Sitting on the front porch of the Highland Park duplex she owns, Michelle Belton looked out on what used to be Cortland Elementary school.
A single mom who works the late shift in the office of a trucking company, Belton once enjoyed the convenience and safety for her children that the school provided.
But no more.
Cortland — located in a neighborhood littered with vacant lots and dilapidated, abandoned houses — was turned into a Head Start facility after the Highland Park School District closed the school in 2014.
By that point, Highland Park’s public school system had been under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager for two years, the result of a state takeover that was supposed to halt the decades-long decline of a district once renowned for providing its students with a high-quality of education.
Indeed, in almost every facet of public life, Highland Park — the tiny Detroit enclave where Henry Ford revolutionized the auto business by creating the assembly line to crank out his Model Ts — had long since fallen on hard times. And as the town struggled, ravaged by unemployment and plummeting population, so did its school system. The decline of the schools combined with the other woes to force Highland Park into a devastating and dispiriting downward spiral.
The appointment of an emergency manager wielding unfettered authority was hailed as a way to halt the school district’s precipitous decline. And, considering his much touted desire to run government like a business, Gov. Rick Snyder unsurprisingly selected certified public accountant Jack Martin to run the district in January 2012.
A former General Motors executive, Martin also served as CFO of the U.S. Department of Education during President George W. Bush’s administration. Martin also did a brief stint as vice president of White Hat Management, described by the newspaper group MLive as a “controversial for-profit company that runs charter schools in Northwest Ohio.”
Snyder immediately expressed strong support for his choice. “Given his understanding of the critical importance of education and his background as a CPA,” the governor said at the time of Martin’s appointment, “I’m confident Mr. Martin is well-suited for this post, and will work quickly and efficiently to address the financial emergency faced by Highland Park schools.”
Things fall apart
Unfortunately, things did not go as predicted by the governor for the 11,000 or so residents of Highland Park, a city where more than 93 percent of the population is African American and nearly 48 percent of residents live below the poverty line.
Setting off a revolving door of emergency managers, Martin lasted only a few months before, with Snyder’s approval, he moved on to a new job with the city of Detroit. Shortly afterward, Martin was named emergency manager for Detroit Public Schools, which has had its own revolving door of state-appointed leaders since 2009.
In all, the Highland Park School District has had five emergency managers at the helm over the 4 1/2 years it has been under state control.
Still, Highland Park’s public school system continued to disintegrate, finally reaching the point today where it barely exists at all.
For anyone seeking a measuring stick to assess the job done by the district’s emergency managers and the for-profit charter school company hired to run Highland Park schools, the most telling statistic may be this:
At the time of the takeover, the district had 969 students. Today, that number, according to the state’s school data web site, is 311 — a drop of nearly 70 percent. Moreover, all of the students attend the district’s last remaining school, which serves both elementary and middle school students.
Belton, who has three school-aged children, plans to soon join the ranks of those fleeing the district.
She’s fed up. With the blight. With the crime. With the utter abandonment of Highland Park.
But more than that, she’s thoroughly frustrated by what’s going on with the city’s school system. Nothing, she says, is more important to her than the education of her children.
“It is just horrible, horrible what they are doing to these kids in Highland Park,” Belton says. “The people in charge are not thinking at all about what’s good for our kids.”
A tale of two districts
The situation is, in many ways, a complicated one.
Operating under a paradigm similar to the new system created for Detroit Public Schools, there are two public school districts operating side-by-side in Highland Park.
One is the “old” district, known as the School District of the City of Highland Park.
That district is overseen by an elected school board that has virtually no power and nothing to do with governing the education provided to the city’s children.
The “old” district exists only to pay accumulated debt.
Just how much is owed?
School board members have been asking for that number. But, according to the state of Michigan, no one — including the emergency manager put in place by Snyder to ensure the debt gets paid off — can say exactly what it really is, because legally required financial audits haven’t been filed for the past two years.
