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Muskegon Heights students hope for less "chaos" as they return to class today

Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio

Muskegon Heights students are heading back to class today to begin the second half of what’s been a very turbulent school year.

This story is the first in a four-part series about how things are going so far in Michigan's first fully privatized public school district. Find part two here, part three here, and part four here. 

Old district “implodes” after years-long financial problems

The school board in Muskegon Heights battled a budget deficit for at least six years in a row. They gave up the fight a year ago and asked the state to just take over. 

“The system that was in place imploded,” said Don Weatherspoon, the guy the state eventually sent in late April to be the emergency manager.

"Enrollment went down, costs went up, they borrowed more than they could pay back; you’re on a collision course with disaster and that’s what happened," Weatherspoon explained. Student enrollment is a big factor in how much money a school district receives from the state.

“Everything that you can think of basically broke down. Discipline, learning, record-keeping, financial accounting, etc,” Weatherspoon said.

By May, Weatherspoon discovered the district is more than $16 million dollars in debt; so much debt it couldn’t afford to open school in the fall.

Privatization “the only option” for viable 2012-2013 school year

The Michigan Department of Treasury and Governor Rick Snyder appointed Weatherspoon to avoid bankruptcy, so that was not an option. No other school district in the area wanted to merge with Muskegon Heights because then they’d have to take on the district’s massive debt.

So Weatherspoon did something different, something that’s not been done before in Michigan.

First, he laid off all the employees. The old emergency manager law allowed this.

From there it gets a little more complicated; but really, Weatherspoon had the power to create a new Muskegon Heights school district (the Muskegon Heights Public School Academy), authorized by the original one he’s been appointed to run (Muskegon Heights Public Schools) . The new school district is in the same area but it’s a totally separate, new, charter school district with its own school board that Weatherspoon appoints.

Most importantly, the new district has zero debt.

“Chaos” reins in rush to build a school system in less than 60 days

By early July the new school board hires MosaicaEducation Incorporated, a charter school company, to run the schools. Class begin less than 60 days after the contracted was signed. The first month or so of classdid not go smoothly.

“At first when we got here, what was it  like? I don’t know, like, ‘crazy’ yeah it was crazy…” a group of high school students told me.

“It was just mayhem,” one former elementary teacher said.

“It was confusing. It was chaotic,” two other students chimed in. "A hot mess," another one said.

“Very chaotic. And chaos seems to be the word of choice to describe, not only that day, but all the other days,” another former teacher, Susan Strobel said. And she was right; nearly every person I interviewed uttered “chaos” or some form of the word to describe those 60 days before class started and up to the first 60 days or so once school started.

The high school principal quit before training was over. High school students didn’t get their class schedules for weeks and when they did, many had missing classes or the wrong classes.

Local clothing stores ran out of school uniforms because they didn’t have enough time to stock them (or weren’t informed at all the district was requiring uniforms). Cleaning and school supplies arrived late.

The school buildings were not up to state building codes for safety. The company had to invest more than $400,000 in building improvements to attain a "temporary occupancy" permit from the state. It lasts through March.

Daryl Todd says he was “very frustrated" during that time. He's a MHPS graduate who's optimistic that good opportunities can sprout from such challenges.

Credit Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Arthur Scott, Carmella Ealom, Darryl Todd (left to right) were appointed by MHPS emergency manager Don Weatherspoon to make up a new school district; the Muskegon Height Public School Academy.

He’s one of three members on the new school board. When I talked to Todd just a few weeks ago he hesitated to say the chaos was over yet.

“I don’t necessarily feel that there’s a calm right now," he said with a chuckle. "Because I know that there are so many things that are happening that need to come together so that we can have this be a successful year,” Todd said. However, he does feel things are beginning to show some improvement.

Darryl Todd (9).mp3
Reflections from MHPSA school board member Darryl Todd on how things are going so far this year.

As a decent example of some of the chaos, near the end of our chat at one of the district’s elementary schools, the woman from the front desk comes over the loud speaker. She announces “we are very short-staffed right now and zero people who are able to go into the lunch room.”

Teachers are instructed to feed their students in their classrooms or accompany them to the cafeteria.

“Wow…interesting” Todd says, closing his eyes as we pause to listen to the voice apologize for the inconvenience and promises to teachers to make up for the lost prep time.

“We will make it up to you; I promise, promise, promise,” the voice on the loudspeaker says.

Keeping teachers under such chaotic conditions is hard. More than one in four have quitso far this year.

I couldn’t get any current teachers to agree to a recorded interview.

Mary Valentine, one of the district’s most vocal critics, was not surprised.

“Teachers who are working over there are willing to say there are a lot of problems and there’s a lot of morale problems but they won’t say it out loud and they don’t want you to use their names because they are afraid of losing their jobs,” Valentine said. We’ll hear more from her later in this series.

And while those teachers are returning to work today, I did find some teachers who quit already and were willing to share their experiences. We’ll hear from themtomorrow.

Lindsey Smith is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently leading the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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