Our conversation last week on the very real possibility that more Ypsilanti public schools may close was so fruitful, that I thought the subject warranted another thread. Here, to get the ball rolling, is a quick update on the situation from my friend Maria Cotera, whose daughter attends Chapelle elementary, one of the schools most likely to be closed, if the administration’s suggestions to the Ypsi Board of Education are acted upon.
As you know, we had a citywide community meeting last Wednesday to raise awareness about the proposed school closure plans, and the negative impact they would have on our schools and community. We had a great turn out. Around a hundred people packed into the Chapelle Community School, including several School Board Trustees, the Mayor of Ypsi, and at least one councilmember. And at Monday night’s school board meeting there was an even bigger turnout. The Ypsi High media room was packed to the brim with parents, teachers and concerned community members, and the overflow spilled out into the commons. I think there must have been around 200 people there. Unfortunately, over half the meeting attendees were left outside the media room, and forced to watch the proceedings on a small TV monitor with a sound system that was completely ineffective. There are two good articles in local rags about the meeting, one is in the Ypsilanti Citizen, and the other in Ann Arbor.com.
Despite these logistical difficulties, a number of eloquent speakers made strong and passionate statements during the ‘public commentary’ period, arguing against the plan to close neighborhood schools. Rachel Blistein from the Historic Eastside Neighborhood Association, made some really salient points about the harm that shuttered schools do to our neighborhoods. Moreover she pointed out numerous studies that demonstrate that, in the long run, school closure plans frequently lead to no savings at all, and sometimes even increase net losses. This prospect was made all too real when Executive Director of Human Resources, John Fulton (the guy who runs the enrollment numbers) pointed out that the proposed school closures would result in an enrollment decline of at least 50 students, which would mean a revenue decline of roughly $400,000. Remember this is an OPTIMISTIC projection, we are likely to lose more, and, with fewer elementary schools, our capacity contracts, which means that we have no room for growth to make up for the loss. Remember as well that in their (again optimistic) projections, one school closing would result in a total yearly savings of $468,000 for the district. So if we lose just 10 students over their 50-student minimum ($480,000), closing schools would result in a net loss. By the way, the credibility of all this alarmist talk about cutting back core educational services in response to the “budget crisis” is seriously undermined by the administration’s plans to put a new high school in what was formerly Ardis elementary. Yes, that’s right, they are actually creating a NEW high school, while proposing to cut our elementary school capacities in half.
So where are we now? After studying the issue from all sides – the economic, the ethical, the practical – we are more convinced than ever that the proposed plan to close neighborhood schools represents a disastrous step for our district, and our city as a whole. What should we do instead? We are asking the Board of Education to press the “pause” button on the administration’s plan to close schools, because we don’t think it’s a realistic or rational response to our current budget crisis. It is a REACTION, not a response. Moreover, it makes no sense to make drastic cuts until after the Board of Education’s labor negotiations with the teachers union are resolved. After all, teacher compensation and benefits comprise over 80% of the total annual budget, so first we need to get a sense of what our budget looks like at the other end of these negotiations. The teachers union may well decide to grant certain concessions, like a temporary across-the-board wage reduction in order to stave off more draconian solutions like closing entire schools (which will impact some of their membership disproportionately), or mass lay-offs that will focus the pain on those with the least seniority and those nearing retirement. We have faith that the union will try to strike a balance between the over-all health of our system, and the needs of its membership. Moreover, we are sure that the union leadership understands that the worst possible solution for them, and for Ypsi schools more generally, would be the establishment of a charter school. This is a distinct possibility at this point; I’m hearing more and more parents, who have, up until now, been totally dedicated to Ypsi public schools, actively talking about establishing their own charter school. It’s not clear to me if this is just frustration with an administration that appears to be stonewalling them, but the danger is that parents will start shifting their energies away from “saving” Ypsi schools and toward creating the kind of school they want for their children.
The point is that there are still a lot of unknowns in this equation, and we can’t expect to craft a sensible plan for the future of Ypsilanti schools until we have a better sense of how teachers fit into the picture, and what the ‘blowback’ might be from all of the attention that Ypsi schools are receiving at this crucial juncture. I firmly believe that if the School Board does vote to stop planned school closures, even just temporarily, we can use the extra time positively, by building on the energy and passion that has emerged in the defense of our schools, and thinking strategically about how to increase enrollments rather than consigning our district to an ever-shrinking student population.
We don’t want to let this moment pass, so we have proposed the formation of a group, the Ypsilanti Public School Alliance (YPSA), a broad coalition of parent organizations, teachers, staff, neighborhood associations, community groups, church groups, and non-profits. The idea is to bring multiple stakeholders together for a conversation on how we might make our schools the best places to learn in southeastern Michigan. In the short term, we are committed to advocating for the schools in the face of budget cuts and to offering sensible alternatives to school closures. We believe that the best way forward is to strengthen our schools, thereby increasing enrollments and enhancing our regional reputation. We hope that the process of “coming together” will also re-ignite interest in our public schools among the broader community, not just educational professionals or parents of school age children.
In terms of practical “next steps,” we are well aware that the Board of Education will be voting on the administration’s “restructuring plan” in March, yet still, the community has yet to receive concrete information on what that plan entails. We want the administration to take part in a town hall-style forum (with an open question and answer period) to be moderated by the YPSA. The focus of the town hall meeting would be the administration’s actual plans for the restructuring of primary and secondary education in Ypsilanti. Before we move forward, the administration must explain in a convincing way why we should get behind their suicidal proposition, or they need to go back to the drawing board and come up with a real plan for the future of our public education system.