A second, “new” district was created in 2012 by Joyce Parker, the second of five EMs appointed by Snyder to control education in Highland Park. This new district, unencumbered by the debt being paid off by the “old” district, was supposed to flourish because all per-pupil state funding was, ostensibly, able to go toward education and not toward satisfying the demands of bondholders.
However, in 2014, Michigan Radio reported that the new district was already facing a deficit of about $600,000, a shortfall attributed in large part to a continued decline in enrollment.
This new district — known as the Highland Park Public School Academy System — is operated by The Leona Group, a private, for-profit charter school management company with a checkered past.
This district, the one responsible for actually providing an education, has no elected board. Instead, a three-person panel appointed by the EM provides oversight.
As we said, it’s complicated.
But in one respect at least, as far as Belton is concerned, it is fairly simple.
“The schools are the major thing,” says Belton. “Education is important. Real important.”
That is why she’s planning to move.
“They’re not thinking about what’s best for the kids, and I’m just tired of it,” she says.
But the school system that she describes as a “real mess” will remain.
Just how much of a “mess” will be left behind isn’t at all clear, however — because the district’s finances are about as transparent as a brick wall.
Debating the debt
At a May public meeting attended by the elected Highland Park school board, Emergency Manager Steven Schiller showed up to provide a requisite update of the district’s financial picture.
As he prepared to begin, it was pointed out that the board lacked the quorum necessary to call the meeting to order.
“This is not a meeting of the Board of Education,” said Schiller. “This is my meeting.”
Instead of providing the board with a written report, he came armed with a PowerPoint presentation. If board members wanted something to hold in their hands, he told them, they were free to go to the district’s web site and print it out.
“I’m a stickler for putting all of our information on the web site,” said Schiller. “Everything is transparent.”
Perhaps, but there’s not much to see in Schiller’s report, which is severely pared down and largely boilerplate.
A sharply dressed man with slicked back hair, Schiller is polite, but not exactly expansive.
A longtime educator, he’d previously worked as a consultant to the state-appointed emergency managers overseeing the school districts in both Highland Park and Muskegon Heights.
Now Schiller is doing double duty as the emergency manager of both school systems.
According to the deficit elimination plan projected onto a screen, the district’s fund balance is $7.84 million in the hole.
Noticeably absent, however, was any information about the district’s total, long-term debt.
The question was asked: How much does that amount to?
John Lewis, the district’s fiscal control manager, was at the meeting with Schiller to help answer questions. Like Schiller, he pulls double duty, performing the same job in Muskegon Heights and Highland Park.
Asked about the district’s total debt during the meeting, Lewis said that he hadn’t come prepared to answer questions about long-term debt and provided no information about how deep the district’s financial hole really is.
At that point, both men were asked about the district’s failure to file legally mandated financial audits for the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 school years. The first was supposed to have been submitted to the state more than 18 months ago; the latter is nearly eight months late.
Given his expressed commitment to transparency, Schiller was asked why the audits haven’t been completed. He provided several answers. One explanation was that the cash-strapped district is committing its limited resources to paying its bills.
“We are here for the sole purpose of reducing the district’s debt,” Schiller said.
But the law still requires a financial audit be conducted annually and made available to the public. Why hasn’t that happened?
“There are multiple reasons why,” Schiller replied.
He pointed to steady EM turnover in the district. Since January 2012, when the district was taken over by the state, there have been five Snyder appointees in control of Highland Park schools. It started with Martin, who was followed in a matter of months by Parker. She lasted just six months before moving on to become emergency manager for the city of Allen Park. In November 2012, control of the district went to Donald Weatherspoon, who lasted less than a year before the job was given to his brother Gregory. In April 2015, the governor put control of the district back in the hands of Donald Weatherspoon.
Schiller, who had been a consultant to both Weatherspoons, became EM in 2016.
