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The superintendent of Garden City Public Schools is under fire for racial references she made while addressing a staff meeting Monday.

The district is grappling with financial difficulties and Dave VanDeWater, a teacher at the district's high school, said in an email that Michelle Cline told the group she did not want it to become "the first white school that failed."

VanDeWater, whose LinkedIn site says he is also in education management, said Cline referenced Inkster and Buena Vista as "black districts" that have closed.

Cline defended her comments Tuesday, saying she was making a larger point about the state's crisis in public school funding.

VanDeWater did not return a request for comment. But in an email to The Detroit News, he wrote: "To me, the only reason to make racial comments about the districts at all would be to say that those districts failed because they were black. There's no other value in determining the district by race.

"I'm not sure how newsworthy this information is but it certainly is not sitting well with the staff of GCPS! I imagine the community that is made up of people of varying races may not want to send their children to a district deemed by the superintendent as a 'white district.'"

In an email to The News Tuesday morning, Cline acknowledged making remarks "similar" to those reported by VanDeWater. The staff meeting was held while students were off for Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

"I was telling them we were in jeopardy of losing our state aid payment and that would mean we could make payroll for 4-6 weeks if that happened," Cline said. "The reaction from the group was one of disbelief that this would happen to us. I said 'I will not let us be the first predominantly white district to close.'

"A teacher responded from the audience, 'this is not about race,' Cline continued. "I said you are right, however the reality is the ones who have been dissolved such as Inkster and Buena Vista are predominantly black, do not think that this cannot happen to a school that is predominantly white."

She added: "There is a bigger story here. This just came to the attention of the media because we are in contentious negotiations right now. This was a comment about race, not a racial comment."

Cline said the district ended 2013-14 with a $606,000 deficit and expects a shortfall of $4.5 million by the end of the current fiscal year unless it wins concessions from employees. She said the state has rejected Garden City's deficit elimination plan because the district doesn't have tentative contracts with its unions.

"Nobody is taking the pattern of public schools going down seriously," Cline said. "There is an attack on public education. Public schools have been dissolved, but is anybody listening?"

She also cited Muskegon Heights and Highland Park, districts that were turned over to charter operators, and noted that Detroit and Pontiac schools are run by state-appointed emergency managers.

"All the districts cited are impoverished districts that are predominantly black," she said. "There is apathy, and I wonder if that is because the districts that have gone down are predominantly black. I wondered if the staff thought this wouldn't happen because Garden City is predominantly white. Nobody seems to care about the predominantly black schools. The people in the audience didn't seem to believe we could go under. Is that because we are predominantly white? That was why I said what I said."

slewis@detroitnews.com

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