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In Buena Vista, a school district's future hangs in limbo

Sarah Hulett
Michigan Radio

State officials announced over the weekend that they will lend money to Pontiac schools, and avert a payless payday there this week.

But there’s still no resolution in Buena Vista Township, where the school system abruptly shut down after running out of money a month before the end of the school year. So teachers, parents and students in the tiny school district near Saginaw are trying to figure out what to do next.      

“I hope the school district can work something out there,” Gov. Rick Snyder said late last week about a plan to educate Buena Vista’s 400 students.

But it's far from clear that administrators in Buena Vista will be able to do that.

“I don’t have that authority,” Superintendent Deborah Hunter-Harvill told reporters when asked when students might be allowed to return to school. Harvill pointed to school board President Randy Jackson, who said, “It’s going to take some money to do that.”

The state put a hold on aid payments to recoup money it gave the school system to run a program that it, in fact, did not run. Buena Vista also needs to repay the state about $2 million in loans by August.

“I just don’t have authority to fix it,” state schools superintendent Mike Flanagan told WJR.

No closure

There is one group of people who offered a solution to this mess. Buena Vista teachers offered to work for no pay so they could see their students through the end of the year.

But the school district declined that offer. So Marci Karwat and the district’s 26 other teachers are gathering their belongings, and wondering what’s next. Karwat teaches kindergarten. She’s been with Buena Vista schools for 17 years.

Things ended so abruptly, there’s still classwork from students that hasn’t been picked up.  She’s rented a storage unit to hold all the posters, crayons, marbles and other gear she’s bought over the years until she figures out what her future holds. But it’s not her future she’s most worried about. She says she hates the way things ended for her kids. Five- and six-year-olds who went home on a Friday just like any other, and who had no idea that that was it. No end-of-the-year parties. No saying goodbye.

“I think the kids at the high school knew more. Our kids didn’t know,” Karwat said as she packed up her classroom. “This is very sad. Because we just haven’t had a chance to say goodbye.”

An uncertain future

The Buena Vista school board has a plan it hopes will keep the district from vanishing altogether. It calls for closing the elementary and middle schools. But some parents say they’re not thrilled about the idea of young students in the same building with high-schoolers.

“Next year I have to transfer them somewhere,” said Thomas Darby of his two kids in Buena Vista schools.

But some families aren’t waiting that long.

Antjuane Cooper sits at a table with a stack of photocopied worksheets from his new, Saginaw district middle school, where he’ll finish out his sixth grade year.

“It’s crazy that I’ve got to go to another school, and there’s only like 30-some more days of school left,” he said.

If enough parents decide to do what Cooper’s parents did, that will speed the death spiral that’s already gripped Buena Vista.

And hanging onto its existing students – let alone attracting new ones – gets more difficult for Buena Vista every day its doors remain shut.

The Buena Vista school board has requested a state review that could wind up with the district being run by an emergency manager. But that process takes months, and that doesn’t help the 400 displaced students who are missing classes today.

Sarah Hulett is Michigan Public's Director of Amplify & Longform, helping reporters to do their best work.