In addition to a rotating crew of emergency managers, the district has changed administrative offices four times as buildings were sold off or closed. So a lot of time has been spent moving from one site to another.
Along with the frequent shuffling of EMs and office space, another obstacle that stood in the way of a timely filing of the audits was the “disheaval” of the records, Schiller claimed.
However, the 2012-2013 audit was conducted and its results made public shortly after the November deadline. Schiller was asked during the public meeting if this fact suggested that, if one of the problems is a “disheaval” of the records, wasn’t the disarray at least partly the fault of emergency managers?
“It probably was the emergency managers’ responsibility,” Schiller conceded, before quickly adding that “we’re doing the very best we can.”
He promised that the audits would quickly be made available.
“One of my goals is to get those done as soon as possible,” he said.
As of June 28, they were still not done.
When the ACLU of Michigan attempted to follow-up with more questions regarding district finances, Schiller directed all queries to the Michigan Department of Treasury.
According to Treasury spokesman Jeremy Sampson, who provided answers to some questions, this is the district’s current financial situation:
“The fund balance deficit, or operating deficit, for Highland Park Public Schools (HPPS) is projected to be $7,845,072 at the end of fiscal year 2015-16.”
But that’s not the only red ink facing the district. According to Sampson, there’s also nearly $9.5 million in bond debt that’s owed, bringing the district’s total long-term obligations to just more than $17,245,000.
At least that’s the number Treasury is publicly sharing.
In a recent closed-door meeting with Highland Park Mayor Hubert Yopp and City Council President Rodney Patrick, Schiller reportedly disclosed to the officials that the school district’s total debt and long-term liabilities are well-over $30 million.
That’s according to Patrick.
Yopp did not return phone calls and email messages seeking his recollection of what he was told at the meeting.
Asked in an email about the apparent discrepancies between what the state is publicly disclosing and what Patrick said city officials were told behind closed doors, Treasury spokesman Sampson replied:
“As I understand it, the meeting that you reference between Mr. Patrick, Mayor Yopp, and Mr. Schiller was to discuss how they could work together for the betterment of the community. There may have been some figures discussed at this meeting; however Mr. Schiller made it clear that anything he discussed would be purely an estimate as the audit numbers were not complete … When the ’14-’15 audit is complete, we will have some updated numbers.”
But those “estimates” provided by Schiller certainly weren’t pulled from thin air.
What were they based on?
Sampson has yet to provide an answer to that question.
“None of this is making sense,” said Glenda McDonald, a former teacher and school board member now serving on the City Council.
Instead of coming in and stabilizing the district and then returning control to an elected board, the clear effect of emergency management has been to accelerate the exodus of students, driving them away to the point where there is hardly any district left at all.
McDonald is among those calling for an independent audit of the school district’s finances. But when the emergency manager controls the budget, it doesn’t matter what elected officials want.
It makes no sense that, with the district being stripped of nearly all of its assets, the financial hole — at least according to what Council President Patrick says he was told — keeps getting deeper.
“Why,” asked McDonald, “won’t they show us what they are doing with our money?”
There is no denying that the Highland Park School District was in bad shape financially and failing academically when the state took it over in January 2012.
A financial review conducted by the state prior to taking control found that, in the previous year, the district’s cumulative deficit increased by 51 percent, growing from $6.6 million to $11.3 million. Expenditures exceeded revenues by $3.8 million.
Students were fleeing the district in droves.
“The district’s pupil enrollment has decreased by 58 percent since 2006, dropping from 3,179 pupils to 1,331 for fiscal year 2011,” the state reported. “Current estimates show a pupil count of 969.”
And its finances were in free fall.
“Despite three special hardship or cash advances that totaled nearly $5 million over the past seven months, Highland Park Schools was unable to pay its teachers and staff for the third time on Feb. 24, 2012,” the state reported.
Adding to the district’s woes was school board member Robert Davis.
