can’t see putting any more money into Northwestern. …” concluded Danielle Green, board trustee, on Sept. 14. “We don’t have as much funding as is needed to fulfill (earlier plans),” added Sekelsky.
Central kitchen remains at Northwestern
The central kitchen currently located in the Northwestern building will, for the time being,
“We’ve already put about a million dollars or more into that kitchen,” asserted Perry. “I am not going to be embarrassed any more moving that kitchen.” “It’s just not smart to move the kitchen,” declared McIntosh. “We should keep the kitchen where it’s at.”
With a background in civil engineering and architectural engineering, Strozier estimated that only about 15% of the Northwestern building is being used for the central kitchen.
“We’re kind of stuck with a lemon right now,” Strozier said. “I think it was a bad location
from the beginning. To move it would be seemingly unwise financially.”
“This is a complicated issue,” said Dan Mack, JCI account executive. He pointed out that Northwestern “is a very large building (and) the central kitchen takes up such a small area.” He noted that utilities (about $200,000 annually) and maintenance costs are significant.
JCI’s Cavendish pointed out that gas and water lines into the building and the areas to be serviced for the central kitchen are at opposite ends. Those lines would need to be relocated.
Further, Cavendish explained, the majority of the building that would not be used and would need to be “laid up” or prepared for nonuse, particularly during the winter months. That would include inserting chemicals into the boilers and putting antifreeze into the plumbing so as to prevent bursting of pipes.
“To do it right is very expensive in terms of keeping the kitchen there and shutting down the rest of the building,” explained Dirk Tenhaaf, JCI engineer. “The building will need repairs if you continue to use it in any capacity.”
“I do know that trying to relocate is going to be quite expensive as well,” countered Bernard Gladney, Sodexo MAGIC’S manager at the Northwestern kitchen. “Fiscally, it might not make sense.”
EVM Education Beat reporter, Harold Ford, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.