By Harold C. Ford
“Change must happen in Flint Community Schools, but we cannot do it alone.”
– Kevelin Jones, superintendent, Flint Community Schools, Jan. 26, 2024 press statement
Six financially distressed school systems in Michigan stand to benefit from debt relief legislation passed by the state legislature and signed into law by Governor Gretchen Whitmer in December 2023, but Flint Community Schools (FCS) is not among them.
Late last year, Michigan’s lawmakers approved $114 million from the state School Aid Fund to pay off the legacy debts of several current and former school systems that faced serious financial distress. Districts in Pontiac, Benton Harbor, Muskegon Heights, and Ypsilanti will receive substantial help. Additionally, taxpayers in the former Willow Run and Inkster districts will get tax relief from the public indebtedness that remained after school closures in those communities.
In a press statement on Jan. 26, 2024, FCS superintendent Kevelin Jones responded to being overlooked by the state.
“The situation in Flint Community Schools, with approximately $56,093,404 in debt, with an operational deficit of $14,420,492 … serving 2,980 scholars, and roughly 900 with IEP’s (Individualized Education Programs for special needs students), is undoubtedly challenging,” he said, noting debt relief would bring “significant benefits” to the community and district. “First and foremost, debt relief would alleviate the financial burden on Flint Community Schools, enabling us to allocate more resources towards providing quality education and essential services to the scholars we serve.”
Debt relief totaling $114 million for six school systems
The debt relief package passed along party lines with unanimous support from Democrats and near-unanimous opposition from Republicans.
The Michigan House of Representatives passed the bill with a 56-54 vote strictly along party lines, and the bill passed in the Senate with a 21-17 vote. Only Senator Mark Huizenga (R-Walker) voted with the Dems.
Debt relief amounts will be made available to the six school systems starting Feb. 13 for the purposes listed below:
- Muskegon Heights School District: $31.3 million for miscellaneous debts including an outstanding emergency loan balance and outstanding district bond debt;
- Pontiac City School District: $18.4 million for an outstanding emergency loan balance;
- Benton Harbor Area Public Schools: $10 million for an outstanding emergency loan balance;
- Ypsilanti Community Schools: $5.5 million for an outstanding limited tax debt;
- Willow Run Community Schools (now closed): $19.4 million for outstanding school bond loan balance or school loan revolving fund balance;
- Inkster Schools (now closed): $12.1 million for outstanding school bond loan fund balance or school loan revolving fund balance.
The debt forgiveness awarded to the six school systems comes with stipulations, however. Within 12 months of receiving the funding, the affected school systems must do the following:
- Develop and implement a plan for recruitment and retention of students;
- Develop and implement a capital improvement strategic plan for upgrade of infrastructure;
- Develop and implement a strategic plan to recruit and retain teachers;
- School board members are to participate in three training sessions annually that focus on school finances;
- Identify and implement strategies, in cooperation with the local intermediate school district (ISD), to reduce dropout rates and increase graduation rates;
- Also in cooperation with the local ISD, develop strategies to improve attendance rates and reduce the number of students who are chronically absent;
- Document by Sept. 30, 2024 that the aforementioned requirements have been met.
Why not Flint?
In January and early February, East Village Magazine (EVM) reached out to more than a dozen local and state officials with the following query: “Why was FCS not included in the debt relief package which became law in December?”
By press time, only one direct response to EVM’s inquiry was provided. Michael Rice, State Superintendent of Public Instruction, said in part:
For many years, the state inadequately and inequitably funded school districts, particularly those with disproportionately large percentages of poor children, students with disabilities, and/or English learners. There have been several school finance studies in the last decade that have said the same thing … While we have made significant strides to address this 10-year period of underfunding, particularly in the very strong state education budgets of the last two years … we have a long way to go before our districts are adequately funded.
Rice also noted that the district’s “bonded debt reduces the extent to which the district can fund capital expenditures” like new roofs, boilers, chillers, and new schools.
“To permit Flint Community Schools to get a fresh start and to potentially increase resources for Flint students and staff, the debt should be eliminated, as it will be, and should be,” he concluded. He did not comment on how that debt elimination would happen.
While Superintendent Jones’ Jan. 26 press statement did note the administration was “not sure why FCS was not considered for debt relief,” no direct response was received from him or the district’s communication specialist, who said only that the superintendent would be out of town until Feb. 9.
Steve Tunicliff, superintendent of Genesee Intermediate School District (GISD), which provides support services for FCS, replied, “The decision around debt relief was made at the state level – I cannot speak to … why Flint Community Schools was not included.”
EVM otherwise received no direct responses from Governor Whitmer, State Senator John Cherry, State Representative Cynthia Neeley, nor seven other elected officials who voted in favor of the bill and commented in other publications.
Flint Schools Board of Education (FBOE) Response
While state-level rationale for FCS exclusion from December’s debt relief package remains somewhat unclear, the Flint Board of Education seemed to suggest at least part of that exclusion had to do with the district’s oversized infrastructure.
During the Board’s Finance and Operations Committee on Feb. 1, trustees held considerable discussion on the district’s many vacant or underutilized properties and its desperate deficit-debt financial profile.
FBOE Vice President Michael Clack said the district is holding on to buildings it has “got to get rid of,” while Treasurer Dylan Luna equated the Board and administration to “slumlords” and said “the status quo is unacceptable.”
Trustees Melody Relerford and Terae King echoed that the Board needed to offload some of the district’s many vacant properties.
“We have an obligation to make sure we’re in the [financial] black,” King said.
Laura MacIntyre, the Board’s assistant secretary-treasurer, dissented, saying instead that FBOE members were being “badgered” and “bullied” by “one or two” other unidentified board members who were “petty and petulant” and “beating a dead horse” about school closures.
“I don’t agree with closing buildings just to close buildings,” she said.
Despite MacIntyre’s statements, other education officials outside the Board have also warned FCS to “right-size” its building profile in the past year.
Nicole Blocker, senior vice president of commercial real estate consulting firm Plante Moran Realpoint, said “you only need half of the [existing] buildings” in a May 2023 appearance before the Board. Brian Jones, former FCS interim chief financial officer, told the trustees in October 2023: “Once that [COVID-relief] money dries up, if careful adjustments are not made, the district could be facing a financial cliff.”
Ultimately, the Board did not vote to close or sell any of the district’s vacant properties during its Feb. 1 Fin-Op meeting. According to reporting by the Detroit News, Superintendent Jones has asked state lawmakers to consider $56 million in “emergency debt relief” for FCS in the next state budget.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect Plante Moran Realpoint’s name change and services. Plante Moran Realpoint was formerly Plante Moran Cresa.