At a meeting last night, the Grand Rapids Public Schools (GRPS) board passed portions of a controversial facilities plan that will move or alter some of the school district’s most academically successful programs, including City High-Middle, Ottawa Montessori, and Fountain Elementary schools. The plan, which due to somewhat odd parliamentary procedure, was able to be voted down in its entirety by a vote of 5 to 4, had its most controversial parts passed in a series of votes on each of the plan’s five sections.
In a 5 to 4 vote, the school board chose to make substantial changes to Central High, City High-Middle, Fountain, the district’s Montessori programs, and Northeast Middle. The changes, among the most controversial of any presented as part of the plan, will move City High-Middle from its downtown location to Northeast Middle near Fulton and Leonard, will consolidate the Montessori programs at Fountain, move the School of Construction to Ottawa, and restructure Fountain Elementary as a Montessori school, a change that will require children attending Fountain Elementary to attend Congress Elementary if they want a traditional education. The second most controversial measure of the plan, merging Henry School and Southeast Academic Center was amended to be studied for a year with no immediate merger in a 7-2 vote. In a 5-4 vote merging Jefferson and Dickinson elementary schools into a new building and moving Adelante High School and adult education into Jefferson was defeated. The selling of Lexington School and the moving its alternative education programs to Union was scrapped in favor of conducting a study of the programs and keeping the school open through the 2006-2007 school year by the only unanimous vote of the evening. Lastly, the board passed a measure to study the northeast section of the district with regard to the use of elementary school buildings on the northeast side.
Despite some victories in the adoption of the amended plan due to community input and efforts to organize against the plan, specifically in terms of efforts to prevent the closing of Lexington and its alternative education program, many community members present at the meeting continued to be frustrated with the manner in which the board adopted the plan. While an educator at Lexington had some success in presenting a petition, along with students, to keep the school open, as did Native American groups working to keep their programs from moving, the board still voted to alter many programs that were subject to some of the most intense public opposition. During the public comment period, the majority of those speaking urged the board not to pass the plan and instead go back to the drawing board with a new superintendent and more community involvement. Despite the apparent soundness of this suggestion, some board members, including David Allen, Catherine Mueller, and Lisa Hinkel, argued that they had heard considerable community input, with Allen going so far as to say that it was impossible to hear from all 200,000 residents and the board had done the best they could have done. Board member Kenneth Hoskins argued that perhaps the board may have heard the community’s input, but they did not listen when people were talking, a point that caused Allen to accuse other members of ignoring the concerns of those in favor of the plan.
Adding to this sense of frustration among community members was the last minute amendments to the plan which were clearly not completely understood by the audience, and in some cases, by members of the board. Throughout the meeting there was confusion not only about the nature of the plan but also the parliamentary rules (http://reactor-core.org/roberts-rules.html) that governed the discussion and vote. Following the 5-4 vote against the overall plan but the passage of parts of it, one community member asked for an explanation of the board’s voting procedures since it was not clear to “ordinary people” what had happened, but board president Amy McGlynn dismissed the question by saying that the board could not explain it during public comment since they were supposed to be listening, a remark that will like add to the disconnect many in the community feel with the board. To her credit, McGlynn did attempt to deal with this question in her closing remarks, but she simply stated a cliché about how the only thing “as messy” as the voting procedures attendees saw is “sausage grinding” and that while the procedures are “very weird” they are what they are.
The debate over the facilities plan within the school board and the community reflects the tremendous difficulties facing urban public school systems around the country. For a variety of reasons, including the unequal means of funding public schools via property taxes and competition from charter schools that divert funding and do not provide special education, urban school districts like Grand Rapids are facing serious fiscal problems. At previous board meetings, school board members have made it clear that they understand this and have argued that the school system needs to attract increased funding from Lansing. Citizens around the state have also noticed this and have formed the K-16 Coalition for Michigan’s Future to increase funding. The K-16 Coalition’s plan would provide annual funding increases equal to inflation for public schools, community colleges, and universities, reduce the gap between low and high spending districts, cap retirement costs, and fund school districts with declining enrollment based on a three year rather than a one year average. Despite announcing yesterday that the K-16 Coalition has enough signatures to get its initiative on the ballot, legislators have indicated that their budget situation gives them little flexibility to increase funding, and moreover, the K-16 plan has been opposed by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and the Michigan Townships Association.