To Improve Deficit Elimination Plan, Muskegon Heights Board of Education Makes Cuts, Privatizes Positions, Transfers Some Services to MAISD

Andrew Trzaska | January 23, 2012

Around 100 people the Muskegon Public Schools Board of Education meeting Monday night in anticipation of further information regarding the district’s financial state and the likelihood of an emergency financial manager being assigned to them.

Though given an extension last month, the district’s deficit elimination plan is due to the state in 10 days.

Thus began a meeting that lasted over 2 hours and involved many important votes that made some dramatic cuts and restructuring for the district.

The board made decisions regarding some of the cuts in a closed session that happened in the early part of Monday’s meeting and lasted over one hour.  Interim Superintendent Dave Sipka of the Muskegon Area Intermediate School District addressed the public of the need for the final review before the night’s action items received a vote.

Joy Robinson, leader of the teachers union for the district, led an impromptu prayer and song session as the public waited for the board to come back.

“Whatever is happening, we need to stay together prayerfully,” said Robinson to the room while the board’s closed session neared the 45-minute mark.

At 9:05, approximately one hour and twenty minutes after entering closed session, the board returned and began its votes on a list of matters. All votes were out of 6 votes instead of the typical 7, as board trustee Nate Johnson was ill and not present at Monday’s meeting.

  • The district’s receptionist and substitute locator will be eliminated in favor of using PESG, a service used widely in the county for finding substitute teachers. The district will eliminate its computer technician position as well. Both were voted through unanimously.
  • Also in a unanimous vote, the board approved moving the district’s business services department to the Muskegon Area Intermediate School District (MAISD) “as soon as possible.”
  • The board voted to privatize the district’s custodial services, with Enviroclean as the winning bid. Pioneer received the district’s privatized transportation contact in Monday’s vote.  PCMI will now provide clerical services for the district as well.  Interim superintendent Dave Sipka indicated that the district had requested from the three companies that they give those formerly employed by Muskegon Heights a chance to keep their jobs under their umbrella of employment.  On all three privatization votes, trustees Kassandra Kitchen and Trinell Scott voted no, meaning all three votes passed 4-2.
  • The district’s Board of Education building will be closed as soon as possible and remaining staff will relocate to Muskegon Heights High School.  The vote to close the building was unanimous.
  • Retiree health insurance through MESA will be eliminated, with suggestions for retirees to move to another plan.  Trustee Scott voted no on this item.
  • While the programs would remain in the City of Muskegon Heights, the board voted to transfer administration staffing and costs of the district’s Great Start and Head Start program to the MAISD.  Sipka stressed that the students in these two programs would remain within the district’s buildings even though the program leadership would be sourced elsewhere.  Trustee Scott was the lone vote against this measure as well.

As a sum of the above votes, the district voted to submit its revised deficit elimination plan to the state before the February 3rd deadline. Trustee Scott chose to vote against the submission of the plan as revised.

Sipka explained the dire situation the district is in: “As of today we believe the debt is $12 million in the school district and it causes us to do a variety of things. I am sure the board did not want to decide some of the things they had to tonight, but this is what this board and others around the county have had to do with declining enrollments and growing costs including retirement and health insurance”

The cuts voted on Monday night will save the district just over 1 million dollars in the next year, and a total of approximately $4 million over two years.

Board President Avery Burrell said he was nervous for what would come back from the state after February 3, but defended what the district had to do: “I believe we’re going to get through this.  This community needs [the district] but we need to be responsible. There are things that we should never not know again. We have to know these things now.”

Among the several public comments at the end of the meeting, a concerned parent questioned information disseminated by other news sources stating that other districts in Muskegon County refused to accept Muskegon Heights students in their districts if Muskegon Heights had to close.

Sipka and Burrell denied that sentiment was expressed by other districts.  Instead, Sipka indicated that in a meeting last week, representatives from other districts were reluctant to take on students from the Muskegon Heights because they did not want to further compound the financial woes of the district.

Other public comments covered many topics. Most notably, on a mention of possible future staff concessions made during the meeting, Joy Robinson claimed to speak on behalf of the staff: “I feel [the staff] are all victims and we are suffering for poor decision-making… we’ve been raped.”

The State of Michigan will receive the district’s deficit elimination plan upon submission in the coming days.  The state will review the plan next month and either approve it or deny it and order more cuts from the district. Either way, the cuts and reorganization moves made Monday will remain in effect.

Andrew Trzaska

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