By Harold C. Ford
“That door to work with our partners in the community is open … I need partners to build a new building,” –Kevelin Jones, superintendent, Flint Community Schools, at a Feb. 9, 2023 community forum
At its Committee of the Whole (COW) meeting on Feb. 8, 2023 , the Flint Board of Education (FBOE) voted unanimously to explore the possibility of reopening talks with the Flint-based Mott Foundation about the construction of new school buildings.
The very next evening, Feb. 9, at a community meeting in the auditorium of Accelerated Learning Academy, Kevelin Jones, superintendent of Flint Community Schools (FCS), spoke more freely than ever since inheriting the district’s top administrative spot, about the possibility of new buildings for Flint students and reopening talks with potential partners toward that end:
“I need partners to build a new building. It is not going to happen with what we have … no way, shape or form,” he said. “We do not have thousands of partners out there waiting to knock down our door to give us money to build a new building.
“I have one partner at the moment that has opened up their door and said ‘Let’s have conversation,’ and that’s the Mott Foundation. It would be a shame for us not to go into that door, and sit down at that table, to work with the [Mott] Foundation, to get buildings for our scholars.”
The most recent public statement by the Mott Foundation was a July 24, 2022 post at its website which read, 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.”
[Note: East Village Magazine (EVM) reached out to the Mott Foundation for comment on partnership with FCS; no response had been received by the time of publication.]
Newly-elected FBOE Trustee Melody Relerford signaled new possibilities for the panel on key issues at its very first meeting on Jan. 11, 2023. “Sometimes you’ve got to pivot,” she said.
Following the election of five new board members in November, 2022, four of the winners who ran as a slate – Michael Clack, Terae King, Dylan Luna, and Relerford – have indicated a readiness to change the direction of the FBOE on some of the most important issues confronting the district, including its recent uncertain relationship with the Mott Foundation.
At a Jan. 30 meeting of the Finance and Operations Committee, Luna and King, pushing to reopen talks with the Mott Foundation, prevailed over dissent from the committee’s third member, Laura MacIntyre. MacIntyre has been a persistent critic of FCS partnership with Flint’s largest foundation since her election to the panel in Nov. 2020.
However, without dissent, MacIntyre helped make the board vote unanimous, 7-0, at the FBOE’s subsequent COW meeting on Feb. 8.
Clack, King, Luna, and Relerford seem to have substantial control of the Flint panel’s direction at the present. “The community put us [new board members] here to do the job,” King proclaimed at the Jan. 30 subcommittee meeting.
Flint Education Continuum sparked unease in 2021
An uneasy relationship between the FBOE and the Mott Foundation was precipitated by the first public report of a so-called Flint Education Continuum (FEC) by EVM in May of 2021. Some board members felt that Anita Steward, former FCS superintendent, had not properly informed the board of the FEC negotiations. Steward vehemently disagreed.
Steward resigned from the superintendency not long after the FBOE muzzled her ability to negotiate on behalf of the district as it ordered her to “cease all communication, as well as meetings with all partners and community foundations.” The then-board also threatened Steward with “disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal” in a very public dressing down of the former superintendent.
When Steward stepped down shortly thereafter, she retained an attorney and sued four FBOE members alleging Whistleblower Act violations, ELCRA (Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act) violations, breach of contract, and tortious interference and neglect. The current status of that lawsuit is out of the public’s view , discussed perhaps, in closed-door sessions.
In a June 2021 interview with EVM, Steward said: “I’ve been completely transparent, I’ve been completely honest in all communications with the board … And the (FEC) conversations have involved board members.”
At the Feb. 8 COW meeting, all seven FBOE members supported a motion by Luna to reopen talks with the Mott Foundation about “new schools, renovated schools, and long-term programming.” Generally, those were the stated goals in the aforementioned FEC document reported by EVM in 2021 that had not yet been signed by any of the 17 named parties.
“We have to leverage money when transforming the district,” Luna reasoned as he introduced the motion.
“It’s bringing Mott Foundation back into the conversation,” Jones added.
“There’s going to be total transparency,” Jones quickly assured FBOE members, an obvious reference to the mistrustful relationship that evolved, rightly or wrongly, between former Superintendent Steward and some then-board members.
Jones indicated that initial discussions about a new high school would focus on the now-closed Central High School-Whittier Middle School campus on Crapo Street near the Flint Cultural Center.
“This is our time and this is the moment.”
EVM: With COVID relief funds and possible foundation funding, FCS has never been in a better financial position to upgrade its aging lineup of Flint school buildings and their failing infrastructure: HVAC (heating, ventilation, air-conditioning) systems; unreliable technology; crumbling parking lots; water insecurity; and infestations of bats and black mold.
Jones: “The general fund (indeed) grows, but only temporarily; that (COVID funding) runs out; that’s not going to be a door that stays open … We’re trying to be extra careful about how we spend the funds.”
He continued: “I’ve seen a new charter school go up over the last … two or three years … They have a pretty, beautiful, nice building in the center of Flint, Michigan. We gotta understand that people want better … Parents that I’ve talked to want to see a better space for their children. Children want better spaces. Until we come together and do that, I don’t see a way that we’re going to be able to bring a thousand scholars back into Flint Community Schools. It just won’t happen if we don’t start building.”
EVM: The district has access to nearly $150 million in COVID relief funds – more than the City of Flint (monies that cannot be used to build new structures or renovate buildings unoccupied by students). The initial estimates by EVM of support from a Mott-backed FEC ran as high as $400 to $500 million.
“All the money you hear about is not money that we have,” Jones replied. “Currently we have a $40 million fund balance … When you talk about operating a school district, $40 million doesn’t go very far in the long scheme of things.”
EVM: “So, how do you balance renovation (of old buildings) versus rebuilding (new ones)?”
Jones: “We’re trying to be smart about the future of Flint.”
He explained that such discussions about the renovation and/or rebuilding of Flint’s school buildings must include both the FCS administration and the school board.
“The final say comes from our board,” he said. “You know we haven’t been able to have those conversations over the last six months due to issues that we’ve had on our board, respectfully saying that.
“But now we have a board that is willing to sit down, open up doors, and allow this administration to really do its job … We’re looking for partners to come in and try to also work with the State of Michigan on matching dollars.
“Once the state can see that we have partners, we have come together in Flint Community Schools doing the legwork, then we’re going to see more support as it pertains to infrastructure … We’re gathering all of that information to determine how we’re going to move forward,” Jones said.
EVM: “It may be, Superintendent Jones, that your administration has an opportunity to do something that hasn’t been done in this district since the 1970s.”
“I almost had a tear,” Jones confessed, while listening to EVM’s questions. “We (have) an opportunity here that has not really taken place in seventy-some years. We have been toiling and working very hard to get that door opened back up. That door to work with our partners in the community is open … We’re excited about that.”
Jones concluded: “This is the time and this is the moment. And if we don’t do it now, it’ll never be done.”
EVM Education Writer Harold C. Ford can be reached at email@example.com.