Highland Park blames governor, Legislature for fiscal problems
At a time when the Highland Park School District's budget was drastically in the red, its teachers didn’t make any contributions to health care costs and saw their average salaries increase.
Despite losing 44 percent of its students over four years, the district only cut its full-time work force by 21 percent and didn’t touch its administration staffing levels. It has the highest debt-to-revenue ratio of any school district in the state.
Gov. Rick Snyder recently declared Highland Park is in a state of financial emergency, which could lead to the appointment of an emergency manager.
Despite media reports of broken water fountains and boarded up windows at pre-schools, Highland Park’s per-pupil funding has increased from $9,670 in 2005-2006 to $11,055 in 2009-2010. Its per-pupil funding in 2009-2010 was the 62nd highest in the state among 783 districts and charter public schools. The district is still spending more than $2,000 per student than it was taking in for 2009-2010.
“It does not appear to be a revenue issue,” said Michael Van Beek, education policy director at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. “It appears to be a spending problem.”
At least one Highland Park official believes the district needs more money.
Robert Davis, secretary of the Highland Park Board of Education, told The Detroit News: "When you look at the state of public education in the state of Michigan, there is a dire need for the governor and the Legislature to provide resources to fund public education rather than coming up with systemic ways to destroy it."
Neither Davis nor Superintendent Edith Hightower returned emails seeking comment.
But according to MLive.com, Hightower told a group of Highland Park parents, "You think you don't have anything now? Wait until you really don't have anything.”
Van Beek points out that Highland Park has overspent its revenues four consecutive years. In 2010-2011, Highland Park was $11.2 million in the red while only having $18.8 million in general fund revenues.
“They’ve had a financial problem for many years,” Van Beek said. “The bottom line is they’ve been spending more money than they’ve been taking in for a long time. To put this at the feet of the governor or the Legislature is not fair.”
Highland Park teachers weren’t making contributions to their own health care costs as of 2009 – the last year information was made available by the school district. And the teachers saw their average salaries increase from $47,650 in 2005-2006 to $50,783 in 2009-2010, the last year the state has information available.
The district has seen an alarming exit of students. Highland Park had 1,896 students in 2009-2010, down from 3,377 students in 2005-2006. But the school hasn’t been able to downsize as quickly.
The district went from 376 full-time employees in 2005-2006 to 297 full-timers in 2009-10, a 21 percent drop – but only half as much as the student decline.
Also, the school’s administrative staff remained at 40 full-time jobs from 2005-2006 to 2009-2010. Administrative staffing consists of the superintendent, principals and support staff, such as secretaries.