Agreement would have allowed students in Buena Vista, Inkster to stay in their neighborhood schools
It became statewide news earlier this year when the school districts for Buena Vista and Inkster were dissolved, leaving students to scatter into surrounding districts.
What is less well known is that there was an agreement with a charter school company that would have let students continue to attend their neighborhood schools before the state ordered the dissolution.
Tionna Watkins was a school board member for Buena Vista. She said the board voted to retain the services of the Leona Group, a charter school company that operates two schools in the area already.
"If we had the decision to dissolve our district or to allow the Leona Group to come in and turn it into a charter, we would have hands down chosen the Leona Group," Watkins said. "It appeared to be the most viable option for our students. I am deeply saddened by our district's dissolution. That is where I am from and I also had a child that attended the district."
At the time of the dissolution, Buena Vista voted to have the charter company represent it while the school board in Inkster was making plans for the high school to become a charter school.
In fact, both school boards were in contact with the Leona Group to figure out a way to restructure district debt while keeping schools open, said Madalyn Kaltz, communication liaison for the Leona Group.
"That assistance could have been provided either through the chartering of some or all of the district schools with the district itself, serving as the charter authorizer … or provid[ing] the majority of the district's central administrative services and assist[ing] the districts in restructuring and overseeing the educational services in their operation of the existing district schools," Kaltz said.
Buena Vista and Inkster were in trouble because of repeated overspending despite a massive loss of students. Kaltz said the districts began discussions and negotiations with the Leona Group, but then the Legislature passed a bill dissolving the school districts in July.
House Bill 4813 established criteria for dissolving the two school districts through (now former) State Treasurer Andy Dillon and State Superintendent Mike Flanagan working with the local intermediate school districts. It was their opinion that the districts were fiscally unviable.
"My determination is that neither school can open the door ... to serve the kids," Dillon said in a report done by Gongwer News Service at the time.
But Kaltz said the districts could have been preserved, if only the state had allowed them to become charters. By law, charter schools cannot operate with a deficit for long. But Kaltz said that could have been avoided in part because the Leona Group "overhead is lower than that of traditional public schools, lowering the cost spent per-pupil on administrative services."
In the meantime, students from Buena Vista and Inkster were reassigned to some districts with fiscal problems.
The bulk of Buena Vista students were assigned to the Saginaw School District, which has a $4.98 million deficit. Students also attend Bridgeport-Spaulding, Carrollton, Frankenmuth, Saginaw Township, Reese and Francis Reh Academy.
Inkster students were assigned to the school districts of Taylor, Romulus, Westwood and Wayne-Westland. The latter is the only district not in a deficit. Taylor has a deficit of $8.36 million (13.3 percent of revenue), Romulus has a deficit of $2.7 million (7.7 percent of revenue), and Westwood has a deficit of $5.9 million (24 percent of revenue).
Each of the school districts that enroll Buena Vista and Inkster students will receive an extra 10 percent in funding per-pupil, partially to make up for the extra transportation costs.
"It's a colossal detriment to both communities, and the people of Inkster and Buena Vista absolutely do not deserve to be without quality education in their own cities," Kaltz said. "In terms of financial viability and academic performance, the students would have been in better hands with The Leona Group managing their schools, and the communities would have the schools they deserve within their own neighborhoods."
Kaltz points out that Leona is managing the school district for Highland Park, which was arguably in an even worse financial condition than the above districts. In 2011-12, Highland Park's last year before being chartered, the district had a $12 million deficit, on a general fund of approximately $19 million. It was spending nearly $20,000 per pupil, but schools had broken water fountains, boarded up windows, and even rodents running around. The Leona Group is spending $7,200 per pupil; saving a lot of money by spending less than 10 percent of revenue on administration (previously, the district is estimated to have spent more than 25 percent).
While it has only been there a year, The Leona Group eliminated Highland Park's deficit, invested more than $1 million to clean and restore the buildings, and in the process has improved math and reading scores.
And while Buena Vista and Inkster residents will continue paying taxes to help pay off previous debts, the deficit in Highland Park is gone.
Kaltz and Watkins said they think students and taxpayers got a bad deal when the state shut down the Buena Vista and Inkster districts.
"The board did not vote to have the charter," Watkins said. "[But] we were highly considering it because we would have rather had the charter school keep our schools open in some capacity than to have them totally dissolved."
The state treasurer's office did not respond to a request for comment.
(Editor's note: This story has been edited since its original posting.)