Farmington Hills chief: Repurpose, close three schools

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Farmington Public Schools should close or repurpose three schools, including a high school, the superintendent said Tuesday, unveiling his recommendations for downsizing the district.

After about a year of discussions and recommendations from two school committees as well as input from community forums about how to deal with the district’s status, Superintendent George Heitsch released his suggestions to the school board to offset the district’s declining enrollment.

“I believe, and the enrollment numbers demonstrate, that the continued projected enrollment decline has created excess student capacity in the system,” he said.

District enrollment has dropped 12.3 percent since 2000, while the district’s revenue fell nearly $15 million from 2006-14.

Two community forums on the plan are scheduled this week before the board is set to vote on it March 15, according to the district.

The schools Heitsch targeted for closure are Harrison High School, Dunckel Middle School and Highmeadow Common Campus, an elementary school.

The process of closing Harrison High would begin by having current eighth-grade students choose either Farmington High School or North Farmington High, Heitsch recommended. Harrison students would continue for 2016 and through the 2017-18 school years, according to the proposal presented Tuesday night.

“The current Harrison High School freshman class would be the final graduating class from Harrison High School in June 2019, completing their senior year as a ‘school within a school,’ at one of the two high schools,” read a memo the superintendent sent to the board Tuesday.

Meanwhile, as part of the plan, Farmington Central High School is expected to relocate to the Harrison site in the 2017-18 school year.

Before deciding on the proposal, board member Sheilah Clay said she and her colleagues hope to gather more input from Harrison parents and students.

“We want to hear their voice and what they think should be done,” she said after the meeting. “We have a short window right now.”

Also as part of the plan, Dunckel would be repurposed for a K-8 Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) academy, an idea that received strong support in a survey of parents and the community, Heitsch said. Transition would begin in the fall of 2017, and current seventh-graders would complete eighth grade there.

“We propose asking families of current seventh-grade students for feedback on staying at Dunckel as a one-grade school or transitioning to a 6,7,8 middle school,” Heitsch wrote in his plan.

“If a majority indicate to us that they prefer to transition to a middle school, we would implement this change for the fall of 2016,” he said.

In addition, the plan calls for Highmeadow to be repurposed as an early childhood center, combining the ones now at the Alameda and Farmington Community School early childhood centers, with its program moving to Dunckel as a STEAM K-8 Academy.

Heitsch’s recommendations differ slightly from the work of the Building and Site Utilization Committee, which has suggested closing two to five schools.

The proposal also incorporated parts of an administration draft plan the board reviewed last month, which had called for Highmeadow becoming an academy, Dunckel closing and Harrison to be “phased out” by enrolling future classes at Farmington and North Farmington High, then close at the end of 2017-18.

A decision on the closings had not been expected until after grade configurations were finalized.

In December, based on an earlier recommendation from the superintendent, the board unanimously voted to return district schools to a K-5, 6-8, 9-12 arrangement. Current fourth-graders were expected to remain in their elementary schools as fifth-graders for the 2016-17 school year, according to the district website.

Heitsch said the three schools on the chopping block would be repurposed “to be better used in the community and be fiscally responsible with our limited dollars.”

He added in his letter to the board: “I believe that it is important for the emotional and financial health of the system to make this decision and begin implementation for next fall.”

After the presentation Tuesday, Clay and other members had questions about the plan — including whether it would address the district’s $11 million funding shortfall.

“We want to make sure this closes the gap,” she said.

The community forums on the plan are scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday at Maxfield Education Center, 32789 W. 10 Mile, Farmington and 10 a.m. Saturday at the Dunckel Middle School cafeteria, 32800 W. 12 Mile, Farmington Hills.