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On the opening and closing of schools - Jim Huggins
July 22nd, 2013
08:23 pm
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On the opening and closing of schools
Times in Michigan are interesting these days.  The state is balancing its budget; Detroit is filing for bankruptcy.  Lots of good news if you look for it; lots of bad news if you look for it.

Today's news was more in the "bad news" category.  The State of Michigan is closing the Buena Vista and Inkster school districts, due to financial distress.  Current students will be sent to surrounding districts.

As is to be expected these days, there's a lot of weeping and gnashing of teeth.  A decent part of the public wailing is partisan; the Republican governor and the heavily-Democratic teacher unions rarely agree on anything.  But a great deal of this deals with the politics of creating and maintaining communities --- and the passion that people have for their local schools.

I have connections to this story.  I attended elementary school in the Inkster school district (long ago).  Harrison Elementary doesn't exist anymore ... the school closed so long ago that I can't find out when it closed.  The building is now the home for a non-profit family services agency.   (It's amazing what you can discover on Google Maps.)

I attended Harrison Elementary from K-6.  In my final year, my parents made the decision that we needed to move to a better school district, and so we suddenly moved at the end of my 6th grade year.  I suspect we weren't the first family to do so, and we certainly weren't the last.  As far as I can tell now, what used to be a vibrant school district now has two elementary schools sharing a single building (?), a middle school, and a high school ... and not enough money to run even those few facilities.  Closing the rest of the district is probably the only option left.

We moved from Inkster to Livonia in time for me to start junior high school.  And once we got into high school, we discovered that the Livonia schools were approaching a financial crisis.  The baby boom kids had all grown up and left town, and there weren't enough kids in the district to maintain all the facilities therein.  And my high school --- Bentley High School --- was slated to be closed.

Now, the situation was nowhere near as dire as these recent events in the news --- but that's in part because those in charge had been proactive.  Half the elementary school buildings in the district had already been closed.  Half the junior high schools had been closed, and the 9th grade had been moved into the senior high schools in order to boost enrollments in the high school.  Still, even with all of that work, running four high schools in a district designed for twice as many students wasn't sustainable.   Bentley was the oldest building (built in the 40s), which meant that it cost the most to run and had the most maintenance issues.  The district could continue to spend money on an aging building that was growing emptier every year, or spend the same money on educating students.  And, as difficult as it was, the district made the choice to close Bentley and fully utilize the remaining three newer schools (built in the 60s).  My graduating class at Bentley was the very last one to graduate from the facility.  Years later, the facility was razed; a public recreation center now stands there.  (My dad still goes there and swims several times a week.)

This was not an easy decision to make for anyone.  Public meetings were filled with passionate parents who loved their school and wanted to see it continue indefinitely.  Bentley teachers probably suffered the worst ... they lost all seniority in their new buildings and had to start over again.  (Of course, the alternative would've been to screw over the existing teachers in the same buildings by downgrading their seniority, so what were they to do?)  It was a hard choice.  But The Powers That Be made the choice.  And, today, because of those hard choices, Livonia still runs three public high schools and the usual collection of feeder schools to maintain a healthy district.

Nobody likes to lose their schools.  I know; I lived through it.  But part of leadership is being able to make difficult choices.  We can spend money to heat half-empty buildings, or we can use it to educate students.  Everyone loves their local neighborhood school (as I did), but tell people that you need to raise their property taxes to pay for it, and folks will revolt.  Cutting costs means not spending money on stuff you used to spend it on --- like half-used buildings.  (The City of Detroit is about to learn this painful lesson.)

It is hard to make tough choices.  There's no immediate reward; all the rewards are reaped decades later.  I can only hope that people start thinking about these issues with a long-term perspective.

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