The Real Story About Highland Park Schools

Not easy to turn around long-lasting damage from mismanagement

The city of Highland Park is closing its high school and held informational meetings this week that are generating statewide media attention.

Most of the media coverage has been focused on where the 160 high school students will go.

But lost in the coverage was the corruption and fiscal mismanagement by school officials that led to the district being taken over by an emergency manager and then the charter school operator The Leona Group.

Recently, one Highland Park administrator called the closing “a travesty.”

"These children have been in Highland Park all their lives," said Glenda McDonald, president of the Highland Park City Schools board of education, in the Detroit Free Press. "And now to be relocated to God knows where ... it's a travesty. No one realizes they are uprooting children."

The Detroit Free Press article cited the city’s poverty, stating 51 percent of the residents live below the poverty level.

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But poor cities don’t necessarily translate into poor school districts.

Highland Park schools received $15,795 per pupil (local, state and federal money into the general fund) in 2011-12, when the emergency manager was ordered to take over the school district. By comparison, that was more than double what the Wyandotte Public Schools ($7,686 per pupil) received just 19 miles away.

The collapse of Highland Park schools isn’t a tale of a poor district in financial distress due to a lack of money. It’s about financial incompetence and corruption of the school district’s administrators.

Before the district entered into an eight-year slide of financial deficits, it had 3,419 students in 2007-08. Enrollment plummeted to 1,024 by 2011-12, when the state appointed an emergency manager.

Enrollment is crucial to funding public schools in Michigan. But the dive in enrollment was aided in part due by corruption on the school board.

In December of 2014, former school board member Robert Davis was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison, The Detroit News reported. Davis stole about $200,000 from the district and spent it on cars, hotels, bars and clothes. Davis, the newspaper reported, stole the money from a contractor hired to boost enrollment.

Amazingly, it was Davis who in January of 2012 blamed the governor and a lack of funding for Highland Park’s woes.

According to the Michigan Department of Education, the district's deficit went from $3.0 million in 2008-09 to $7.2 million in 2009-10 to $11.3 million in 2010-11 to $12.2 million in 2011-12. The state appointed an emergency manager in January 2012 after it was realized the district owed various vendors $1.7 million and was between 30 to 180 days late on payment.

District officials had failed to perform adequate financial accounting. For example, according to a state report, in 2008-09 the school board approved a budget that overestimated revenue by $5.4 million, or 20 percent. The next year, the board approved a budget that underestimated expenditures by $5.7 million, or 30 percent. By comparison, Plymouth-Canton Community Schools projected total revenue of $150.2 million in its original 2013-14 budget. The actual revenue for that year was $151.1 million, a variance of less than one percent.

The governor’s review team requested financial information from the Highland Park schools on Nov. 17, 2011. It never received it. A district official did request a 30-day extension but it was denied because the review team’s statutory time frame had expired.

“However, the inability, or unwillingness, of School District officials promptly to provide the Review Team with requested information clearly called into question the ability of School District officials to comply with a Consent Agreement,” the state’s January 2012 report stated.

Highland Park schools had other problems that were baffling.

For example, in 2011-12, the school district’s cost of instructional salaries and benefits were listed at $6,843 per pupil by the Michigan Department of Education. By comparison, Inkster Public Schools was 22 miles away and had instructional-salary costs at $4,622 per pupil,  nearly 50 percent lower.

Highland Park's apparent investment in teacher compensation didn't generate any academic results. The academic failure was so bad, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the district in 2012 alleging that its students “have been denied the instruction necessary to attain basic literacy skills and reading proficiency expected of all students by the State of Michigan.”

According to the lawsuit, students slept during an eighth-grade class and received no instruction or assistance from a teacher. The ACLU claimed that in one seventh-grade class, the teacher did not lecture but instead graded papers during class time or did other work while students read on a computer. In an 11th-grade class, one student didn’t know how to operate a computer and there was no adult in the room to go for assistance.

A Mackinac Center report on Highland Park schools cited students as saying rodents were found throughout school buildings.

"Highland Park shows that it is not easy to turn around a district that has been driven into the ground by mismanagement,” said Audrey Spalding, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center. “When school district officials mismanage schools, they are creating long-lasting damage. For Highland Park High School students, the best option may be to find a better alternative now, instead of waiting for the school to change.”

Highland Park’s McDonald and the ACLU didn’t respond to emails seeking comment.


See also:

Documentary: The Highland Park Transformation

District Spent $20K Per Student, Had Rodents in Schools, Holes in Ceilings and Walls

Lawsuit Against Highland Park Schools Misguided

Michigan PTA President Says Top Spending Highland Park District Needs More Money

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