As Grosse Pointe weighs school closures, tensions rise in the community

Jun 19, 2019 at 2:05 pm
click to enlarge As Grosse Pointe weighs school closures, tensions rise in the community (2)
Photo by Alex Harring

At Grosse Pointe Memorial Church,
Pastor Peter Henry prayed for each member of the city’s board of education by name during a service.

Henry prayed, according to board trustee Christopher Profeta, because the board of education is nearing the end of a months-long discussion about potential district reconfiguration after 15 years of declining enrollment. On June 24, the board of education is expected to vote on whether to move fifth grade students into the middle schools and, if so, which elementary school buildings to close.

Reconfiguration has come with contention and disagreement among community members, resulting in 15 town hall meetings, an effort to recall school trustees, a Facebook campaign and matching billboard advertisement, and the involvement of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights (MDCR) in the community sandwiched between Detroit and Lake St. Clair.

The reconfiguration option up for vote on June 24 is to close one elementary school in both the “North” and “South” ends of the district (the ends are determined by which schools feed into the North and South high schools) and move fifth graders into middle school buildings. If the school board does not pass the reconfiguration plan, they will examine other solutions and vote at a later date.

On the North end, Mason (Grosse Pointe Woods) and Poupard (Harper Woods) have been listed, while Maire (Grosse Pointe) and Trombly (Grosse Pointe Park) are listed for the South end. The goal of reconfiguration is to have at least $1 million a year in savings and reach 80 percent capacity at minimum for as many schools as possible, according to The Detroit News.

Profeta said at a board of education meeting on June 10 that he has faith the 8,000-student district is moving in the right direction.

“I had people contact me to tell me that their pastor is praying for us all by name in church,” Profeta said. “It’s working. There are positive things happening here and I do think we are moving toward a positive place with this that will benefit our kids — not just that our kids are going to be fine, they’re not just going to be OK — I think we’re moving to a place that is going to be better.”

Rebecca Fannon, the Grosse Pointe Public Schools community relations specialist, did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

click to enlarge As Grosse Pointe weighs school closures, tensions rise in the community
Photo by Alex Harring

Community members said this year’s debate
over reconfiguration and potential school closings has deepened long-standing divides in the community, and brought feelings of elitism to the surface.

Anthony Valentine, a longtime Harper Woods resident, said at the June 10 meeting that the conversation around closing schools exemplifies the “Grosse Pointe bubble.” The “bubble,” Valentine explained, refers to a stereotype held by non-Grosse Pointers that imagines Grosse Pointe residents as seeing themselves to be better deserving of resources like quality education than those in the surrounding neighborhoods.

Valentine said the dialogue surrounding the potential reconfiguration plans — specifically around closing Poupard, the one Grosse Pointe school in Harper Woods — as well as conversations among community members about removing the area of Harper Woods that attends Grosse Pointe schools from the district, exemplifies his view that Grosse Pointers’ feel superior to their Harper Woods neighbors.

“The ‘bubble’ has been around for many decades. I have personally lived through 50 years of it,” Valentine said. “While most Grosse Pointers do not have the attitude they are better than others, there are still some Pointers who hold to that same attitude. I have seen that time and time again at some of the (school board) meetings I have attended.”

Valentine called out board trustee Cindy Pangborn specifically after she said, according to Valentine, that Harper Woods residents are given the “gift of a Grosse Pointe education,” though Harper Woods residents who attend Grosse Pointe schools pay taxes to the school system.

Kitty Clark, a 2018 graduate of North and rising sophomore at Western Michigan University, shared a similar experience as someone who attended Grosse Pointe schools as a Harper Woods resident. She recalled a time in middle school when a teacher told her mom at parent-teacher conferences that Clark would not succeed in her honors math course because she went to Poupard, even though the curriculum is uniform throughout the district.

“There always is an undercurrent of elitism between Harper Woods and Grosse Pointe, but that was the first time it was said explicitly to me and my value was put right there,” Clark told MT. “It was at such a pivotal point in my life that after that — after my teacher told me because of my zip code, that determined my ability to understand geometry at 12 years old — I just shut down and I never rejoined the honors track in math.”

Part of the argument for closing Poupard is that if it were to remain open and Mason — the other school in the North end publicly named as a potential closing — closed, elementary school students would have to walk across a busy street. However, the parents raising these concerns failed to realize there were already elementary-aged students crossing the same street, as pointed out in a Grosse Pointe News article.

Clark said she crossed the area in question growing up, as did many of her friends. While she did commend the parents’ emphasis on safety, she also questioned why crossing the street mattered now when it has been happening for decades.

If Trombly closes on the South side, hundreds of students would need to walk across Jefferson Avenue, a busy street running parallel to Lake St. Clair, during rush hour to get to school. A group of parents and students walked back and forth across the street in May to bring the potential danger to attention.

