By Harold Ford
“We haven’t been able to move; that’s been an issue for us.” –Kevelin Jones, superintendent, Flint Community Schools, citing the unwillingness of the previous Flint Board of Education to move on vacant properties, Jan. 30, 2023
The Finance and Operations Committee of the Flint Board of Education (FBOE) – with two new members who ran as part of an electoral slate in the November, 2022 election – signaled a readiness at its Jan. 30, 2023 meeting to move more forcefully on the matter of vacant school properties and a willingness to partner with the Flint-based C. S. Mott Foundation on construction of new schools.
“Before the board currently is a proposal for us to possibly partner with the Mott Foundation, for a high school that is completely newly built or we keep some space (that is currently existing),” said committee chair Dylan Luna,
Luna and committee member Terae King spoke in favor of exploring partnerships that might result in new school(s) construction and removal of blighted buildings.
“I think this represents a really big opportunity for the district,” Luna said of a possible partnership with the Mott Foundation.
A third committee member, Laura MacIntyre, as in the past, cautioned against any rush to partner with Flint’s largest foundation. She called for a “forensic audit” of the financial decisions that led to the demolition of the Sarvis Center in April, 2016. The building, located near the Whiting Auditorium, had been sold to the Flint Cultural Center by Flint Community Schools (FCS) for $150,000 three years prior in 2013.
MacIntyre charged the whole affair left FCS “saddled with the repercussions and detrimental consequences of having given away our land.” She continued: “We are not here to squander our (resources) building a private school under the guise of a public charter school.”
“A really big opportunity”
“This again is an opportunity for our students, ” Luna responded, “[with] dollars … we don’t have currently.” He suggested that a discussion of what happened with the Sarvis Center in the previous decade was “not germane” to the agenda item being discussed.
Tish Wolf, FCS controller, supported the concept of partnership: “Any capacity where we work with partners, I would highly recommend that,” she said.
“Scholars would benefit from smaller class sizes,” Luna said. He added that career and technology initiatives would be included in the Mott Foundation proposal.
“We cannot stay in the past,” King said. “The time is past us on making this district whole … The community put us (new board members) here to do the job.”
Flint resident Joel Arnold spoke in favor of the potential partnership with the Mott Foundation. “I think this represents a really big opportunity for the district,” said Arnold. “I think this is an opportunity for us to change the direction … and really build partnerships for the district … to transform the future of our city.”
“Families are voting with their feet,” Arnold said, referencing the declining FCS student enrollment that now numbers under 3,000. “Flint Schools remains … the most important institution in this city.”
Demolition and security
“We’re concerned with multiple buildings,” said Kevelin Jones, FCS superintendent. But his particular concern was about the burned-down pile of rubble that was once Washington Elementary School, 1400 North Vernon Ave. on Flint’s east side. It was torched by arsonists more than once, most recently in April, 2022.
“We’re concerned with multiple buildings,” Jones conceded, but his focus, in terms of demolition, was Washington. “We don’t have any other school that looks like that,” he declared. “It looks bad.”
“There’s nothing about Washington (School) any more that resembles a building,” Arnold agreed.
“The board would have to decide what building to demolish,” Jones said, implying there were insufficient funds to knock down all of the abandoned properties in the district. He indicated there are 13 vacant properties the FCS administration had identified for demolition.
Jones told committee members that knocking down and removing abandoned buildings could become a political tempest with one city ward feeling served, another neglected. “It becomes a rabbit hole,” he said. “We need to be very clear about the next step and how we’re going to do it.”
The committee then moved to a discussion of securing abandoned properties, especially long-abandoned Central High School, 601 Crapo St., closed in 2009, and Northern High School, G-3284 Mackin Road, closed in 2014.
According to Jones, boarding up and fencing off vacant properties is an act of futility. “We could do it on a Monday and by Friday we get a call from someone,” he said. “This is a constant … vandalism … stealing pipes.”
“They [vandals] can find a way to get into those (abandoned) buildings no matter what we do,” said Chris Henderson, the current FCS director of operations and ancillary projects.
MacIntyre hinted that the discussions to secure and or rid FCS of abandoned properties were a “placebo” that distracted the board from addressing the real needs of the district: “living and breathing children.”
“I wish we didn’t have 20 vacant properties in this district, but we do.” Luna responded. “It’s incumbent upon this board to act.”
The two issues – the welfare of children and the resolution of abandoned properties – “are not mutually exclusive,” Luna continued. He cited reports of children visiting abandoned properties and risking injury.
