Thursday, January 26, 2012

Highland Park: The New Kalkaska?

The other day I was surprised to hear, on NPR, that Governor Snyder was telling the parents of students in the Highland Park, Michigan school district, that the district might run out of money and have to shut its doors even before the end of the school year--and/or he might appoint an emergency financial manager. (Snyder has already determined that there is a financial emergency.)

Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised. This is a road that Willow Run could be going down as well, as I described a few days ago. Just a few short weeks ago Highland Park got an emergency loan from the state to cover payroll.

According to this Detroit Free Press article,
The [emergency financial review] team found that a financial emergency exists based on factors including ending the school year on June 30 with an $11.3-million deficit, a 51% increase from the previous year.
The district had an operating deficit in excess of revenues for five of the six years evaluated and an average operating deficit of $2.3 million over seven years, [Michigan Department of Education Deputy Superintendent] Wolenberg said in her presentation on behalf of the review team.
The district saw a decrease in enrollment from 1,858 students in 2010 to 1,331 in 2011. There are currently 969 students enrolled, and about 40% of them live in Detroit, Wolenberg said. (1/21/2012)

Based on this determination, Governor Snyder sent out a letter to parents of students in the district. According to district officials,
the letter sends a deceptive message and could be taken as a warning to parents to get out of the district.
"If you were a parent this would be intended to scare you," said Highland Park school board secretary Robert Davis. "This is unprecedented communication with the parents. Why wouldn't you notify district officials?"
That's not the governor's perspective.
Sara Wurfel, a spokeswoman for Snyder, said the letter was meant to address the anger, fear and frustrations of the district's parents.
(Both quotes taken from a 1/24/2012 article in the Detroit Free Press, Highland Park schools 'in jeopardy of closing,' Snyder tells parents.)

Do you even know where Highland Park is? It is a small, impoverished urban community (fewer than 12,000 people) completely surrounded by the City of Detroit.

It also happens to be nearly 93% African-American. Just like many other communities that either have had emergency financial managers assigned to them or have the threat of them being assigned hanging over their heads.

And the city of Highland Park itself has been under emergency management for most of the decade of the oughts (as the 2000s can be called).

Do you even know where Kalkaska is? It is a small, poor (but not as poor as Highland Park) rural community with a population of under 2300, located in Kalkaska County in the northwestern part of the Lower Peninsula. The school district is geographically (and populationally--yes, I know that is not a word, but I like it anyway) larger than the village of Kalkaska, with something closer to 13,000 residents. (I'm not sure of the boundaries so I can't be too exact.) 

Oh, and Kalkaska happens to be over 96% white.

So in some ways, Kalkaska is a mirror image of Highland Park. But they also have a lot in common. This article from the Ludington Daily News of March 6, 1993, "Kalkaska system on brink of early closing as funds run out," explains it nicely.

Kalkaska (and other districts, too, like Ypsilanti!) was under a lot of financial stress--and the district famously closed three months early, at the end of March, in 1993.

And this "shot heard round Michigan," (if not the world) created a lot of impetus for the development of Proposal A. And as we see now, Proposal A solved some problems, but it created a whole host of others.

In 2012, Highland Park is not the only school district faced with the possibility of closing. Only this time, rather than the decision being made by the people who live there, the decision would be made by the state.

And I wonder, will any of this be the necessary catalyst for change? And if not, why not? Would race have anything to do with it?


  1. How on earth did you find a Ludington Daily News article from 1993? Impressive.

    A good history lesson on the catalyst of Proposal A juxtaposed with Highland Park. Looking forward to seeing what the Gov does next; down 400 students since this Fall!

    Willow Run is next; especially considering a new charter is opening in the district next Fall. This, not long after they finally replaced their much maligned Superintendent and made big changes.

    What happens when school choice leads to a district left with a fraction of its former self and kids who can't make it to an alernative? In the case of Highland Park, there's not much time to find a solution. Either consolidation or the mysterious Education Achievement system would be my guess.


  2. Here are a couple more things to think about:

    1. The difference between Kalkaska and Highland Park is that Kalkaska schools reopened the next fall. If Highland Park closes its schools, I don't believe they will ever reopen. And yet--and yet--the taxpayers of Highland Park will still apparently be responsible for the debt. (I can't find the citation right now, but I know I heard that on the radio.) I'm not sure how that works either. Who or how do the debts get paid?

    2. In related news, Muskegon Heights schools (also an impoverished, majority black, urban district completely surrounded by other schools), is also being threatened with closing. The neighboring school districts have been asked to prepare to take their students if they close--and those superintendents are not too happy about that. "Muskegon Superintendent Jon Felske said taking Muskegon Heights students in March would be a financial hardship for Muskegon, because the district wouldn't receive additional per-pupil state aid for them."

    Read more in this Muskegon Chronicle article:

    Common Cents,

    I found the Ludington article through google news (it's linked above if you are interested)--it's scans of each page--although when I tried to recreate the search this evening I couldn't find it.

  3. That should read that Muskegon Heights is completely surrounded by other cities (and school districts).

  4. It seems the current storm including a decade of economic decline and schools of choice are really testing Proposal A. But, considering the decline in Property values it seem doubtful we'd be any better off without it.

    In the case of Highland Park, where 40% of the students come from Detroit; what percentage of Highland Park residents attend other districts and charters. Without schools of choice and the Detroit kids, would their decline have been even sooner?

    Something's gotta give here. The state either has to fund these schools to the end of the year or really prop up the Education Achievement System - I don't think we've heard anything about the EAS funding. The demands on that state budget surplus are growing.

    Imagine a student switching school in March, you have to wonder if there's any point other than just having a place for the student to go. Once they settle in, the year will be over and who knows where they will end up next year? Plus, with no additional funding provided, what are they going to do - stuff kids into classrooms and hope for the best?


  5. What the heck does skin color have to do with this? Nothing!! Put away your race card.

  6. I believe race has a lot to do with it--and I wrote partially about why in my MLK post. Detroit has one of the most segregated housing stocks in the country and disinvestment in neighborhoods that are majority African American is well documented.