Ypsi school closings, part II

    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.

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      25 Comments

      1. Alice
        Posted February 11, 2010 at 8:47 am | Permalink

        Any idea how many school board members might be sympathetic to the cause at this point?

      2. Posted February 11, 2010 at 10:39 am | Permalink

        I thought Maria and the others who led the community meeting at Chappelle did an excellent job. When the amount actually saved from closing Chappelle or another elementary school is so remarkably low in comparison to the impact of the closing on the students, neighborhood, and district itself, it’s essential to stop the train and re-evaluate the direction we’re headed policy-wise.

      3. Kim
        Posted February 11, 2010 at 11:31 am | Permalink

        If a school has to close, it should be Perry. I like what they do there, and I like the idea of everyone in the city going to a common kindergarten, but if we integrate those classes into our other elementary schools, we might have a better chance of keeping families as their kids leave kindergarten. As Maria suggests, though, no decisions on school closing should be made until we hear what concessions the teachers are willing to make. Teachers in Ypsi are paid better than teachers anywhere else in area, and they should be willing to take a cut in order to keep community schools open IMHO.

      4. smithville203
        Posted February 11, 2010 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

        It’s times like these that I wish we had a real local paper. No offense to Mark and the people who put out AA.com and the Ypsi Citizen, but it’s not the same. We need real investigative reporters who aren’t afraid to ask hard questions, and put people on the spot. I want a reporter to ask the head of the Ypsi teacher’s union what their willing to do to keep Ypsi schools open. From what I heard at the public meeting, I don’t think it’s much.

      5. Posted February 11, 2010 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

        The Ypsilanti Courier, our local weekly printed newspaper, has done a good job of covering these issues, IMHO. Doesn’t cost that much for a yearly subscription, either….

      6. Posted February 11, 2010 at 10:03 pm | Permalink

        Thanks Mark for continuing this discussion. I’ve been trying to include some information about this on my blog, a2schoolsmuse.blogspot.com, but it is hard to keep up! In any case, I believe the district is starting to respond to the pressure, because I saw this today:

        A forum is now scheduled on Tuesday (that is, the 16th) for feedback, for community members to meet with the Ypsilanti school board. Read about it here:
        http://ypsiciti.com/section/Education/Forum+scheduled+for+Ypsilanti+Schools%27+budget-article-1611.html

        Also I agree with Kim that if any schools are to close, closing Perry should be on the table, because parents might be attracted to keeping their kids in one school K-5 or K-6…

      7. Posted February 11, 2010 at 11:38 pm | Permalink

        Yes, thanks Mark, for bringing attention to this issue. I met with the various “officials” today, and the administration still seems convinced that closing schools (Chapelle especially) is the right way to go. However the school board may be reconsidering the logic of this especially after receiving some very disheartening figures from Mr. Fulton, their “numbers” and “staffing” maven, at the last school board meeting. We need to keep pushing for them to put school closings LAST on the list of “things to do to address the budget shortfall.” Nothing they have shown us so far has done anything to convince us that it is a sensible strategy.

      8. Mama S
        Posted February 12, 2010 at 8:13 am | Permalink

        The majority of board members are sympathetic to this struggle to prevent school closings, with the possible exception of:

        David Bates
        bates@ypsd.org

        Sarah Devaney
        devaney@ypsd.org

      9. wetdolphinmissile
        Posted February 12, 2010 at 9:24 am | Permalink

        I wonder how many readers of this blog could afford the concessions that Maria suggests the teachers should consider. The “Union” is the teachers, individuals with bills to pay- mortgages, college tuition, car payments and student loans. YPS school teachers have taken wage concessions in the past and remained behind their peers for years because of it. While I can support freezes, I wouldn’t support cuts.

      10. Posted February 12, 2010 at 9:42 am | Permalink

        Here are my concerns. Maybe other people have more information and can help me out…

        1. The Ypsd on-line survey is a bad survey. The options offered did not have the appropriate rationale attached to them and there were not enough options given. More context may have been given at the budget meetings, but not all of us could make those meetings. I struggled to understand just why I was being asked about some things and what the implications of choosing them might be — even after reading the powerpoint presentations used at the meeting.