In April 2012, Davis, a union activist with a penchant for pursuing high-profile Freedom of Information Act cases, was accused of embezzlement by federal prosecutors.
After pleading guilty, he was sentenced to 18 months in prison for, according to a Detroit News article, stealing “almost $200,000 from the cash-strapped Highland Park schools and blew the cash at car dealerships, hotels, bars and a custom-clothing store.”
Finances weren’t the only problem facing the district.
Academically, things were so bad that the ACLU of Michigan filed a class action suit on behalf of eight of the district’s students.
“Less than 10 percent of the district’s students in grades third through eighth are proficient in reading and math, based on Michigan Education Assessment Program (MEAP) scores,” the ACLU of Michigan said at the time. “By 11th grade, students do not fare any better, with less than 10 percent of students scoring proficient in reading or math on the Michigan Merit Exam (MME). An independent evaluation to assess the reading proficiency of the plaintiffs found that students were reading between four and eight grades below their current grade level.”
The organization also cited “serious academic deficiencies caused by a documented lack of books, outdated materials, filthy classrooms and bathrooms.”
That attempt to use the courts to force change ultimately failed when, in November 2014, the Michigan Court of Appeals dismissed the ACLU’s suit in a 2-1 decision.
As Michigan Radio reported at the time of the ruling, Judge Kathleen Jansen, writing for the majority, said: “While there is little genuine controversy that the district defendants have abysmally failed their pupils, the mechanism to correct this failure is not through the court system … “
That ruling meant the fate of Highland Park’s public school students was firmly in the hands of Snyder’s appointees and a for-profit charter school company. According to a 2013 report produced by the nonprofit group Education Trust-Midwest, that charter school company, The Leona Group, “has among the worst track records in Michigan among traditional public districts or charter operators.” Although The Leona Group disputed those findings, it has clearly failed to keep, let alone attract, students in Highland Park.
The Leona Group didn’t respond to a request to comment for this article.
Unable to have any control over the district through an elected school board, residents were only left with one option: to vote with their feet.
“To me, we don’t even have a school board,” said parent Belton. “They don’t have any authority to do anything. At this point, my only power is to move out of the city.”
The disappearing district
“Over the last several weeks, I have grown increasingly concerned about the district’s ability to complete the school year without significant assistance and intervention,” Gov. Snyder said when announcing the takeover of Highland Park schools in January 2012. “The welfare of the students attending Highland Park schools is our No. 1 priority. We must ensure they have every opportunity to learn and succeed.”
In reality, what Snyder and his emergency managers have mostly succeeded in overseeing is the continued exodus of students from the district. Instead of emergency management reversing, or even slowing the decline, the loss of students has actually accelerated while the district has been under state control.
As noted above, the district’s student population dropped by 58 percent — from 3,179 pupils in 2006 to 1,331 for fiscal year 2011.
But the situation has grown even worse now that control of education in Highland Park has been turned over to emergency managers and a private, for-profit charter school company. The nearly 70 percent decline in student population from 2012 to 2016 underscores just how severe Highland Park’s plight has grown.
But students aren’t the only thing the district is losing.
In addition to providing oversight of the “new” school district, the emergency manager-controlled “old” district also serves as authorizer of George Washington Carver Academy, a privately run charter school in the city. In return for being an authorizer, the district receives 3 percent of the roughly $7,300 per-pupil foundation allowance provided by the state.
But apparently not for long.
According to Bay Mills Community College, George Washington Carver Academy is in the process of having the community college become its new authorizer. With more than 560 students, the departure of George Washington Carver Academy to a new authorizer means the district will be losing nearly $125,000 in income annually.
Why is Carver seeking a new authorizer?
According to the Midwest Management Group, which provides management services for the charter school, there’s a concern that the district “might shut down altogether.”
“Because of the instability of the district, there’s a concern of being dragged into the quagmire of the current district,” said Ralph Cunningham, owner of Midwest Management Group.
The losses just keep piling up.
