Highland Park school crisis divides Democrats, Republicans

In late February, the Highland Park School District faced the prospect of not being able to pay its staff, even though the district receives higher than average per-pupil funding: about $14,000. The district had been spending an even larger amount, about $16,000 per student, and was out of money and options.

In a matter of days, the Legislature passed a measure, House Bill 4445, that included a finish-the-year payment to any entity but Highland Park that took in Highland Park students or operated classes in existing Highland Park buildings. The measure passed on largely party-line votes after a particularly heated debate in the House.

On March 2, the reappointed emergency manager for Highland Park had signed a deal to have the Detroit school district operate Highland Park through the rest of the 2011-12 school year.

Bridge Magazine asked House Speaker Jase Bolger, R-Marshall, and House Minority Leader Richard Hammel, D-Mount Morris, to give their views on the resolution -- and on why the inability of a school district to pay its bills became such a heated topic at the State Capitol ...

Republicans voted
to help children; Democrats did not

By House Speaker Jase Boger

Recently, every member of the House Republican Caucus voted to support emergency funding to save the Highland Park School District students and allow them to complete their education this year. Once again, the caucus sent the message to all who would listen that we will not continue to do business the way Michigan has in the past.I was incredibly proud of my fellow caucus members that day, but I have never been as disappointed by partisanship as I was by the partisan politics played by the House Democrats.

Their walking away from students in need due to purely political concerns is undeniable. All but one Democrat voted against the money that would save the children of Highland Park from being put out on the street when their school district collapsed due to the district's mismanagement. Local leaders who had mismanaged the district's finances had failed these children, and now the Democrats representing them in Lansing were adding to that victimization.

Those who voted to throw away the children of Highland Park for political gain showed how insincere they are when they publicly call for more bipartisanship. Democratic leadership in the House was included in discussions and involved in problem-solving for the Highland Park schools from the beginning. The bill we approved was changed after consultation with House Democrats and addressed every one of the demands and goals they had made privately and publicly in order to support it.

Specifically, before the bill was voted on, House Democratic Leader Rick Hammel said publicly:  "I think the number one thing, no matter what, is the kids stay where they are at." Democrat Rep. Maureen Stapleton, who represents Highland Park students, said, "If there is success in another school district -- which is often the issue -- fine. But I think it should be up to those parents." Both of these criteria were explicitly met through the options we included in the bill.

The larger issue, however, is how to address the future of the Highland Park students and others like them who are being let down by adults unwilling to make tough decisions and be accountable to taxpayers. Years and, in some cases, decades of mismanagement in some communities and school districts are bringing those entities to the brink of collapse, from which only state intervention can save them. Without such intervention, it is likely that bankruptcy would follow, placing all taxpayers across Michigan at risk for repayment of those debts.

The Highland Park School District is a classic example of this mismanagement. The district has been receiving $14,000 per pupil in combined state and federal funding. This is in comparison to an estimated average of $9,800 per pupil at other school districts in Michigan. Clearly a lack of funding was not the problem, excess spending was.

Despite that disproportionate share of funding, the district still found itself in need of multiple hardship loans from the state, and even after these hardship loans, the district was still unable to meet payroll at the end of February.

Instead of seeking to help, Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, D-East Lansing, and Sen. Bert Johnson, D-Highland Park, sought partisan blame in claiming the failure of Highland Park schools was Republicans' fault. However, local residents and those closest to the situation clearly disagreed.

Doreen Larson, a math teacher at Highland Park Community High School, told a local newspaper the district is burdened with corruption and she supports someone new taking over the school. Keonia Ridley, 17, a student at Highland Park Community High School, told the same newspaper she thinks the issues start from the school board and an emergency manager is needed. She was quoted as saying, “We probably wouldn't be in this situation if they thought more about the students and put our education first.

The legislation approved for Highland Park schools put the children first, providing money that would follow them to another district or allow them to stay in the Highland Park school buildings if another school district or intermediate school district were operating them. We believed strongly in the principle that no more money should go to the district that got these students into this mess in the first place.

There is no excuse for the adults who let down the children of Highland Park, or those who refused to work to help those kids, whether those adults are in Highland Park or serving in the Democratic caucus in Lansing.

