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Financial emergency over for Muskegon Heights schools; will continue on “autopilot”

Muskegon Heights High School
Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio
Muskegon Heights High School

The financial emergency in Muskegon Heights schools is over. That’s according to Governor Rick Snyder and the emergency manager who’s leaving the district.

Ann Storberg works for Michigan’s treasury department and will serve on a Muskegon Heights schools’ Receivership Transition Advisory Board.

She says Highland Park schools is now the only entity under emergency management.

“At some point in time we’d love to have the conversion like we had here; transition back to local control. We’re just not there yet.  But that certainly is the goal,” Storberg said.

Snyder's officeannounced Friday that a Receivership Transition Advisory Board has been appointed to ensure a smooth transition to local control. The district's emergency manager Steve Schiller notified the governor last week of his determination about the district's improving finances. This is the first RTAB that’s been appointed for a school district.

Snyder says in a statement this marks "a new day for Muskegon Heights."

A financial emergency was declared in 2012. The emergency manager at the time laid off most all employees and set up the Muskegon Heights Public School Academy, a charter school authorized by the district.

(Listen: "Tiger Pride" a State of Opportunity documentary about Muskegon Heights schools)

Since then, the state says the district's deficit has declined $9.9 million to a projected $2 million earlier this year.

Storberg says the “primary reason” for the deficit reduction is the more than $12 million in low interest loans the state gave the district. The district has up to 30 years to pay those loans back through local property taxes.

So while the school board in Muskegon Heights now technically has local control, the district must continue to authorize a charter school to educate kids ...

So while the school board in Muskegon Heights now technically has local control, the district must continue to authorize a charter school to educate kids, at least until it pays off all the money it owes the state of Michigan. That will take another 25 years or so.

Officials note revenue and expenditures are now more predictable. They were able scale down the number of buildings the district owns. These factors combined have allowed the district to run “on autopilot” Storberg said.

Student enrollment has declined, but not as dramatically. Unofficially, 760 students are enrolled this school year.

The Public School Academy the elected Muskegon Heights school board authorizes has its own 5-member board. When their terms are up, the elected school board will appoint the members of the charter district. That used to be something the emergency manager did.

Alena Zachery-Ross has served as superintendent since the state takeover. She says she has no intention to leave and is excited to work with both the elected school board and the board members it appoints to the charter school system.

“We will together show the community that we are here to serve the students. The more that they feel listened to… and that we are making the academic gains they’ll come back,” Zachery-Ross said.

After almost 10 years of uncertainty in the district, she hopes this is the start of a period of stability, even growth for the school district, and Muskegon Heights as a whole.

“I see this as a catapult. We have turned, we’ve turned the page,” she said.

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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