At the time of the state takeover, Highland Park Public Schools operated two kindergarten through eighth grade schools and one high school.
Now, it’s down to a single K-8 school, with students forced to go outside the district to attend high school.
Dealing with loss
The boy we’ll call Franklin doesn’t want his real name used.
He’s a pleasant, heavyset 14-year-old with good manners and what his mom calls “behavioral problems” associated with the ADHD he’s been diagnosed with. He’s in a special ed., and has had some real problems in school, including being in a bad fight that got him suspended.
The world doesn’t need to know about all that.
And none of it has anything to do with how he feels about the uncertainty that waits ahead. He’s just graduated from middle school, and the place he’d also assumed would be his high school has been shuttered since 2015, when the number of students dropped below 150 and it was deemed too expensive to keep open.
At May’s school board meeting, emergency manager Schiller announced the 40-year-old high school, located at a prime spot on Woodward Avenue, and other district properties had been turned over to the city in exchange for forgiveness of a $750,000 water bill.
There is no small amount of irony in the fact that the city itself is currently in arrears to the newly created Great lakes Water Authority — which recently replaced the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department as the wholesale supplier of water to most of southeast Michigan — to the tune of nearly $30 million.
“How do you let a city lose its schools?” asks Franklin’s mom, who is unable to work because of a disability she suffers. She doesn’t own a car.
“They keep telling us that y’all have a voice,” she said. “But if we really had a voice, we’d still have a high school.”
There’s going to be inconvenience, for sure. Finding a new school to attend, one that’s both good and accessible, isn’t easy. Then there’s the prospect of having to take public transportation – something Franklin’s not accustomed to. That part, particularly, worries his mom, especially thinking about him having to head out alone on dark winter mornings.
“Just with the way the world is now, that is a scary thing to think about,” said his mom.
Franklin worries about that too, but he’s resolute: “Whatever I have to do to get to high school, I’ll just have to do.”
He was looking forward to attending his hometown high, even with the problems he had in middle school.
“I would have overcome all those problems,” Franklin said, sounding confident. “I would do it because I really want to go to college. So I would do whatever it takes.”
What’s so disappointing, he said, is losing something that was much more than just a building.
Asked what he thought about as he posed for a picture at the 40-year-old school, which will soon be razed, Franklin said, “I was thinking how Highland Park’s roots are in that school.
“And I was thinking how my family’s roots are in that school. My mother went there, and my brother went there. My auntie went there.
“For me, that school was like the town’s soul. And now it’s going to be turned to rubble.”
The root of the problem
“The collapse of Highland Park schools isn’t a tale of a poor district in financial distress due to a lack of money. It’s about financial incompetence and corruption of the school district’s administrators.”
That’s the view held by the folks at Michigan Capitol Confidential, a print and online publication that’s an arm of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a conservative “free market” think tank that has been promoting the charter school movement for decades.
Academic research, however, offers a different view than that touted by free-market ideologues.
“Which Districts Get Into Financial Trouble and Why: Michigan’s Story,” is a 2015 study (partly funded by the ACLU of Michigan), co-authored by Michigan State University education professor David Arsen.
The paper acknowledges the rationale behind Michigan’s emergency manager laws as they are applied to school districts.
“An underlying premise of Michigan’s recent laws to guide state intervention in instances of local district financial distress is that the financial problems are due to poor or misguided decision making by local district officials. The laws presume that local officials — central office administrators and the elected board — fail to take necessary though perhaps difficult steps that are needed to place their districts on sound financial footing. In order to resolve this problem, the state must exercise more forceful oversight or supplant these local officials with better and more empowered, state-appointed administrators. “
The problem is that rationale often fails to mesh with reality.
As the study’s authors point out:
"Our findings … indicate that state school finance and choice policies significantly contribute to the financial problems of Michigan’s most hard-pressed districts. Most of the explained variation in district fund balances is due to changes in districts’ state funding, enrollment changes including those associated with school choice policies, and special education students whose required services are inadequately reimbursed by the state."