The reality is that after the Highland Park solution had been negotiated, the powerful union bosses could not have the Democrats vote for a bill that shows the importance of the emergency manager legislation. They could not be seen participating in validating an emergency manager or participate in a solution that involved an emergency manager.

I believe there is no question the legislative Democrats rejected education in favor of politics. Nevertheless, the House Republicans remain committed to standing up for what is right. We will continue to put children first, we will continue to turn this state around and we will continue do so with integrity

GOP 'fix' muddied
issue; left door
open to for-profits

By House Minority Leader Richard Hammel

Michigan House Democrats have never been opposed to early intervention with troubled school districts or municipalities to try to help them correct any financial problems.  The first two questions posed today are really meant for someone with financial expertise who has had a chance to examine the financial records of Highland Park.  The Legislature cannot and should not get in to the minutia of every district that is having difficulties.In my discussions about Highland Park, I focused on how the Legislature could best help students continue their education through the end of the year with as little disruption as possible. Remember, no one has complained that the classroom education is the big problem in Highland Park. It was mismanagement of the finances. So it made sense for the Legislature to find a way to pay the bills through the end of the year in a responsible manner and keep the kids in the classroom.

So the tenor of all my discussions in Lansing was to allow Highland Park children to finish the year at Highland Park and I thought legislators would be able to work out a solution that embodied that goal. Instead, a bill was presented to me at the last minute that included a multitude of other issues that did not need to be included.  Issues like starting a mid-year voucher system and allowing the state treasurer to pick any fiduciary he chose -- even possibly picking a for-profit company -- to manage the bills for Highland Park.

I was clear in stating the problems I saw in the legislation and clear in stating that I still thought we could reach agreement on the main goal. However, I was told take it or leave it. My caucus decided to leave it.  Not only was the "fix" for Highland Park not a fix, not a simple solution, and not focused on the immediate problem, but it was not a negotiation.

We were far from convinced in this instance.  Remember that vouchers have been defeated three times in public votes here in Michigan by an average of 69 percent-31 percent. And the Detroit schools, who were being pushed as a possible fiduciary and who since have signed a Memo of Understanding to fill that role for Highland Park have had their own financial problems. Their emergency manager has not engendered an atmosphere of trust and respect. I fail to see how shifting the financial responsibilities from one failing district to another that has yet to prove its mettle helps the public to have any confidence in finishing the rest of this school year.

The possibility of moving that responsibility to a for-profit company was equally as distasteful. Add to that putting on parents the responsibility of first deciding if they should move their children, then deciding where to take them, then arranging transportation and other details, and you have a very difficult situation that we are now asking the parents to solve.

No, what we ended up with is a flawed attempt to help which could move many students far from home and family to finish the year and leaves behind many other students who cannot transfer to other schools. Anyone with transportation issues, or special education students or other students with special circumstances or needs will be left behind.  They have no choice. But their school year will be disrupted as classmates leave and the end of the year becomes mired in uncertainty.

Democrats offered a simple solution that would have allowed the ISD to become the fiduciary, keep the Highland Park children in Highland Park classrooms, and work out bigger issues between now and the beginning of the next school year.  I stand by that as the most common sense and most cost effective and most importantly, least disruptive solution for the students.




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Allan Blackburn
Tue, 03/06/2012 - 3:25pm
It's interesting reading both of the replies above. What's truly amazing is that there really is only one party in control in Michigan today. We have a Republican Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, Attorney General, House and Senate. Why the blame game when the Democrats have been reduced to a bunch of the also ran?
Thomas W. Donnelly
Tue, 03/06/2012 - 5:33pm
It seems that two issues exist, one short-term and the other long term. Taking the long view, I think that a forensic account be hired/appointed to the district, paid for by state funds as a LOAN against next year's state aid. This step would locate the leaks in the district finances, not unlike the apparent theft of $200,000 + in Pontiac. Prosecution should follow. Perhaps the federal government should provide the forensic accountant and have him/her report to the federal government, since federal funds are used in this district. These steps would begin the overdue healing that needs to take place. In the short run, the Wayne County ISD should run the district through June, with the state picking up the tab. After the school year is concluded and the forensic accountant finds the holes in the boat, accounts with the state and the federal governments can be negotiated and put to rest. Don't jerk the kids around!