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Buena Vista Public Schools Closed Despite Teachers' Offer To Work For Free

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The teachers agreed to work for free, but apparently that wasn't enough -- so school's out.

That's the latest in Buena Vista, Mich., a school district of less than 500 students that closed its schools Tuesday because it is broke. At an emergency meeting Monday evening, hours after teachers voted to work for free for at least a week since the district determined it could not pay them, the school board opted to shut down schools.

Although the school year doesn't officially end until June 23, on Tuesday morning, the school district posted a notice on its website: "School will be closed Tuesday."

Tuesday also happens to be Teacher Appreciation Day. There will be a meeting for parents that evening.

Rep. Dan Kildee, a Democrat who represents Buena Vista in the U.S. House of Representatives, told The Huffington Post Tuesday that he's been hearing from furious constituents. "They're frustrated and they're angry. Having served on a school board, I understand. When parents are advocating for their own children it's the most … meaningful interaction with government they'll have."

If schools stay shuttered for the remainder of the year, some seniors might be prevented from graduating. "The solution there ought not include simply calling it a year and ending the school year at this point," Kildee said. "I can't understand it."

In the long run, he said, the school district should be consolidated -- but in the meantime the state and district should ensure students have a school.

"Every Michigan resident who pays their taxes ... has a right to have their kids go to school and not be subject to mismanagement such as this," he said. "There's a month left in school. They just need to make sure that the school district can operate and finish the school year … and use whatever authority the state has to rectify the situation."

Kildee said the teachers' offer to work for free was a "gesture of professionalism," and that he didn't understand why the district didn't take them up on their offer.

Sources say Gov. Rick Snyder (R-Mich.) is working with the Michigan Department of Education to find a solution, but Snyder's representatives did not immediately return request for comment.

While teachers voted to teach for free before the layoff notice, Joe Ann Nash, the Buena Vista Education Assoc. president, told MLive that "everything's uncertain" and that there's no plan for Wednesday.

Buena Vista has been operating on a $1 million deficit, but the most immediate cause of its financial desperation is an accounting problem. Buena Vista accepted money for running the Wolverine Secure Treatment Center even though the district was no longer working with the center -- then spent it. Now, the state is freezing school funding for at least three months to recoup about $402,000. Buena Vista also owes the state treasury and pension funds.

The state maintains that recouping the money is a legal obligation. "This is a district-created financial situation that has resulted in a hardship for students and teachers, and the community," said Jan Ellis, a spokesperson for the MDOE. "Buena Vista needs to operate under the same laws and rules of every other school district."

Ellis said that two things are preventing the state from paying Buena Vista: its lack of a viable deficit reduction plan and the advance money it spent for services it wasn't providing. "There's no way legally for us to provide funding," Ellis said.

It is unclear whether there is any way for the state legislature to fill in the gap.

The Michigan Education Association union is still considering legal action. "Last night, we yet again saw proof that politicians, administrators and other so-called 'leaders' consistently put money first and our kids last," Steve Cook, president of the MEA, said in a statement.

"Faced with a selfless offer of help from their employees to continue working, without the guarantee of a paycheck next payday, Buena Vista's school board and administration gave up on their students and employees and laid everyone off."

Representatives from the school district did not return request for comment on Tuesday. On Monday afternoon, before the emergency meeting, Superintendent Deborah Hunter-Harvill told HuffPost she urged everyone to "pray for our children" as the district seeks a solution.

UPDATE: 8:35 p.m. -- According to reports from local media, the school board told community members at Tuesday night's meeting that schools will remain closed until further notice. School board members indicated that Monday's vote for the closures was unanimous.

Emotions ran high at the meeting. The superintendent said she was "95 percent sure" the high school would still hold its prom and graduation, reported NBC 25's Walter Smith-Randolph. But she added that the dates of those events might change, saying she would have more information Thursday.

One valedictorian burst into tears, reports ABC12's Jennifer Profitt. The top student added, "something needs to be done."

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