“It's a historic building and it is kind of isolated because of Jefferson being the main thoroughfare for everybody to get downtown for work in the morning,” parent Renee Jakubowski told Fox 2 News during the demonstration. “It also is an attractive point for young families entering Grosse Pointe because there is more affordable housing — there's some economic diversity here that really attracts people. We feel those things are being overlooked and so are our concerns about actually having 250 kindergartners through fifth graders crossing Jefferson, with no real plan in place."

Like Poupard parents have pointed out at the town halls, Clark said even if people try to dance around it, the discussion about Poupard involves socioeconomic status and the ideal image Grosse Pointers want their schools to have.

“There needs to be some reconciliation,” Clark said. “At the end of the day, the Grosse Pointe Public School System decided to put a school in Harper Woods in the ’60s — they made that decision. We shouldn’t be treated like the ugly stepsister. We should be treated like we are part of the family because we are a part of the family.”

In addition to “providing more resources” to Poupard as the district's only Title I school, the MDCR also recommended implementing training for the school board and staff on racial equity, implicit bias, and structural racism; holding community forums on equity and inclusion; and adopting a racial equity lens to guide the decision-making process on reconfiguration district-wide.

When examining the current state of a
ffairs in the Grosse Pointe Public School System, there is context to the discussion worth mentioning.

The district has experienced declining enrollment for the last 15 years. At a loss of 100 students on average and approximately $10,000 allocated per student each year, this means the district has lost approximately $1 million in funding annually.

While the goal of the reconfiguration discussions has been to achieve “critical mass” in the district-owned buildings, the board of education has consistently rejected School of Choice — an educational program allowing students’ autonomy to travel between districts and take their per-pupil funding allocation with them — to the approval of residents.

Similarly, in 2017, there was a discussion about the district allowing out-of-district students to pay tuition to come into the school system in hopes of filling empty seats, similar to a program at Birmingham Public Schools. This was rejected by the board.

In November 2018, a bond for building enhancements, security improvements, and technology updates in district buildings passed. While critics argued the district should look for other revenue streams, the bond ultimately garnered 55 percent of the vote.

Pangborn said at the June 10 meeting that asking residents to vote on this bond for school improvements and then closing the schools the residents thought were going to be improved is unfair. Pangborn criticized her fellow trustees for not having a more comprehensive plan for what happens after the decision to close a school is made and urged her peers to wait a year before making any decisions.

“This has really cut through our community and left people amazed at how this could happen,” Pangborn said. “It’s amazing what this community does and we are taking the heart out of it. All of our elementary schools are the heart of the community and I really think that the question is not how to save a million dollars, but how to save our schools.”

At previous board meetings, other trustees noted the reason the decision was being made in June was so the bond money would not be used for buildings that would eventually be sold.

At the request of the district, the MDCR held four listening sessions over two days in the district and provided written feedback — based on the testimony of residents — for the board to consider. Because of this, the decision date was pushed from June 10 to June 24.

The MDCR recommended the school district restart its deliberation process “with an eye to creating a more inclusive and transparent process” in a report published on June 17. Additionally, the MDCR recommended developing a marketing plan aimed at increasing enrollment and closing a middle school rather than one or more elementary schools in order to retain the current grade configuration.

“The Department commends the School Board for seeking our help to ensure they were hearing from all segments of the community,” MDCR director Agustin Arbulu wrote in a press release. “I believe these recommendations will allow the school district to regain a measure of public trust in their decision-making and result in a more equitable outcome for all the families of the Grosse Pointe School District. The Department is committed to assisting the school district as needed with implementing a number of these recommendations.”

Community members have criticized the report because they did not feel it took into account the opinions of those besides the 30 statements collected at the listening sessions.

It is also worth noting this is not the first time there has been discussion over closing schools because of declining enrollment. In the 1980s, five Grosse Pointe schools were put on the chopping block by the board, but community activism forced its hand with the Save Our Schools movement.

Ultimately, in 1984 one elementary school closed and sixth graders were moved into middle school buildings — a noticeable difference from the original plan to close five buildings. One group left black boxes on the doorsteps of the homes of trustees containing white Stetson hats with a note attached that read ‘be a good guy and vote against school closings’ on the day before the vote.

The plan to close schools in 1984 brought protests with attendance in the hundreds and prompted committees of parents both for and against school closings. Pangborn said the Save Our Schools movement was how she first became involved with board of education issues.

click to enlarge As Grosse Pointe weighs school closures, tensions rise in the community
Photo by Alex Harring

The community has found itself
divided over a litany of issues: being for or against K-4/5-8 configuration, which buildings should and should not close, and whether they believe the school board is handling the issue well, among other things. At the board of education meeting on June 10, community members addressed the board on a variety of issues pertaining to the upcoming decision.

Amy Weglarz shared her support for the board of education at the meeting.

“I support our board of education because they are hardworking, dedicated individuals who have given up way more of their personal time than any of us out here could possibly imagine because their hearts, their passion, their enthusiasm, and their intelligence are rooted in making the school system the very best it can be for our kids,” Weglarz said. “Hate mail, cornering people in stores — I can’t imagine the stuff that any of (the trustees) have had to endure, especially with what has been going on in the past months. It’s not Grosse Pointe, and if you are a member of this community and you are engaging in this behavior, then you are wrong and I hope you leave.”

