Flint weighs school closures as it grapples with special ed costs

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Flint — Skyrocketing special education costs and debt are squeezing Flint Community Schools to the point its superintendent wants to close four of its 12 school buildings.

Superintendent Derrick Lopez said the district is facing a $5.7 million budget deficit stemming from $3.6 million in special education costs not covered by the state and $2.1 million in legacy debt, which together have forced the district to enter into a deficit elimination plan.

Students from a school proposed for closure appear at Tuesday's meeting for Flint Community Schools, asking the school board to keep it open.

Fueling the district's economic problems is the fact that 24% of the 3,750 students in Flint Community Schools are designated as special education, a number that is nearly twice as high as the 13.2% statewide average.

“The district's current financial hardship is a result of longstanding loans to be repaid, in combination with a disproportionate number of students requiring special education services, compared to state averages,” Lopez said.

The number of special education students in Flint schools has substantially increased from just below 15% in the 2014-15 school year — as Flint's water crisis began — to 24% currently, a figure provided by Lopez.

The closure talks come after observers raised concerns that Flint Community Schools isn't able to handle the increased volume of special needs kids from the lead fallout.

Flint's water was contaminated with lead when officials used corrosive river water from April 2014 to October 2015 that wasn't properly treated. In children, lead exposure can result in serious effects on IQ, ability to pay attention and academic achievement. 

As result, the drinking water taps remain shut off across the district. Students and staff drink from water coolers and some schools have filters.

The proposal to close schools — two elementary, a junior high and a high school — and repurpose four buildings was presented to the public for review on Tuesday at a special school board meeting in Flint. Lopez said he is committed to finding a path forward that does not compromise on classroom sizes or resources available to students.

Lopez said on Tuesday rumors that some schools could close by the end of this year are not true. If the board approves the plan, schools would operate through June 30 and consolidation would take place over the summer.

The district also is not facing payless paydays, Lopez said.

What is true, Lopez said, is the state of Michigan allocated $4 million a year in block grants for three years for Flint Community Schools after the water crisis, but the money has gone to the Genesee ISD and used for early childhood education programs, not K-12 student needs.

Lopez's plan calls for reducing the district's building capacity, altering bus routes, reducing costs in utilities, staff and central office personnel. There are no plans to cut teachers other than through attrition.

Schools under consideration for closure

  • Eisenhower Elementary School (grades K-6)
  • Pierce Elementary School (grades K-6)
  • Flint Junior High School (grades 7-8) at former Northwestern High School
  • Accelerated Learning Academy (grades 7-12) at former Scott School

Board secretary Betty Ramsdell said the Flint district's deficit has to be addressed because if it is not, the state can come in and close the district or install an emergency manager.

"I would love it if we didn’t close any schools. Nothing is written in cement," Ramsdell said. "… This is a start. It breaks your heart we have to make a decision."

Flint's situation comes as another urban district, Benton Harbor Area Schools, is attempting to turn around its finances. School officials from the southwestern Michigan district and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer began talks in May to find a way to operate the district and address its significant academic and financial challenges. The district has $18 million in long-term debt.

Whitmer initially pushed to close the district's two high schools in 2020 in lieu of districtwide closure. But recently, state school superintendent Michael Rice said Benton Harbor's high schools — a main high school and a small alternative school — should not be shut down.

In Flint, roughly 75 residents and others packed the school board meeting on Tuesday, urging school officials to be careful with their decision or to do a feasibility study to understand the financial and capacity issues in the district.

Flint resident Carolyn Shannon said she came to pour her heart out to the board.

"I come to you with my heart in my hands," Shannon said. “I love the schools. I love our children. Do not close our hearts. Please save the heart of our community."

Vee Stewart, a school psychologist in the district, urged the board to listen to the community as residents pleaded for their schools and services for students.

"Please don’t place the financial blame on these children's shoulders. They already have enough to deal with. Please listen to the community this time," Stewart said.

An attorney representing a group of Flint parents, who in 2016 filed a lawsuit against the Michigan Department of Education for its failure to comply with special education laws, said problems with meeting the needs of special education students persist years later and despite months of settlement talks, the case is headed for a trial in the spring.

“We think the most recent development reinforces what we have said: Flint simply does not have the resources necessary to provide students with special needs the programs and resources they are entitled to under the law,” attorney Greg Little said.

In the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Detroit, attorneys from the ACLU Fund of Michigan, the Education Law Center and White & Case law firm allege the state education department, the Genesee Intermediate School District and Flint schools failed to provide adequate financial and staffing resources and support to help Flint schoolchildren meet the challenges they were facing in getting special education services.

Flint resident Arthur Woodson speaks  about the need for special education teachers at the Flint Community Schools meeting Tuesday.

Arthur Woodson, a 48-year resident of Flint, noted the Flint water crisis has increased the district's number of special education students and their needs for specialized teachers who are trained to deal with behavioral problems.

"We was poisoned through no fault of our own," Woodson said. "We have a serious problem with our kids' behavior issues right now. We don’t have teachers who specialize in this problem."

Woodson said he thinks the superintendent is doing his best to make a bad situation better. If the district's financial problems are not addressed soon, it could be disastrous, Woodson said.

Little said he thinks the Genesee Intermediate School District, which he says has a $15 million fund balance, should step in to assist Flint with an increase in special education funding.

"Why hasn’t GISD reduced its fund balance to put more money into providing special education programs and services for Flint kids, both in FCS and in other districts in the county serving those kids?" Little said.

John Miller, an attorney representing GISD, said intermediate school districts are not an independent funding source in the state of Michigan with one exception. The majority of money is distributed based on formulas from the federal and state government and is not controlled by the intermediate school district, Miller said. 

An ISD millage is first used to fund the “countywide” center-based programs for special needs students, Miller said. The remainder is distributed based on student counts across the county.

"Historically, FCS has received more of these funds than any other district in the county," Miller said. "The GISD operates the center-based programs for the benefit of all disabled children including Flint Community Schools. These center-based programs provide educational services to students with profound disabilities."

Miller said a majority of students exposed to lead do not attend Flint Community Schools.

"Most of those students are now at other districts," Miller said.

In 2018, enrollment was roughly 4,500 students. Flint schools had 47,000 students in 1968.

During the meeting on Tuesday, board members discussed what they say are funding inequities at Flint Community Schools, including a formula that bases the amount of funding for special education services on the number of general education students in a district, not the number of special education students.

Board treasurer Casey Lester said that means a district that has fewer special education students than Flint actually can get more special education funding.

"We are essentially losing from the state and ISD. We have less money to take care of our special needs children," Lester said.

Board vice president Blake Strozier said he was part of a group that went to Lansing last week to speak to the Michigan Department of Education over a proposed deficit elimination plan by the district. 

"The state said they are going to help us. Are they going to help us?" Strozier asked Lopez.

Lopez responded he did not know what help the state would provide Flint schools.

MDE and treasury officials have said Flint submitted a proposed deficit elimination plan and it was still being reviewed.

Meanwhile, board president Dianne Wright said she does not support closing any school.

“We have not done what our community has told us,” Wright said of past school closure meetings. “We should do everything in our power to find another way. If we shut everything down to what we have, where do we grow?”

Maha Khrais, whose mother works at Eisenhower, asked board members Tuesday whether they had considered the families who moved to the neighborhood around the school for its English-as-a-second-language programs.

Khrais, surrounded by children from the school holding signs asking for their school to be saved, said these children were the future of Flint.

“Are we to shuffle them time and time again? These people have moved their families all over for a good education. Has this vulnerable population been given consideration?” Khrais said.