In other words, the problems faced by districts such as Highland Park are, in many cases, beyond their control.
As a consequence — as has been shown not only in Highland Park, but in Detroit and Muskegon Heights as well — emergency management has drastically failed to turn around these financially floundering and academically failing districts.
No democracy, no control
Talk to adults who went to Highland Park’s public schools before automakers abandoned the city and whites fled to the suburbs while discriminatory federal housing policies kept African-Americans largely confined to urban cores, and you can see them start to swell with pride as they talk about the education they received back in the day.
Board of Education Secretary Linda Wheeler, for example, recounts how she learned to play violin on a Stradivarius provided by the district. The previous high school, she said, featured two Olympic-sized swimming pools. She was able to study multiple languages.
“I received a truly wonderful education.”
A career educator — she was a life-skills coach for special education students — she said that even when it fell into steep decline financially, the district retained its “soul” because so many of the teachers were from Highland Park themselves.
That changed when the state took over and put the district in the hand of a for-profit charter company that kept a focus on its bottom line.
It is deeply troubling, Wheeler said, to see a city with so much potential — centrally located along major freeways, with its own (now inoperable) water treatment plant — lose the educational gem that formed the city’s vital, sparkling core.
“I believe the city is going to come back,” she said. “It is going to happen. It is just a question of who is going to control it.”
Like McDonald, Paul Lee also attended Highland Park schools before going to Howard University and then a career as a freelance writer and historian.
For Lee, the problems of Highland Park’s schools and the state’s takeover can’t be separated from issues of race and racism.
“We are judged as inferior, our resources looted, and our children are robbed of the opportunity to be educated,” he said during an interview at Nandi’s Knowledge Café along Woodward Avenue in Highland Park.
The way he sees it, what’s going on now is worse than what occurred during the days of Jim Crow segregation. African Americans might have been given fewer resources than whites back then, but at least “we were allowed to control our own schools, giving us some level of self-determination,” he said.
Now, in Highland Park, any semblance of control has been usurped — along with democracy.
In a very real sense, he explained, the clearest example of this occurred in June 2013, when workers at the high school began tossing black history books, film strips, tapes and other materials into nearby Dumpsters. At the time, then-Emergency Manager Donald Weatherspoon said the trashing of the collection was a mistake. But he also said the district could no longer afford to secure the collection.
Even now, three years later, Lee’s eyes begin to well up at the thought of the callous disregard for a collection he and others meticulously pieced together. Seeing the books and other materials sitting in a Dumpster, he said, “was emotionally devastating, like watching the broken body of my child.”
It takes not great leap of imagination to see the trashing of that collection as a metaphor for what has happened to a school district that, not that long ago, was, in Lee’s words, “one of the best school systems, not just in the state, but in the country.”
As for the discarded collection, much of it was rescued. Along with finding a home at Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, some of the material is there on the shelves of Nandi’s Knowledge Café.
Emergency management didn’t push that district into a precipitous decline, but over the past 4 1/2 years, it has kept that momentum going, bringing it to the place where it is now: “abandoned, rotting, razed.”
Lee and others interviewed for this article believe it is not too late, that it is somehow possible, if democracy is returned, to resurrect a school system that gave them the foundation needed to become the people they are today.
That’s why Wheeler ran for a position on a school board that’s largely devoid of any real authority. If nothing else, she’s said, it at least puts her in a position to keep posing questions and demanding answers from the powers that be.
“Some fights you win,” she said. “And some fights you lose. But when the bell rings, you always have to get back up.”
Even when that ringing bell could be heard as a death knell.
Curt Guyette is an investigative reporter for the ACLU of Michigan. He can be reached at 313-578-6834 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To read more of his work, go to his Democracy Watch blog at: http://www.aclumich.org/democracy-watch-blog