        2. In addition to talking about the merit of the schools that might be closed — in other words what might be lost in closing them — we need to focus on what the administration’s plans are for the schools that remain open. One of my kids goes to Erickson. There are 26 kids in his classroom and it is physically a very full room (they are not very big rooms). Just where are additional kids going to go? Will art and music (two fantastic programs at this school) lose their space so that we can have more classrooms? In the FAQ part of the district’s website, it lists Erickson as having 435 kids but a capacity of 525. I can’t fathom where they would put these other 90 bodies or what the consequences for the kids would be to have their class sizes go up over 30. I hope that the Chapelle parents who are organizing right now will remember this in their rhetoric…. it isn’t just about their school, this is about ALL our schools. Let me just be clear, it isn’t that I wouldn’t welcome Chapelle kids to Erickson, it is that I think we are going to overtax the resources of the buildings that remain open and greatly strain the ability of these schools to make a welcoming community for the kids — the kind of place where the principal does know every kid by name. Elementary schools should be small and I’m willing to see other things cut to make that happen! I want as many Ypsi kids as possible to have a good neighborhood school to attend — a place that is knit into their lives… where they go to club meetings, play on the playground, meet up with friends when school is not in session… not just a place they get driven to 5 mornings a week. I realize that we don’t have enough schools for this to work for everyone, but closing two schools that are smack dab in the middle of vibrant neighborhoods would crush that sort of relationship with school that hundreds of kids currently have.

        3. I/we need more information on the new high school. Is all the money external? What is the district contributing to make this happen? I wonder if we might delay its implementation (delay the grants?) so that whatever resources the district is contributing can go toward other immediate priorities.

        4. There needs to be more than one public forum and we all need better information, on the district’s website (we don’t all have inside sources), about what the time line for decisions will be.

        5. Until the budget issues are settled the school board needs to meet in a more suitable venue. I sat with a hundred other people in the high school commons because there was no room for us last Monday. The “audio” was useless. I could hear nothing but stayed so that my body would be counted, but this cannot continue. There was no excuse for that meeting not being held in the EMPTY auditorium.

      11. Kevin T
        Posted February 12, 2010 at 10:36 am | Permalink

        If our teachers are making more than teachers in other school districts, and if taking a modest cut would keep schools open, I’d hope that they would consider it. I understand that a lot of entrenched teachers don’t care, as it won’t be their jobs that are lost, but others will lose their jobs if schools close and enrollment drops. One would hope that the union wouldn’t just look out for the old-timers, but the new teachers too.

      12. Posted February 12, 2010 at 10:58 am | Permalink

        Zoe (the wonder dog), You make some excellent points, and yes, these are all points we have made in various public fora. We have, since the beginning, argued that closing even one elementary school would negatively impact all elementary schools. Go to our website: http://www.saveypsischools.com, for information on the impact of school closings on the quality of our children’s education. We met with the Superintendent yesterday and he as much as admitted that school consolidation was about maximizing the student to teacher ratio in ALL of the schools. Indeed, they are predicting that across the board student ratios will increase substantially. Your child will likely be in a classroom with 28-30 other children. We invite you to join our coalition of parents and community members, Ypsilanti Public School Alliance. If you are interested just send me an email and I’ll add you to our list (sosypsi@gmail.com). The YPSA is not about saving one school, its about making all of our schools the best places to learn in southeastern Michigan. Please go to the Public Forum and raise all of these issues with the administration. We desperately need your voice, as our school system is on the edge of a real tipping point.

      13. Curt Waugh
        Posted February 12, 2010 at 11:23 am | Permalink

        According to the info I found quickly, Ypsi is in the 85th percentile in the state for expenditures per pupil and 77th percentile in the nation. MONEY IS NOT THE PROBLEM. Management is the problem.

        Ypsi is well-funded for success. This whole salary negotiation business of who will give up and what concessions will be made makes me sick. Ypsi, you have this much money. If you can’t find a way to teach our children with what you have, quit. Seriously, get the fuck out of the business because you don’t belong. Good lord, it’s like our city manager all over again. Is no one capable of simple fiscal leadership around here?

        You ALL need to take pay cuts. Real grown-ups at real companies take care of their revenue stream first (the customers – THE KIDS, dipshits) and pay themselves next. If the administration and the teachers think they can force our kids to take it on the chin to preserve their income, they can go straight to hell.

        I have been a big supporter of public schools. I’m happy we’re in the 85th percentile. I LIKE spending that money on education. But I will not let you continue to take things away from our kids. Stop treating our schools like a big pile of crack to be smoked at your pleasure and get serious. If your salary cannot be afforded, then take a damn pay cut. A big one if necessary. Don’t like it? Leave. Plenty of people need work right now.

