Grosse Pointe board votes to close 2 elementary schools

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News
The audience listens as the Grosse Pointe School Board discusses school reconfiguration plans Monday.

Grosse Pointe Farms — The Grosse Pointe board of education is closing two elementary schools and approved a K-4 and 5-8 reconfiguration for the district Monday night in a controversial downsizing plan.

The vote to close Poupard and Trombly elementary schools was 5-2, while the vote to reconfigure grades was 6-1.

“It feels like open heart surgery. Who wants to do this?” board vice president Margaret Weertz said of having to close schools. “We have to do this to get healthier to get to a better place.”

The reconfiguration will result in the move of all fifth grade students to three middle schools starting in the 2020-21 school year.

“Reconfiguration is needed to prevent further cuts to this district,” board member Christopher Profeta said.

Harvey Savage addresses the Grosse Pointe Board of Education during public comments of their meeting, Monday.

The vote came after state civil rights department director Agustin Arbulu urged the board Monday night to first adopt a "racially conscious" approach to reconfiguring schools before making any closure decision for the district.

"What we need to pay attention to are the internalized cultural beliefs, shaped by history, dominant culture ... racial isolation, structural segregation — that produces 'us versus them' mindsets," Arbulu said.

"This community is at a crossroad. The world is changing. It is becoming more diverse ... And with it comes changes and conversations which will make people uncomfortable. It is the process that needs to change. It needs to be inclusive, fair and transparent," Arbulu told the board.

Two unidentified women hug after finding out that two Grosse Pointe elementary schools, Robert Trombly Elementary and Charles A. Poupard Elementary, are now due to be closed.

The board proposed closing Poupard in the north end in Harper Woods and Trombly in the south end. Voting against the plan were Cynthia Pangborn and Profeta.

Poupard, which is a predominantly African American school, is 500 feet from Interstate 94, board president Brian Summerfield said. It is the district's only Title 1 school. 

“It’s frightening. It made my decision easy as far as Poupard goes,” Summerfield said. “There is no question in my mind. It’s probably unsafe for our students.”

Some parents were in tears after the vote. Helen Hannigan was upset with the decision by the board because it will close the school her two children attend, Trombly.

“I wish they all stated what their reasoning was to close the school,” Hannigan said. “We are owed that as a community and as parents whose school will be closed soon.”

More than 200 people attended the board's meeting at which several speakers urged the board to make a decision, saying the time had come to close schools that are half filled and move forward. Others encouraged the board to hold off on the decision and consider other options.

Last week, the Michigan Department of Civil Rights asked the Wayne County school district to hold off on its decisions amid allegations of racial bias, but Grosse Pointe Public School System Superintendent Gary Niehaus was unmoved by the request.

Pangborn had asked the board to delay the vote on reconfiguration to a K-4 elementary school and a 5-8 elementary school, saying the board should consider Arbulu’s comments and review his report.

“And come up with a better plan that does not tear apart our community,” Pangborn said. Her motion failed.

Citing findings from four public listening sessions and written comments from parents and community members, Arbulu told the district last week that the community perceives that the process for deciding the fate of the schools "lacked transparency" and the "effective involvement" of the people most impacted by the reconfiguration.

Arbulu recommended the school board take action to improve the process and ensure the concerns of all stakeholders were considered. Among the recommendations were to consider closing a middle school instead of closing one or more elementary schools and retaining the current grade configuration, and adopting a racial equity lens to guide the decision-making on reconfiguration.

Several board members have been targeted for recall as the result of the school reconfiguration that stems from declining enrollment K-12. They are Judy Gafa, Kathleen Abke and Christopher Profeta. A hearing to approve recall petition language is scheduled for Wednesday in Detroit.

Summerfield said he has no idea who or what group is behind the recall. He does not think the board members should be recalled.

"It’s a terrible distraction for the community," Summerfield said "I think all three of those members have worked hard and have had the best interest of students at heart."

Gafa, the board's treasurer, said she is not surprised by the recall attempt and understands that closing schools typically triggers such efforts.

"Part of me thinks it's an intimidation tactic so we don’t close whomever's school is behind this," she said. "We don’t know who is behind it. But it’s the democratic process."

The board's action Monday night comes after 15 years of declining enrollment and a move to restructure the district without opening its doors to Schools of Choice students.

Declining K-12 enrollment has meant financial losses for the affluent Metro Detroit district, school officials said. With each student equal to around $10,000 in school revenue, the district's average 100-student drop per year is $1 million lost. 

The Grosse Pointes' schools are not alone. Statewide K-12 student enrollment has been on the decline for years. Enrollment is forecast to drop another 10% through 2025 in southeastern Michigan.