By Harold C. Ford
In May, the Flint Board of Education (FBOE):
- approved the spending of tens of millions of ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) dollars for infrastructure upgrades;
- turned down a substantial offer to sell the Zimmerman property on Corunna Road;
- approved the demolition of Washington Elementary on Flint’s east side which burned down in October 2021.
Infrastructure upgrades approved
Tens of millions of ESSER funds for infrastructure upgrades in Flint’s aging school buildings was given unanimous approval by the FBOE at its May 10 and 17 meetings.
ESSER, one category of COVID relief dollars, can be spent on upgrades of buildings currently occupied by students. They may not be used to build new facilities or to upgrade buildings that are absent students.
In at least three waves of ESSER funding from the Federal Government, Flint Community Schools (FCS) was given access to an amount just shy of $150 million; Flint’s city government, by comparison, was granted an amount just under $100 million. Some of the ESSER dollars have already been spent by FCS.
ESSER-funded projects must be completed by September of 2024 or the funds may be forfeited.
The building/property upgrades and amounts approved at the May 10 and 17 FBOE meetings are as follow:
- Potter Elementary: $9,620, 775
- Brownell Elementary: $8,733, 730
- Holmes STEM Academy: $21, 415,967
- Durant-Tuuri-Mott Elementary: $5,534, 697
- Southwestern Classical Academy: $4,161, 487
- Accelerated Learning Academy: $1,035,776
- Eisenhower Elementary: $2,449,651
- Neithercut Elementary: $774,094
Specifics about proposed upgrades at each of the above FCS buildings can be viewed at the YouTube recording of the May 10 FBOE meeting starting at about the 2:10 mark.
The next step in the process is design work by architects and other planners which must happen before any upgrades are undertaken. Other necessary steps — such as the bidding process, contracting, and acquisition of building permits — must occur before actual upgrades can begin with shovels thrust into the ground, paint applied to drab hallways, repair of aging pipes, replacement of frayed electrical wiring, and the like.
FCS will be challenged to achieve completion of all the aforementioned projects by September of 2024, only 16 months away.
Aging lineup of buildings
EVM, with assistance from Sloan Museum, has documented that the 11-building lineup of FCS buildings are among the oldest in the nation, averaging more than 70 years old. The average age of all school buildings in the U.S. is about 46 years.
The infusion of ESSER funds may represent only a fraction of what is needed to maintain FCS buildings in the next decade. In January 2022, the district was told by the auditing firm Plante Moran Cresa (PMC) that “FCS has a 10-year capital need of $174 million for its 11 schools.”
The projected 10-year costs for each of Flint’s school buildings, according to PMC:
- Brownell: $11,650,906
- Doyle/Ryder: $10,272,579*
- Durant-Tuuri-Mott: $20,556,920
- Eisenhower: $9,495,358
- Freeman: $11,733,922
- Neithercut: $11,887,194
- Pierce: $10,601,128
- Potter: $14,231,142
- Holmes: $22,648,968
- Accelerated Learning Academy: $9,919,749
- Southwestern: $38,402,032
[*The Doyle/Ryder building is currently closed as black mold remediation and other upgrades near completion. Doyle/Ryder students are currently housed in the Potter building. Mitigation of bat infestations and roof repairs were undertaken at both buildings.]
Holly Stefanski, PMC’s assurance manager, told the FBOE, “You’re definitely not going to be in excellent financial shape for a long time.”
PMC told the district that the substantial loss of student population in the past decade was at the heart of its declining revenue. Approximately two-thirds of the students who reside in Flint are not enrolled in FCS schools; they and their families have opted for private schools, charter schools, home schooling, and enrollment in neighboring public-school districts through Michigan’s Schools of Choice program.
Every student who abandons the district has taken with him/her $8,000 to $10,000 in state aid; the amount of aid-per-student has changed during the COVID pandemic years.
“Rightsizing the district”
PMC suggested “rightsizing the district” during its January 2022 report to Flint’s school board. FBOE members were told the district needed only four elementary schools. FCS currently operates eight elementary buildings: Brownell; Doyle/Ryder; Durant-Tuuri-Mott; Eisenhower; Freeman; Neithercut; Pierce; and Potter.
No plan for “rightsizing the district” has made its way onto the printed agenda of an FBOE meeting in the 17 months since the January 2022 report by Plante Moran Cresa.
“What is your plan of action?”
