Farmington moves to close high school, 2 others

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

As a Farmington Public Schools parent, Tammy Levitan has followed decisions administrators made and how those affected the district.

On Tuesday, she was dismayed by how three schools were identified for repurposing or closing as officials work to downsize the district amid declining enrollment and a funding shortfall. That’s why, before the board of education voted Tuesday night on a plan for the buildings, Levitan requested more analysis.

“I see no cost difference in closing one school over another,” she said to applause. “How can you make a decision if you have no facts and figures in front of you?”

The board approved closing Harrison High School for the 2019-20 academic year; closing Dunckel Middle School and establishing the Highmeadow Common Campus as a K8 Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) Academy there with 2017-18; and relocating preschool programming from Farmington Community School and Alameda Early Childhood Center to Highmeadow for 2017-18.

Superintendent George Heitsch this month unveiled recommendations to scale back the district with about 10,000 following an enrollment drop of 12 percent since 2000, an $11 million funding shortfall and revenue falling nearly $15 million from 2006-14.

After input from two community forums, the board voted Tuesday on tweaked proposals. The earlier recommendations, which came after nearly a year of planning, had called for a “soft” close at Harrison High, with current eighth-grade students choosing Farmington High or North Farmington High starting in the 2016-17 school year.

The measure Tuesday allows students to continue to enroll at Harrison until spring 2019; that fall, all district pupils attend the other high schools.

In reaching the decision about Harrison, some board members were emotional and even in tears. But they acknowledged what prompted the action.

“It’s not practical to keep three high schools,” Terri Weems said.

Board member Jessica Cummings added: “This is a difficult and challenging time for our district. ... We need to do what we can to provide an excellent education to all of our students.”

Heitsch told the audience that four elementary schools closed in 2010 amid declining enrollment and the district lost an estimated 1,000 students in the last four years. “Every student we lose is $10,000 we don’t have to spend on students,” he said.

The superintendent and the board also said recommendations had been adjusted based on community feedback. Responding to criticism that the panel wasn’t thorough in deciding on the school changes and that public forums were only “window dressing,” board member Sheilah Clay told the audience: “Do not think this is (taken) lightly.”

But some parents and residents cited concerns about class sizes, transportation and other issues.

“I can’t really understand. Did the Mad Hatter come up with your proposals? It sure seems like it,” said Mary Johnston, whose children attended the district. “This is arrogance beyond arrogance. You can’t continue with this. We’re not going to let you piecemeal destroy this school system.”

Others recognized the need to deal with fewer students. “No matter what decision you make, it’s a tough one,” said Sue Kahn, who worked with a committee that studied school closing options. “… In today’s world, it comes down to dollars and cents. If we react too slowly, I fear other cuts are going to be made.”