By Harold C. Ford
Fewer than 3,000 Flint Community Schools (FCS) students – based on last year’s enrollment data – are scheduled to start the 2023-2024 school year Aug. 9. The district moves into its fifth year on a “balanced calendar” schedule in which students and staff report back earlier in the calendar year. A shortened summer vacation will be followed by additional scheduled breaks – Sept. 5-8, Oct. 23-27, Feb. 20-23, and Apr. 2-5 – called intercessions.
Most FCS students will report back to a dramatically upgraded lineup of 11 FCS school buildings. The district’s leadership is scrambling to spend COVID-19 relief dollars on buildings – some of which the district may soon close – by September, 2024, the sunset date for the Federal monies.
Sept. 2024 deadline
FCS leadership is moving forward with upgrades to all of its 11 existing buildings, funded largely and temporarily by several waves of federal dollars provided by federal ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief/COVID-19 relief) legislation. The district’s $140-$150 million in ESSER funds easily surpasses the $90-100 million awarded to the City of Flint.
- “to prevent, prepare for and respond to coronavirus”;
- “activities, to address the unique needs of low-income children or students, children with disabilities, English learners, racial and ethnic minorities, students experiencing homelessness, and foster care youth”;
- “training and professional development for staff”;
- “purchasing educational technology”;
- “providing mental health services”;
- “purchasing supplies to sanitize and clean the facilities”.
ESSER funds may be used to upgrade existing facilities that house students. However, they cannot be used to build new facilities or upgrade buildings unoccupied by students.
In addition to its 11 school buildings that house students, FCS currently has 32 uninhabited buildings with 2.1 million square feet of floor space sitting on 270 acres. Additionally, the district owns 19 vacant parcels of land comprising another 22 acres.
At the July 12 meeting of the Flint Board of Education (FBOE), Interim Chief Financial Officer Brian Jones reported, “We have closed out the ESSER 1 and 2.”
“ESSER 2 has been spent,” added Kevelin Jones, “over $44 million.” The overall status of ESSER 3 was not provided at the FBOE’s July meetings. “I’m not looking at this board if we’re having to send back millions of dollars,” Jones added.
Building upgrades move forward
Dan Methner, project manager for Clark Construction, the firm managing the construction process, reported on the progress being made at FCS buildings at the school board’s July 12 meeting. Summary overviews are found below; renovation amounts approved by the FBOE at its May 10 and 17 meetings follow the name of the building while funding for some other projects may have been reported earlier and may have included monies from the FCS general fund:
- Doyle/Ryder; *: Remaining tasks included installation of plumbing fixtures, new ceiling tiles, LED lighting, new mirrors, partitions, and accessories; upgrades of restroom and stairwells; new paint on many surfaces.
- Parking lot improvements; *: “a big item”, according to Methner, underway and nearing completion at Doyle/Ryder (front completed, not back) and Holmes (only striping spaces with paint remained); projects at Eisenhower, ALA, Pierce, Freeman, and Neithercut are works in progress; upgrades of electrical lighting in lots were necessary at some schools.
- Potter; $9,620,775: interior demolition of auditorium to prepare for renovation had been completed; roof demolition is to begin Aug. 11 with completion expected by Aug. 25; some work is to be completed in November, 2023; replacement of exterior doors and windows; secured entry; main office relocation; full building upgrades of HVAC (heating, ventilation, air-conditioning), fire protection, electrical, fire alarms, lighting, ceiling replacement; painting of corridors and classrooms.
- Holmes; $21,415,967: full building roof replacement; full building upgrades of HVAC, fire protection, electrical system, alarm system, ceiling replacement, and lighting; new public address (P.A.) system; painting of corridors and classrooms; renovation of main office area.
District officials are preparing to send Holmes students to Southwestern during upgrades. A stinging criticism of that move came from Trustee Melody Relerford who called the plan “crap.” “You’re just throwing them (students) at the dogs,” she charged. She said the plan was a “pipeline to prison” approach and was setting her grandson, a Holmes student, up for disaster.
MacIntyre, on the other hand, voiced support for Kevelin Jones and his administrative team. “You [Jones] were working very hard and you haven’t stopped,” she said. “I have the utmost confidence; I’ve seen all of you [the transition team] at work.”
- Durant-Tuuri-Mott: $5,534,697*:
- Eisenhower; $2,449,651*: roof replacement; secured entry; wall graphics and painting of corridors and classrooms; office renovation(s); landscaping upgrades; new directional signage; new entry door and ramp replacement.
- ALA; $1,035,776*: secured entry; new P.A. system; new wall graphics and painting of corridors and classrooms; office renovations; landscaping upgrades; new directional signage.
- Southwestern; $4,161,487*: Holmes students will attend Southwestern at the start of the 2023 school year; Holmes students will attend classes in the east wing of the building, Southwestern students will occupy the west wing; the gymnasium and cafeteria will be used by both groups.
- Neithercut; $774,094 *: secured entry; new wall graphics and painting of corridors and classrooms; office renovation; landscaping upgrades; new directional signage; upgrade of P.A. system.
- Pierce; *: parking lot upgrades reported at the FBOE’s July 12 meeting.