        I won’t name names, but one of you board members had a big fat sign in my yard to help you get re-elected. I’m very happy you got re-elected; I’d put up your sign again. But it’s time to get tough. You want my vote again? Act like an adult and drop the hammer.

      14. Kim
        Posted February 12, 2010 at 11:51 am | Permalink

        Maria, if what you’re saying is correct:

        We met with the Superintendent yesterday and he as much as admitted that school consolidation was about maximizing the student to teacher ratio in ALL of the schools. Indeed, they are predicting that across the board student ratios will increase substantially. Your child will likely be in a classroom with 28-30 other children.

        I can’t imagine anyone with the resources to go elsewhere not leaving the Ypsi school system. A classroom of 30 kids is unacceptable. You can’t educate in that kind of environment.

      15. Kim
        Posted February 12, 2010 at 11:54 am | Permalink

        You know it’s also kind of funny that we fight over the scraps directed toward the education of our kids, but we never question that several times as much is spent on the military. That, for some reason, is sacrosanct.

      16. Posted February 12, 2010 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

        By the way, the Public Forum is on Tuesday, February 16, at 7:00pm. It will be held in the Ypsilanti High School Auditorium. Please go to this public forum and express your views, it is very important.We want Ypsi out in force, to tell the Central Office that they can’t just roll into town and decide to close schools). I spoke to Trustee Bates yesterday, and he informed me that the trustees would be sitting on the stage, while the central office administrators would be in the audience. I urged him to reconsider this, since it is the central office , not the trustees who should be defending their plan. Here is the email I just sent to all of the Board of Education:

        Dear Trustees,
        My name is Maria Cotera, and I am currently working with the Ypsilanti Public School Alliance to mobilize, parents, teachers, and community members to come to the Public Forum next Tuesday. I want to thank Trustee Bates for calling this very important, and much needed meeting.

        Though we appreciate the opportunity to share our thoughts with you in this forum, we believe its structure, as explained to us by Trustee Bates might be problematic. We feel very strongly, that it is the Central Office Administration who should be sitting on the stage, not members of the School Board. In fact, we think that the Trustees should sit with us in the audience, and ask any questions (or make statements) that they see fit. It is the Central Office Administration’s job to come up with a sensible budget cutting plan and present it to the Board, not the other way around. In fact as an elected body, the Board of Education really represents the voice of the people, not the opinions of the administration. They must justify their plan to you, and to us, and therefore, they should field the questions.

        I’m sure how you can see that placing our elected trustees in the position of defending a plan or set of plans that they will be asked to vote on in a few short weeks might present a conflict of interest. To avoid this, we strongly recommend that you ask Mr. Houle, Superintendent Martin, Mr. Fulton, and Mr. Weigel to address our questions and comments. If they stand behind their plan, then I ‘m sure they won’t mind defending it in a public forum.

        Respectfully,
        Maria

      17. Posted February 12, 2010 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

        Here’s an idea. I was visiting a friend in the Keweenaw Peninsula that is a teacher at Hancock Public Schools . A few years ago they built a new centralized school complex and had an old high school to get rid of. Instead of just selling it, they gave it to Finlandia University in exchange for a deal that any student attended all four years of high school at Hancock High School would get a free ride to the university. My friend said that it was a big win for the school system and they pick up additional kids every year just because they want a free ride to Finlandia.

        Would EMU or the UM be interested in the one of our closed school properties in exchanged for 10 years of free rides for Ypsi High School students?

        Maybe some one from our district could call Hancock public school and get the financial details of their deal. Have any other schools done similar deals?

      18. Donald Washburn
        Posted February 12, 2010 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

        Maria,

        I’d be very interested in knowing what your take is on the reported unwillingness of the teacher’s union to make any concessions. I suppose I have two main questions in that regard:

        -Do you think a balanced budget can be achieved without concessions from the union?
        -What do you project the impact on enrollment will be if this culminates in a brief or prolonged teacher strike?

        I have to say, I would phrase things a bit more diplomatically but I’m inclined to lean with Curt W. on this one. Not to diminish the immense effort that you and others have put into this, but taking on an administration is a relatively easy task (in the populist sense of gathering support) compared to taking on a union. Is YPSA prepared to confront the union with public forums and the like, if indeed it proves that doing so is critical to keeping schools open?