Weglarz cautioned against placing trust in groups like the anonymously run Save Grosse Pointe Schools Facebook page. The Facebook page has upwards of 150 likes and is linked to the website MT messaged the Facebook page but did not receive a response, though the website notes the school board has “failed us” and closing schools is “too extreme.”

According to posts from board treasurer Judy Gafa’s Facebook page, the group behind the campaign has hired a professional communications company to disseminate its message. Gafa is one of three trustees facing a recall notice initiated by community members for what some say are "rash and drastic decisions" because the trustees are considering school closures. Profeta and secretary Kathleen Abke are facing recall notices as well, and Gafa noted she is expecting more advertising targeted at her to come in the future.

Pangborn told attendees at the board meeting not to believe everything they read on Facebook, which has become a hotbed for communication regarding the possible reconfiguration plan.

“If you are reading things on Facebook and they seem outlandish, they probably are,” Pangborn said. “I’m not on Facebook, but I get screenshots from parents who think I should see some things now and then, and this week I had more screenshots than I’ve ever had.”

While the Save Grosse Pointe Schools campaign has a political agenda, others have utilized Facebook as a way to encourage conversation about educated-related issues on a district-wide scale.

A private, moderated Facebook group called GPPSS Community Discussion has gained over 2,000 members since its inception in March. The group is touted as a place to discuss “the impending change to our school district,” though moderators ask for no name-calling or ad hominem attacks.

The group allows anyone to post and reply, but moderators do review posts and comments to ensure they do not break the rules. Members have posted news articles about the schools and impending reconfiguration, ideas for how to best go about making changes, and information about board meetings and the recall effort.

One of the moderators, Amanda Cunningham, told MT she and two other parents began the group after a similar page was archived. Cunningham also said this group was the only group she was aware of encompassing everyone who would be affected by the upcoming decisions.

As for trends in the group, Cunningham does not see a clear majority between moving fifth graders to middle school and keeping fifth in elementary school at the risk of closing one of the three middle schools or whether the school board should slow down or speed up in making a decision.

Cunningham also noted it is a small minority who are against taking any action and the number of those who feel this way has dwindled significantly over time. The majority of people in the group are critical of the recall effort, Cunningham said.

“People have been pretty civil considering what’s at stake here,” Cunningham said. “We do want this to be an open discussion. We don’t want the vocal minority or the vocal majority to drown out the voices of the other community members.”

What is at stake with this decision, Pangbord said at the meeting, is the potential for further loss of students. She said with no prepared “package” for building closings, people will lose faith in — and potentially leave — the school system. Pangborn claimed registration at local private and parochial schools for next year has increased within the last few weeks.

Similar to Pangborn’s sentiments, speakers also speculated on the domino impact school closure could have. Katie Batts said eight children in her daughter’s elementary school class — just under half of the class — have bought homes outside of the district.

“It’s about, overall, what would be best for the community and what would be best long term,” Batts said. “What might help our situation three, four, five years down the road, will it still make an impact 10 years down the road? Or, will we be in the same situation, closing more?”

Judy Brownscombe said the plan to move fifth graders into middle school buildings is the fruition of a lack of genuine listening at public events during her comments at the board meeting.

“I don’t think you are truly listening to all of those parents and children and homeowners in all of those packed gyms who voted you into office,” Brownscombe said to the board. “Are you listening? If you are not, there are plenty of angry and devoted citizens out there who are ready to take action.”

Cunningham said a large majority of the discussion she has seen in the Facebook group has been from community members who do not support the recall efforts.

Gafa said at the meeting that she has sat on the board for 11 years and she will continue doing what she feels is right. The recall notice will have no influence on her vote on June 24, she said.

“I want to thank all of the people who have reached out in the last two days over the news I got that I’m being recalled right now. It’s not a fun place to be,” Gafa said. ”It hurts because I thought I was always doing the right thing. And, so, I’m going to say right now: I am going to continue to do what I think is the right thing. I’m not going to shy away from doing what is in the best interest of the district.”

How can the community come together and repair damage caused by the forthcoming decision on whether to approve grade reconfiguration and the discussion that preceded it? The question is hanging over the heads of residents and school trustees alike.

As a start, trustees commended events taking place to bring families in the district together for “community building play dates,” which allow children to meet their peers at other schools and parents to talk with each other.

However, they realize this is just proactive work. Superintendent Gary Niehaus noted at the meeting that there will have to be an intentional effort to move forward as a unified district after reconfiguration decisions are made — which could be made on June 24 if the board decides to go with grade reconfiguration and closing two elementary schools, or at a later date if the board chooses to look at alternative solutions for the problem of declining enrollment.

“We’re going to have some healing to do when we’re done with this,” Niehaus said. “I know that people have lost friends. They’ve lost neighbors. They’ve lost acquaintances. They’ve had difficult times communicating in professionally.”

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