Commentary: You can’t “right size” a district by only closing buildings

Guest commentary by Paul Jordan

To survive in the long term, the Flint district must provide every neighborhood with a local elementary school.  Children can be well-educated in buildings that consist of only a few classrooms.  (My parents, and perhaps yours, were educated in them.). Given the low density of potential students in the district, elementary schools should be both numerous and small in capacity.

[State of Michigan School Superintendent] Rice’s basic points in a recent conversation with the Flint school board are well-taken: long term income must balance long term expenditures — and  the Flint district maintains too many buildings to achieve that.  Both are true.  (What he did not say was that the district maintains too many BIG old inefficient buildings.)

Michael Rice, State of Michigan School Superintendent. Photo by Mark Bugnaski, The Detroit News

Those are not the only truths that are operating in Flint, however. It is also true that only closing buildings by itself cannot achieve long-term fiscal health. The geographical area of Flint remains the same, even as the student-age population of the city continues to fall dramatically.

If the effort of achieving financial health by closing buildings were carried to its logical conclusion, the district ultimately would have three open buildings:  An elementary school, a middle school, and a high school/ administration building.  One can even imagine a single building.  (In fact, at Lake Fenton in the 60s I went to school in a long building where you started at one end in the kindergarten room and ended up at the other end in high school.)

Students at Flint’s Freeman Elementary School. (Photo by Tom Travis)

Truth:  Closures DO disrupt children’s education, and this disruption (and the lack of a realistic long-term plan) reduces parents’ confidence in the district as a vehicle for educating their children.  This leads parents to look to charter schools or other districts for more stable and apparently effective options.  PR efforts won’t attract families to the district if families experience it as unstable and ineffective.  (PR has been tried again and again.  Those efforts only divert boards and administrators from pursuing real change and improvement.)

The basic challenge is that in order for families to entrust their children to the district the schools must not only be effective.  They must be experienced as stable and–and here is my main point–accessible.  Neighborhood elementary schools are still basic to the fiscal health of a city’s school district.  Throughout the years, the district’s strategy has been to try to achieve success by worsening accessibility.

In addition to closing redundant aged schools the district needs to find a way to build new elementary schools that are right-sized for the neighborhoods that they serve.  This is a vital important missing element.

We used to have several smallish elementaries in the district, but they were closed because they seemed inefficient.  Back in the 50s when Flint was rapidly growing, the district built several small elementaries as well as one-room satellite “units” to handle the overflow from some neighborhood elementary schools.  As Flint’s population shrank, boards closed them to save money.

The board I served on, previous boards, and subsequent boards made the mistake of closing  buildings to save money without a plan to ensure that all neighborhoods continued to have elementary schools to serve the area’s children.

The district desperately needs to build and resource small–four room?–elementary schools.  There should be enough so that there is a small elementary school within walking distance in every part of the city.  This is more important to the future of the district  than even building a new state-of-the-art high school.  (The district would be wise to talk with the Mott Foundation about constructing such small elementaries.)

Unless the district does that, in my opinion, the district will continue its relentless shrinkage until a consensus develops to the effect that it is no longer educationally or financially viable.

EVM guest commentator Paul Jordan has lived in Flint for 54 of his 74 years.  Jordan is a social worker retired from Genesee Health Systems and Mott Community College.  In addition to a term on the Flint school board, he has served on the boards of various community organizations.

Author: Tom Travis

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