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No football? No band? Muskegon Heights parents get few details about charter school plan

Muskegon Heights Public Schools Emergency Manager Don Weatherspoon heard from parents, alumni, teachers, and taxpayers during and after the meeting. He reassured parents a free neighborhood school will be open this fall.

But most had questions he couldn’t answer yet. Like, will there be band, art or athletics? Busing and special education services? Although he’d prefer it, Don Weatherspoon says he cannot make any guarantees.

Angela Ogden is one of more than 80 teachers who will be laid off at the end of this school year. She worries opportunities for special education and higher learning will be lost with the charter school system being proposed to replace the current district.

"If you don’t offer sports or band to some kids who might be their only viable option of getting a college scholarship, that’s a detriment to them. If you aren’t offering the quality of education that these children deserve, that closes doors,” Ogden said.

“It is very difficult to tell someone who’s invested so much of their life that you have to lay them off and that you’ve changed the course of their life forever,” Weatherspoon said of the more than 150 employees he laid off last week. “But that doesn’t mean that learning is going to stop.”

MEA President Steven Cook issued this in a written statement about the plan.

“The staff’s dedication and professionalism is being replaced with a for-private charter school management company whose only goal is to make a profit. Within four days, these management companies are to submit a bid to take over the school district. How can anyone trust that the company will have the best interest of students and the community in mind when research shows that charter schools don’t perform any better than traditional schools and spend less money on instruction than their traditional counterparts? It’s preposterous to think that any reputable company can develop a sound, comprehensive educational plan that addresses the specific K-12 needs of the Muskegon Heights community in four days. This impossible timeline only reinforces the inadequacy of this plan and the educational quality that the community can expect from the for-profit charter selected."

Weatherspoon won’t have any detailed answers for parents and students about his plan until he signs an agreement with a charter school company to operate the school system. He says allowing a charter company to come in will provide more and better opportunities for students because the charter district can operate “debt free;" a “clean slate,” Weatherspoon said.

They could borrow money, for example, unlike the current district. Weatherspoon says any money the company borrows would be based on its assets, not the public school district’s.

A three-member board made of members he appoints will have some authority while the normal elected school board will keep its advisory role.

Weatherspoon says the plan will allow him to focus on paying down the district's deficit. He says he plans to work closely with the state treasurer to cut away at the $12.3 million budget gap.

Weatherspoon says he won’t know for sure what options students will have until a contract with a charter school company is signed. After the meeting he told reporters he believes he dispelled rumors but not fears, since there’s so much uncertainty about the plan. “Everything’s very fluid right now,” Weatherspoon said.

Proposals from charter school companies are due Friday. A tentative timeline has Weatherspoon signing a contract by mid-June.

Lindsey Smith helps lead the station'sAmplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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