        Perhaps the union reps should be invited to field public questions at a public forum since they represent 80 percent of the budget?

      19. Posted February 13, 2010 at 12:48 am | Permalink

        I should clarify. We have not spoken to any YEA representatives, and we do not know what their position is. Though we have contacted the YEA president, we have not yet had a substantive discussion with her. We hope that the union will take the long view on this, but we cannot insert ourselves in their negotiations with the administration. Basically, we just have to wait and see. My point is that the administration needs to get a better sense of what their real budget outlook is (which they can only get AFTER they agree on a new contract), before taking the “nuclear option” and closing a school.

      20. kjc
        Posted February 13, 2010 at 7:25 am | Permalink

        yeah all those damn wealthy teachers screwing the kids. i believe that narrative.

      21. Ardis George
        Posted February 13, 2010 at 8:51 am | Permalink

        It’s not that we think the teachers are at blame or to fault for this situation. It’s just that we hope that they will agree to consider temporary concessions in this very difficult time. If they do not, they are sending the message that while they are fervently self-protecting, they’re only self-protecting of 90 percent of their members, while 10 percent of their members can be hanged.

      22. Curt Waugh
        Posted February 13, 2010 at 9:10 am | Permalink

        This has nothing to do with “wealthy teachers”, kjc. But this discussion about salaries is ridiculous. The school district does not exist for the income of the teachers and administrators. It exists for the education of the student. That is the purpose for which I and others fund it.

        In light of that single fact, it is incumbent upon our employees to work within whatever confines we set. It’s not a moral issues; it’s pure economics. The district gets X amount of money and we clearly want our neighborhood schools to stay open. If that situation is somehow difficult or requires LEADERSHIP or sacrifice, so be it. So does my job. So does everybody’s. Why should employees of the district be any different? This is Michigan in 2010.

        The minute the unions and the administration start making this about their own staffing levels or salaries, you completely lose me. I don’t care about your salary. I care about my children. I’m sorry if that bothers you, but I repeat: The district does not exist for the benefit of the employees. My company issued pay cuts last year. Others have simply lost their jobs. What economy are you living in?

        Diplomacy is for politicians. This is about my kids. I will not be diplomatic.

      23. Ypsi parent
        Posted February 13, 2010 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

        There are clearly a number of interests at play here. The administration would love to point the finger at everyone else, the state funding system, the union, disloyal parents who leave the district. But they must also take responsibility for our current fiscal situation, as must we all. Taking responsibility means stepping up to the plate, working together to pull the district out of this relatively undamaged, and trying, as hard as we can to balance the interests of the multiple stakeholders in this very complex situation. And frankly, while I know that teachers, students, parents, and community members do feel a sense of responsibility to this system, and a deep loyalty to it, I wonder about the sense of responsibility and loyalty that our central office feels toward it. None of the decision-makers in this process has been in the district for more than 5 years (Superintendent Martin began the job September 2009, CFO Houle jumped ship at Willow Run last summer), and the one with the most seniority (5 years), Dr. Weigel, is applying for a superintendent job elsewhere. Can we really trust these people to temper their calculations with real feeling of solidarity for this community?

      24. Posted February 14, 2010 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

        For those who are interested, I’ve just added a new post on this subject. You can find it here.

      25. jmb27
        Posted February 15, 2010 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

        Predatory Lending is a major contributor to the economic turmoil we are currently experiencing.

        Here is an example of what I am talking about:
        Scott Veerkamp / Predatory Lending (Franklin Township School Board Member.)

        Please review this information from U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley regarding deceptive lending practices:
        “Steering payments were made to brokers who enticed unsuspecting homeowners into deceptive and expensive mortgages. These secret bonus payments, often called Yield Spread Premiums, turned home mortgages into a SCAM.”

        The Center for Responsible Lending says YSP “steals equity from struggling families.”
        1. Scott collected nearly $10,000 on two separate mortgages using YSP and junk fees. 2. This is an average of $5,000 per loan. 3. The median value of the properties was $135,000. 4. Clearly, this type of lending represents a major ripoff for consumers.

        http://merkley.senate.gov/newsroom/press/release/?id=A09C6A80-537A-4EB1-83C5-31925F046B6F

      One Trackback

      1. By Ypsi School Closings, part III on February 14, 2010 at 12:44 pm

        [...] my last post on this subject, I had a few follow-up questions. Following are the answers from Maria Cotera and Jason Wright, [...]

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