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District discusses plan to close schools

October 20, 2010

SOUTHFIELD — Southfield Public Schools administrators recommend closing Eisenhower, Schoenhals and Leonard elementary schools to cut $1.5 million of the $20 million deficit the district faces.

The recommendation came during a Jan. 5 Board of Education meeting.

The board will make a final decision in February.

The plans are based in part on recommendations from the 2009 Citizens Task Force, which was established to analyze the district’s budget projections and financial information.

A few weeks ago, the task force recommended closing Eisenhower, Leonard and Southfield-Lathrup High School, and suggested turning Thompson Middle School into a ninth-grade academy to assist students with the transition from middle to high school.

Administrators nixed the idea of closing Southfield-Lathrup and creating a ninth-grade academy, and added the suggestion to close Schoenhals.

“None of us was happy about the closing of Southfield-Lathrup,” said Fern Katz of Southfield, a member of the Board of Education. “I would say, No. 1, the big problem was with transportation. Our transportation director said it wasn’t feasible to close Thompson and move ninth-grade in there. Busing kids from all over Southfield to one school could be very expensive and could offset any gains we made.”

Even though the high school will remain open, per the administration’s recommendation, cost savings can still be realized given the declining enrollment in that building.

“(We would) reduce the size of the building as far as usable space by closing off a wing so you’re reducing costs of maintenance, heating and lighting,” explained Ken Siver, deputy superintendent of Southfield Public Schools, who also serves as a Southfield City Council  member.

In the plan, the students from Leonard would be redirected to Birney Middle School, which would become a K-8 school. Schoenhals students would instead go to Thompson, which would also become a K-8 school.

“Both have the International Baccalaureate program, so it’s just a natural,” Siver said.

Eisenhower students would be divided between Stevenson, Adler and Brace Lederle, and could also apply to go to MacArthur, which is a magnet school.

 “When you move, when you close a school, it’s very disruptive, and you want to do it as painlessly as possible, and that’s not always possible,” Siver said, adding that the task force really took into consideration the location of schools in order to decide which to close, and that proximity to other elementary schools will help smooth the transition.

“For many of the kids it won’t be a huge disruption,” he said.

If approved, the closures would go into effect in the fall.

Administrators and school district officials have been meeting with local parent-teacher associations to discuss the proposal and how it would impact the district. They met with the Southfield Area PTA on Jan. 7, and planned to meet with the Eisenhower PTA on Jan. 14 and with the Leonhard PTA at 6 p.m. on Jan. 21 at Leonhard Elementary School, followed by the Schoenhals and Thompson PTAs at 6 p.m. on Jan. 28 at Thompson Middle School.

Members of the community have been supportive of the recommendations so far, Siver said.

“I think the community knows there’s got to be school closings, bottom line,” said Dory Bryant of Southfield, president of the Southfield Area PTA.

Myron Frasier, a Southfield resident and member of the Southfield City Council, said he was one of about 35 people who sat on the task force. He said the process was “not easy.”

“We looked at the schools, where they were positioned within the city, how many students they had, their capacity, if we close this school, how far the students would have to go, that sort of thing,” Frasier said. “We moved a lot of pieces around and came up with what we thought was the most workable solution for our community, but of course it was only a recommendation. … Our objective was: There’s not enough money to go around; the student population is going downhill; the birthrate for students in Southfield is going down. We need to have some kind of a plan for how we’re going to make our budget work, and so that’s what we came up with.”

Frasier said he does not envy the members of the Board of Education who have to make the final decision.

“I understand the stress and the pressure they’re under making those kind of decisions,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes.”

Darryle Buchanan, a Southfield resident and president of the Southfield Board of Education, said he was impressed by the thoroughness of the task force.

“It was interesting how deep the community was willing to go to make things right in the district,” Buchanan said. “It’s interesting that after all this time, the community has actually come out with a harder stance than even the board was willing to go. With these modifications, I think it’s something we’ll find more palatable for both the students and the community as well, because we ultimately answer to them.”

Buchanan pointed out that the financial crisis did not happen overnight.

“We’ve been dealing with it and preparing for it for at least the past three years,” Buchanan said. “We’re in a much better situation than some of our neighboring districts that for whatever reason failed to act. Maybe they thought Lansing was going to come to our rescue, but we had to prepare ourselves for the worst-case scenario.

“I think that the board and the superintendent have been keenly aware of things and acted very responsibly to the situation. Witness the fact that we are not going into receivership; we are not filing for bankruptcy, and we do not have to apply for any loans to make it through this year as some of our neighbors are. I know that it’s been kind of a rocky ride with a lot of the decisions that have been made, but all of the decisions were made with all of us knowing that this was coming.”

With the school closures estimated to make up for $1.5 million of the district’s projected $20 million deficit, there is still a lot of work to be done. Katz said she is confident the district will figure out a way to stay afloat, and praised Superintendent Wanda Cook-Robinson for her creativity.

“We have no options — we will find a solution,” Katz said. “Like it or not, that’s what has to be. We are in that position. I frankly would be a lot happier if we could find another $20 million or $22 million, not just $18 million. When we balance the budget, (the state) push(es) us a little bit more over the edge every year. They promise money on June 1 and decide they’re not going to deliver come October, which is an absolutely difficult way to run a school district. We’re always on the edge of our seat financially.”

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