In recent months a chorus of constituent voices has called for FCS to right size the district and rid itself of abandoned properties. A sampling:
- “We are getting complaints about the closed schools that is just sitting there. What is your plan of action?” –Quincy Murphy, councilman, City of Flint Third Ward, December 2022
- “I think every dollar amount spent on vacant buildings is a dollar less that goes to our scholars.” –Derek Luna, FBOE treasurer, January 2023
- “The sheer number of properties need to be reduced.” –Chris Henderson, FCS director of operations, January 2023
- “We would like something done with the schools.” –Theron Wiggins, interim fire chief, City of Flint, February 2023
- “I am begging you to make the hard decisions you don’t want to make.” –Nadia Rodriquez, FCS teacher, April 2023
- “It’s April; school closings should be announced today, May at the latest … I’m begging you to get focused.” –Bruce Jordan, teachers union official, Michigan Education Association, April 2023
- “We’ve passed the point of responsibility when it comes to school closures,” –Luna, May 2023
Mott Foundation offer nowhere in sight
Absent from any recent public discussions by the FBOE about its buildings is a proposal by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, Flint’s largest nonprofit, to help fund the renovation and/or rebuilding of FCS structures. That offer, once titled Flint Education Continuum (FEC), was first revealed to the public by East Village Magazine (EVM) in April 2021.Related EVM article Related EVM article
FEC envisioned revenue from three major sources – the State of Michigan, Flint Community Schools, and the Mott Foundation – applied toward the upgrade or replacement of all student-occupied FCS buildings.
FBOE declines offer to sell Zimmerman
At its April 19 meeting, the FBOE did not act on a $250,000 offer from a bidder to purchase the Zimmerman building at 2421 Corunna Road. The 108,000-square-foot Zimmerman property, sitting on 4.6 acres, has been vacant since 2013.
Selling vacant school properties “can be very challenging,” said Gordon VanWieren, an attorney with Thrun Law Firm. Thrun, a firm that specializes in vacant school properties, works with FCS and some 500 other school districts in Michigan.
VanWieren reported that Liberty Way Holdings LLC, with a local address at 1200 W. Court St. in Flint, made a $250,000 offer for the Zimmerman property. He said the focus of the repurposed Zimmerman would be, as the FBOE previously requested, “community-based.” He added that Liberty Way Holdings planned to invest up to $10 million to renovate the property.
Nonetheless, the FBOE did not approve the proposal. Opposition to the deal, as in the past, was led by FBOE Trustee Laura MacIntyre. “I’m not interested in giving away our buildings or our land.” She called the proposed bid “discouraging and disheartening … disingenuous.”
MacIntyre has frequently dubbed abandoned FCS properties a “gold mine … generational wealth.”
Trustee Melody Relerford speculated about development of “a county park right around the corner” from Zimmerman that might increase the value of the Zimmerman property. “You can look straight through and see” the new park, claimed Relerford.
“It’s not quite by there,” advised Derek Luna, FBOE treasurer. “Yes, it is,” Relerford interrupted.
[Reporter’s note: The distance from the Zimmerman property to Chevy Commons is about seven tenths of a mile. This reporter visited the Zimmerman property and, from several vantage points, could not see Chevy Commons.]
“The state is going to create a state park,” Luna continued. In July 2021, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced plans to develop the Chevy Commons, an area in and around the former industrial site once known as “Chevy in the Hole”, as the location for Genesee County’s first state park.
“Delay kills deals,” VanWiere warned. “We simply would like direction.” He called for “a starting point (to) move forward.” Demolishing the Zimmerman property, VanWieren said, would cost between $400,000 and $640,000 based on 2019 estimates.
Prodigious costs to restore FCS buildings
Building 2008 2023*
Anderson $3,481,304 $5,003,306
Bryant $8,683,020 $12, 479,188
Carpenter Road $3,856,887 $5,543,097
Civic Park $5,620,848 $8,078,251
Dort $4,383,128 $6,229,407
Garfield $5,407,248 $7,771,266
Johnson $2,251,935 $3,236,468
Funds approved for Washington demolition
Washington Elementary, at 1400 N. Vernon on Flint’s east side, burned down in October 2021. The century-old building was closed in 2014 and has since been targeted repeatedly by arsonists. Area residents and school officials have considered it an eyesore and an endangerment to citizens ever since.
“It looks bad,” Luna said after taking his seat on the board in January 2023. “We have to do something.”
“This (the demolition of Washington) is a good start,” added Terae King, FBOE trustee. “The community is ready for change … It’s time to get to work.”
“It’s the worst looking property we have,” Kevelin Jones, FCS superintendent lamented. Jones informed the FBOE in February 2023 that FCS had paid $2,500 to the City of Flint for calls to, and responses by, its fire department.
“A dangerous, hulking Jenga game of mortar and bricks just waiting to fall,” Flint resident Lisa Squier added.
In an uncommon moment of unanimity, the FBOE voted 7-0 to approve demolition of the Washington property at its May 17 meeting at a projected cost of more than $700,000.
* * * * *
The next meeting of the FBOE is a Committee of the Whole (COW) meeting scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. June 14; FBOE’s June 21 regular meeting features the annual budget hearing. Meetings are at Accelerated Learning Academy, 1602 S. Averill Ave., Flint MI 48503. A link is posted at the FCS website to access online viewing; visit www.flinstschools.org, or type Flint Community Schools into the YouTube search engine. Check the FCS website for any other FCS meetings open to the public.
EVM Education Beat reporter Harold Ford can be reached at email@example.com.