In late February, the Highland Park School District faced the prospect of not being able to pay its staff, even though the district receives higher than average per-pupil funding: about $14,000. The district had been spending an even larger amount, about $16,000 per student, and was out of money and options.
In a matter of days, the Legislature passed a measure, House Bill 4445, that included a finish-the-year payment to any entity but Highland Park that took in Highland Park students or operated classes in existing Highland Park buildings. The measure passed on largely party-line votes after a particularly heated debate in the House.
On March 2, the reappointed emergency manager for Highland Park had signed a deal to have the Detroit school district operate Highland Park through the rest of the 2011-12 school year.
Bridge Magazine asked House Speaker Jase Bolger, R-Marshall, and House Minority Leader Richard Hammel, D-Mount Morris, to give their views on the resolution — and on why the inability of a school district to pay its bills became such a heated topic at the State Capitol …
to help children; Democrats did not
By House Speaker Jase Boger
Recently, every member of the House Republican Caucus voted to support emergency funding to save the Highland Park School District students and allow them to complete their education this year. Once again, the caucus sent the message to all who would listen that we will not continue to do business the way Michigan has in the past.I was incredibly proud of my fellow caucus members that day, but I have never been as disappointed by partisanship as I was by the partisan politics played by the House Democrats.
Their walking away from students in need due to purely political concerns is undeniable. All but one Democrat voted against the money that would save the children of Highland Park from being put out on the street when their school district collapsed due to the district’s mismanagement. Local leaders who had mismanaged the district’s finances had failed these children, and now the Democrats representing them in Lansing were adding to that victimization.
Those who voted to throw away the children of Highland Park for political gain showed how insincere they are when they publicly call for more bipartisanship. Democratic leadership in the House was included in discussions and involved in problem-solving for the Highland Park schools from the beginning. The bill we approved was changed after consultation with House Democrats and addressed every one of the demands and goals they had made privately and publicly in order to support it.
Specifically, before the bill was voted on, House Democratic Leader Rick Hammel said publicly: ”I think the number one thing, no matter what, is the kids stay where they are at.” Democrat Rep. Maureen Stapleton, who represents Highland Park students, said, “If there is success in another school district — which is often the issue — fine. But I think it should be up to those parents.” Both of these criteria were explicitly met through the options we included in the bill.
The larger issue, however, is how to address the future of the Highland Park students and others like them who are being let down by adults unwilling to make tough decisions and be accountable to taxpayers. Years and, in some cases, decades of mismanagement in some communities and school districts are bringing those entities to the brink of collapse, from which only state intervention can save them. Without such intervention, it is likely that bankruptcy would follow, placing all taxpayers across Michigan at risk for repayment of those debts.
The Highland Park School District is a classic example of this mismanagement. The district has been receiving $14,000 per pupil in combined state and federal funding. This is in comparison to an estimated average of $9,800 per pupil at other school districts in Michigan. Clearly a lack of funding was not the problem, excess spending was.
Despite that disproportionate share of funding, the district still found itself in need of multiple hardship loans from the state, and even after these hardship loans, the district was still unable to meet payroll at the end of February.
Instead of seeking to help, Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, D-East Lansing, and Sen. Bert Johnson, D-Highland Park, sought partisan blame in claiming the failure of Highland Park schools was Republicans’ fault. However, local residents and those closest to the situation clearly disagreed.
Doreen Larson, a math teacher at Highland Park Community High School, told a local newspaper the district is burdened with corruption and she supports someone new taking over the school. Keonia Ridley, 17, a student at Highland Park Community High School, told the same newspaper she thinks the issues start from the school board and an emergency manager is needed. She was quoted as saying, “We probably wouldn’t be in this situation if they thought more about the students and put our education first.
The legislation approved for Highland Park schools put the children first, providing money that would follow them to another district or allow them to stay in the Highland Park school buildings if another school district or intermediate school district were operating them. We believed strongly in the principle that no more money should go to the district that got these students into this mess in the first place.
There is no excuse for the adults who let down the children of Highland Park, or those who refused to work to help those kids, whether those adults are in Highland Park or serving in the Democratic caucus in Lansing.
The reality is that after the Highland Park solution had been negotiated, the powerful union bosses could not have the Democrats vote for a bill that shows the importance of the emergency manager legislation. They could not be seen participating in validating an emergency manager or participate in a solution that involved an emergency manager.
I believe there is no question the legislative Democrats rejected education in favor of politics. Nevertheless, the House Republicans remain committed to standing up for what is right. We will continue to put children first, we will continue to turn this state around and we will continue do so with integrity