- Brownell; $8,733,730: full building roof replacement; full building upgrades of HVAC, fire protection, electrical, fire alarm, lighting, ceiling replacement; painting of corridors and classrooms; new P.A. system; main office renovation; secured entry; replacement of exterior doors and windows.
- Doyle/Ryder, *: Installation of LED lighting and plumbing fixtures, upgrades of restroom and stairwells, and other projects should be completed within weeks. Parking lot improvements remain a “big item” with striping of the completed front lot remaining; work to upgrade the back lot had not yet begun. Doyle/Ryder has been closed since Aug. 2021 for black mold remediation and other repairs and upgrades.
- Washington demolition: bid packages were issued on July 6, will be opened July 27; Clark Construction will meet with the FBOE on Aug. 9 and 16 to review bids and award contracts; demolition start is expected to be Aug. 30 with an Oct. 6 completion date. “The building is unsafe … because of contaminated materials,” Methner said. Thus, the demolition is proceeding more slowly than might be expected.
[*Funding amounts and/or funding sources and/or upgrades not reported at the FBOE’s July 2023 meetings. Please see YouTube recording of FBOE’s May 10, 2023 meeting, starting at about the 2:10:00 mark, and other FBOE meetings, for additional details.]
Late to the task or designed to fail?
FCS leaders are scrambling to spend the massive amount of Federal ESSER funds before the September 2024 sunset date. A lengthy period of seeming inactivity by FCS officials has been replaced with an urgency to spend the remaining Federal monies.
“We wasted almost a year,” bluntly chided Joyce Ellis-McNeal, FBOE vice president.
But FBOE Assistant Secretary/Treasurer Laura MacIntyre deflected blame from the district’s leadership, of which she is a key member, and pointed to the provider(s) of the ESSER dollars:
“There are restrictions that have been imposed on us that are beyond our control … it’s designed to make us fail so that we don’t spend this money,” she said. “We had these very strange, specific criteria that kept shifting and the goalposts kept shifting.”
FBOE Treasurer Dylan Luna sounded a warning that may prove prophetic: “My only concern is that, in the future … we’re going to have to close one of these schools.”
RIGHTSIZING an elusive challenge
FCS will start the 2023-2024 school year with the same lineup of 11 buildings – Southwestern; Holmes; Accelerated Learning Academy (ALA); Brownell; Doyle/Ryder; Durant-Tuuri-Mott; Eisenhower; Freeman; Neithercut; Pierce; and Potter – that existed when this writer penned his first Education Beat article for EVM in March 2017.
FCS has known for at least half a decade – during the superintendencies of Derek Lopez (2018-2020), Anita Steward (2020-2021), and Kevelin Jones (2021-present) – that the district had too many buildings for too few students and that that combination has exacted a dreadful toll on the district’s financial stability. It challenges the district’s budget beyond its means to service and staff underpopulated buildings.
FCS has been advised by multiple parties – its own staff, the Michigan Department of Education, the auditing firm Plante Moran Cresa (PMC), representatives of the United Teachers of Flint and the Michigan Education Association, the public, and others – that unless it cuts operational costs and/or enhances its revenue stream the district will find itself returning to a familiar financial profile of an annual budget deficit and long-term financial debt when COVID-19 relief funds disappear in Sept. 2024.
In June 2023, PMC told FBOE members, “FCS (is) currently operating, maintaining, and securing nearly three million square feet (of building space) and nearly 450 acres (of land).” Further, PMC representatives reported less than 50 percent of elementary classrooms and 38 percent of secondary classrooms in use for general education purposes.
PMC representatives Joe Asperger and Nicole Blocker showed FBOE members an “Enrollment Projection” chart at its July 19 meeting that indicated FCS student enrollment would plummet to 2,176 students by the year 2027: 303 students in grades 9-12; 387 students in grades 6-8; and 1,486 students in grades K-5. [Interested persons can view the chart at about the 1:40:00 mark of the YouTube recording of the meeting.]
Asperger and Blocker gently suggested that the district consider closures of Eisenhower, Pierce, Neithercut, and the Administration Building.
Every attempt in recent years to close a building has been unsuccessful. Nor has the district succeeded in selling or demolishing any of its 32 uninhabited buildings sitting on 270 acres or 19 vacant parcels of land comprising another 22 acres.
At its July 19 meeting, FBOE members once again, as in the past, examined demographic data, student enrollment figures, building utilization information, maps of the district, and possible scenarios for consolidation or closures. And yet again, district leadership made no decisions about rightsizing Flint Community Schools.
“It’s drowning us as it pertains to costs,” warned Supt. Jones, referencing the district’s predicament of too many buildings for too few students. “We won’t survive if we have this many buildings open.”
* * * * *
Future meetings of the FBOE for the 2023 calendar year are scheduled for: Aug. 9 and 16; Sept. 13 and 20; Oct. 11 and 18; Nov. 8 and 15; and Dec. 13 (two meetings). Meetings now take place at Southwestern, 1420 W. Twelfth St., Flint. Meetings start at 6:30 p.m. and can be viewed on YouTube.
EVM Education Beat reporter Harold C. Ford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.