Extended Coverage: Questions Posed At Muskegon Heights Public Schools Town Hall Meeting

Andrew Trzaska | February 15, 2012

Wednesday’s public meeting regarding the present and future of Muskegon Heights Public Schools featured many handwritten questions from those in attendance.  Provided below are summary answers and quotes from Muskegon Area Intermediate School District and Muskegon Heights interim superintendent Dave Sipka:

 

What can I do to help: Focus on your students and their education.  Be role models to students: “They need African-American role models. They need Caucasian role models. We’re in this together.”

Will the school survive until the end of the school year: “We have so many people that are working so that this district survives not just this year but into the future.”

“Can I give you any guarantees tonight? No I can’t. But we wouldn’t be here tonight if we weren’t working to make sure this district survives this year and into the future.”

Who do we as citizens need to talk to: “We need to contact our state legislators and beg them, in whatever words, to make sure they are funding schools properly.”

Will the school district look different: Up to 85% of a district’s budget is based on the number people attending, and when a district shrinks the district needs to downsize accordingly.  Building realignment, staff shrinkage, changes in transportation are ways to deal with this, but Sipka noted the students’ direct instruction will get cut last:

“What we’re trying to do is keep it out of the classroom.”

Is my investment in Muskegon Heights Public Schools worth it: Yes. It is not just important for this 4-square-mile area.  It is for the whole county and the whole state.

“What is happening here is going to happen over and over again across the State of Michigan.”

Sipka stated that there are over 50 school districts across the state in deficit spending, often in urban areas where most industry has been lost in the past decade

Who does one talk to if they are compelled to get involved, and who should they talk to:  A signup at the meeting was taken and those not in attendance can contact the district for more information about involvement.

“St. Paul said we all have different gifts. Some of you are great writers, some are you are great at fundraising, some are great at sports and some are even great at stuffing envelopes.”

Why were teachers asked to take a 35% pay cut: The district has to submit deficit elimination plans to the State of Michigan but didn’t hold up their end of the bargain.  The last one submitted would get the district out of debt in 5 years, but the State said it wasn’t good enough – the state wanted 3 years.  The 35% pay cut was asked for because of the tough standards the state asked for.  If the plan wasn’t submitted, the district would have its state aid payment withheld, and the district would close immediately.

“That is becoming a reality across the state is that districts in financial trouble have to ask their staff to take cuts because we are in a business of people.”

How about fundraisers: Fundraisers are great but they won’t solve the problem.  Even if every graduating class raised $1,000 and there were 60 graduating classes, that would pay for one teacher.

Will Secretaries still lose jobs on February 24th now that the chosen privatization company PCMI has withdrawn their bid: The district is now talking with PESG out of Caledonia. Secretaries will be informed of new developments.

Can the district sell any of its buildings: Yes. Other districts are doing this.

Why did it take so long to make deep cuts: Nobody wanted to do it and make the tough decisions.  “That is probably not a good answer but it is a truthful answer.”

Will the board members resign: “There is a lot of finger pointing that is happening… I have worked through low times in a lot of districts. To become divisive at this point doesn’t help anything. What you are seeing these past few weeks is people trying to come over to make substantive changes, and the board was some of the first to do so.”

Is there an email address that ideas can be sent to: Sipka indicated an email address would be placed on the MAISD’s special district web page to collect ideas.

Why a takeover, why not a helping hand: Debate continues at the state level about emergency managers about whether they are needed. The board took a look at what was at hand and decided that drastic changes had to be made.

Who’s responsible for this situation: “We all are. You do elect a board… but ultimately it’s everybody. That’s why I’m encouraging you to stay positive.”

If the school closes early this year where will students go: That is currently not being focused on in lieu of focusing efforts on keeping the district open. If it happens, the MAISD board will decide where students will go, per the state’s revised school code, 380.2

Who currently pays the bills and employees: Last month the board voted to move finance and business operations to the MAISD. Marios Demitriou of the MAISD is highly involved in the process.

Has a district ever had its state debt obligations waived: It is hard. If one district gets theirs waived, other districts will ask too, and this wouldn’t be sustainable. The MAISD and Muskegon Heights Public Schools are working behind the scenes to alleviate what can be taken care of.

[For further coverage of the questions asked at the meeting, click here]

Andrew Trzaska

103.7 “The Beat” – local government beat reporter and political analyst