At a Grand Rapids Public Schools (GRPS) school board meeting last night, a number of parents and community members voiced their concerns over the GRPS’s new facilities development plan. The plan would close a number of schools and move others in an effort to address the 3,000 empty seats and funding problems that exist in the Grand Rapids Public Schools.
Many of those speaking were addressing their concerns over changes to their children’s schools, with a particularly large number of speakers discussing the possibility of moving City High Middle School to the former Northeast Middle School building. The parents pointed out that City has long benefited from, and indeed was named for, its location in the core downtown city and that students have used its location in order to access the research and educational opportunities offered by the main branch of the Grand Rapids Public Library, the Community College, and other institutions in downtown. Concerns that City would be located too far from the downtown area to sustain the internship and early college programs that characterize the school prompted some parents to suggest that City needs additional programs including shuttle busses to make the move downtown.
The discussion of the ramifications of moving City highlighted one of the strongest currents connecting the majority of the comments—the idea that the GRPS needs to do things in a way to look out for the “middle class” families that will leave the school district in favor of the parochial schools or suburban schools. While there was no doubt that the speakers expressing concern over City had a genuine concern for some children in the district, many of the appeals to save the “middle class” students seemed to indicate a lack of concern for the low-income students who bear the worst effects of the problems with the country’s failed public education system. Near the end of the public comment session, Pastor Nathaniel Moody expressed exasperation over the fact that most of what he heard focused on the need to protect the “middle class” and that there was little overall concern for the children that are “high, middle, and low class” but at the most basic level are all children who suffer in an inadequately funded school system. A resident living on the Westside of Grand Rapids also commented on this when he suggested that Lexington, an alternative program for students who are having difficulty in traditional schools, will be closed largely because the families with students in the school do not vote and pay few taxes. Moreover, Pastor Moody was the only speaker to highlight the role racism plays in the way the Board and the community approaches both the most recent facilities plan as well as the greater funding issues of unequal funding facing the GRPS the schools.
In an example of how this underlying racism functions, one of the student representatives to the school board pointed out that while parents and community members have expressed great concern over moving City because it would remove students from the downtown area and the institutions they use, many students in the Grand Rapids Public Schools already have to access those institutions on their own. The student representative explained that students at Ottawa Montessori regularly make use of the same resources as students at City, the main branch of the public library and Grand Rapids Community College, yet individual students have to provide their own transportation or teachers need to organize field trips to those institutions. Board member Arnie Smithalexander expanded on this by commenting on the fact that while some board members have suggested that combining Southeast Academic Center and Henry would provide a “tremendous opportunity” for the development of mentoring and role models in the combining of a high performing and low performing school, this idea was considered somehow unacceptable for City. Smithalexander went on to state that the Board needed to be more consistent in how it chooses to combine programs and needs to avoid giving some programs special treatment.
In addition to concern over closing City, there was also a large amount of concern about closing neighborhood schools, with many parents suggesting that it is the lack of strong neighborhood schools driving parents out of the district. Many of the speakers also identified that the root of the problem is the unequal system of allocating per-pupil funding and pointed out how this has created a situation where schools in Bloomfield Hills, one of the wealthiest suburbs in the state, received significantly more funding than the Grand Rapids Public Schools. The system of funding public education based on property taxes has created inequality in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the entire United States, yet it has largely remained intact despite evidence suggesting that such funding schemes are a form of institutional racism that discriminates against people of color living in urban areas. Perhaps nowhere in the meeting was the need for systemic reform of the way schools are funded made clearer than at the beginning when the Board briefly mentioned that they are in negotiations to lease land to TMobile and Alltel to place towers for cellular phones on district property.
Following the public comment period, the Board briefly discussed the facilities plan, although the majority of members chose not to respond directly to the comments made by the public and instead chose to reiterate concerns expressed at an earlier meeting of the Board. Most of the board members expressed concern over moving Southeast Academic Center into Henry School while acknowledging that given funding levels, some schools are going to have to be closed and programs rearranged. In light of concerns expressed in the media that the Board is having communications issues and that the plan is already “a done deal,” concerns that were echoed during the public comment period, some members of the board identified that they need to be more responsive to community input and described how they are facing a significant lack of public trust which may account for the low community participation that they often bemoan.
Another public comment session in front of the School Board will be held this Saturday, January 7, at 8:30am at the GRPS’s Franklin Campus (1130 Franklin SE).