“This is a good start,” King said about cleanup of the Washington property. “This district has a lot of obstacles, but it’s time to start somewhere.”
MacIntyre also charged that the discussion about resolution of vacant properties was not consistent with board policies.
King opened his board binder and read policy language that, he claimed, legitimized such a discussion. “It’s time to get to work,” King asserted.
The district announced in June of 2022 that it was moving forward with plans to rid the district of 13 abandoned properties that included: Cook; Dort; Garfield; King; Johnson; Lowell; Manley; Merrill; Stewart; Washington; Williams; Wilkins; and Zimmerman. Earlier in her tenure as board treasurer, MacIntyre had deemed FCS abandoned properties to be a potential “goldmine” for the district. To date, not a single sale of a single property has been publicly announced.
Luna asked FCS Superintendent Kevelin Jones what the “holdups” were in moving forward with building demolitions and partnership with the Mott Foundation.
“The lack of being able to get the board together” to move forward, Jones responded. “We haven’t been able to move. That’s been an issue for us.”
The most vocal critic of further partnership possibilities with the Mott Foundation has been MacIntyre, who frequently invokes imagery of colonialism and oppression in her critiques:
- “I implore the Mott Foundation to act like a community partner, not a colonial overseer.” she wrote in a recent Facebook page post.
- “I am still highly critical of the Mott Foundation and the nonprofit industrial complex. I’m highly critical,” she stated at a July 20, 2022 FBOE meeting.
In May of 2021, East Village Magazine (EVM) was the first publication to reveal a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with details of a multiyear initiative to rebuild or renovate all of Flint’s school buildings accompanied by a variety of wraparound support services.
EVM estimated the cost of the entire project might have approached $400 million to $500 million. Funding would come from three sources: the Mott Foundation; FCS; and the State of Michigan. None of the 17 parties named in the MOU had yet signed it.
The centerpiece of the so-called Flint Education Continuum (FEC) would have been the construction of new schools – four new elementary schools and a new high school – and the renovation of two existing buildings. All buildings would have been operated by the FCS and located within the City of Flint.
MacIntyre and other FBOE members were highly critical of the FEC initiative. On June 16, 2022 the FBOE adopted a resolution requiring then-Superintendent Anita Steward to “cease all communication, as well as meetings with all partners and community foundations without the presence of the Board President.”
In that same month – June 2021 – the school board very publicly reprimanded Steward and delivered to her a document that warned “continued unacceptable performance, and/or conduct, could result in disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal.”
Within months, Steward stepped down from her position and retained an attorney for the purpose of suing the school district. Any discussion about an FCS-Mott partnership virtually disappeared from public view.
Before Steward stepped aside, Mott Foundation CEO Ridgway White personally appeared before the FBOE to pitch the potential partnership: “I’m asking that you let the Mott Foundation … help Flint (schools) recover and rise and to look to a future where there’s equity for all kids.”
Meanwhile, Flint school buildings – among the oldest in the nation averaging more than 71 years old – continue to be plagued by a myriad of infrastructure challenges: outdated HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning) systems; crumbling parking lots; black mold; bat infestation(s); often unreliable internet; and old plumbing and electrical systems.
And COVID-relief funds – nearly $150 million – are not an adequate answer; those dollars cannot be used for the construction of new buildings or to renovate buildings that are not occupied by students.
On Nov. 16, 2022 the board was told by Stantec, an engineering and architecture firm, the cost of renovating, rightsizing, or rebuilding Northwestern High School alone would run from $110 million to $134 million. Those numbers are daunting for a school district facing the prospect of returning to annual deficits and longer-term debt in the next few years when COVID-relief funds disappear.
“We hope to resume dialogue.”
A July 24, 2022 post at the Mott Foundation website stated, in part: ‘Given the absence of any direct communication from the district to Mott, it leads us to conclude Flint Community Schools has elected not to continue receiving Mott Foundation grant funds. … We hope to resume dialogue with the district soon.”
With the arrival of five new education board members following the Nov. 22 election, it appears that a renewed “dialogue” may be on the near horizon.
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The next meetings of the full board are: Feb. 8 (Committee of the Whole, or COW); Feb. 15 (regular board meeting). Meetings are held at the ALA Building, 1602 S. Averill St., Flint 48503. Meetings can be attended virtually; information is available at the FCS website.
EVM Education Beat reporter Harold Ford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.