Beatrice Avery is out of options. It's already August, and her son, a special education student in Buena Vista, Mich., still doesn't know where he's going to be in school this fall.
Buena Vista is a small township in central Michigan whose residents are primarily low income and black. The township's school district was dissolved last week after years of severe financial mismanagement and dwindling enrollment. As surrounding districts pick up the abandoned students, parents like Avery are examining their options -- and coming up short. Her son was zoned to Saginaw High School in Saginaw City, but that school's academic results are almost as lackluster as Buena Vista's were.
"Their test scores are just as low as Buena Vista's," Avery said. "They don't want to deal with us, and I don't see how they can meet his needs. The regular kids are failing, so what are they going to do for him?"
Avery is one of a few thousand parents in Michigan contending with a new problem less than a month before school starts: The school districts on which they had counted no longer exist. In June, Gov. Rick Snyder (R) signed a law that dramatically accelerated the process that dissolves school districts in deep financial distress. As a result, Buena Vista and Inkster school districts were officially dissolved last week.
While thousands of school districts have been merged over the last few decades, things rarely unravel so publicly and acrimoniously in the weeks before the new school year is supposed to begin. Buena Vista's consolidation comes after years of financial uncertainty and major enrollment losses. The district shut down for two weeks in May because it ran out of money. Buena Vista's 28 teachers agreed to work for free, but the district still closed its doors. Now, those teachers have no jobs. They've also missed a few paychecks. "The teachers are out there looking for work," says Susan Rutherford, a Michigan Education Association director who works with Buena Vista. "Twenty-eight teachers are without a job, and no one seems to be worried."
Alexis Irvin, one of those teachers, has found new work -- but she had to move to Kalamazoo. "I'm only one of the few who has a job," she said. She's excited about the challenge of teaching more diverse students there, but worries about her former colleagues who are too old to uproot their lives. "We still haven't gotten paid, and I don't know if we'll see it," she said. "It really hurt a lot of people."
The Intermediate School Districts, the governing agencies that oversee clusters of school districts, are parceling out the students elsewhere. In Buena Vista, most of the students are winding up in Saginaw, a district that is also running a serious deficit.
Saginaw's financial straits are no less concerning, Rutherford says, because they are already about $5 million in deficit but will now have to maintain five empty Buena Vista school buildings. "That's going to be a burden," Rutherford said, especially since the district already has eight or nine empty buildings.
Buena Vista parents say they're glad to have a functional school district, but districts like financially strapped Bridgeport and Saginaw have proven disappointing. As part of Saginaw's deficit reduction plan, WNEM reported, it aims to lay off all of its fine arts teachers and replace them with teachers from other areas.
Cassandra Frazier, a Buena Vista High School graduate, found this news particularly disturbing. "My daughter Senethea, she expresses herself through art, through drawings," she said. "They need art teachers."
When Buena Vista shut down this year, she immediately moved Senethea into Arthur Eddy Academy, a Saginaw school -- but now that school is closing, too. "I don't know where I'm going to send her," Frazier said. "I'm going to try to send her somewhere where she can wear a uniform. I hope they accept her, I hope I'm not too late."
In Inkster, a city of 25,000 near Detroit, about 2,300 students have been displaced. When Inkster started to recruit Detroit students through an open enrollment program, the number of students -- and the hiring of new teachers -- skyrocketed. "Did they hire too many teachers?" asked David Hecker, president of the Michigan American Federation of Teachers union. The district tried to save itself during the school year through a series of cuts, laying off 104 teachers in January and 86 more when the year ended.
Now, students have been zoned to places like Wayne Westland and Taylor, another district with financial struggles. "Hopefully the Inkster students will help stabilize Taylor," Hecker said.
Charter schools, like those represented by American Charter Education Services, are using the dissolution as an opportunity to recruit more students before the beginning of the school year.
This Thursday, the group will organize a meeting at which parents can enroll their children in local charters, which are publicly funded but can be privately run. So far, about 15 charter schools have confirmed their participation in the meeting. "We want to let the parents know that they have a choice and don't have to stand by and have their kids shipped away to the new boundaries," said Josh Coggins, the group's CEO. "We hope to help with dispelling the myth of charter schools and letting them know that a charter school is a public school."
As in Buena Vista, Inkster's laid-off teachers are struggling. According to the AFT's local representative Harissa Kirksey, 20 have found jobs and the other 67 are still searching. "It's still a shock," she said. "They're trying to get their mind wrapped around spending so many years in the district and having it suddenly close. They're stuck."
Kirksey herself, a social worker in Inkster, lost her job and still hasn't found a new one. She said, "We suffer from decisions, but we are not part of the decision-making process."