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January 23, 2013

BPS becomes Schools of Choice district

By Tiffany Esshaki
C & G Staff Writer

BIRMINGHAM — The Birmingham Public Schools Board of Education voted last week to join Michigan’s Schools of Choice program — though members made it clear the decision was less choice and more necessity.

During the board’s regular meeting Jan. 15, Superintendent Daniel Nerad and Deputy Superintendent of Educational Services Paul DeAngelis presented trustees with two resolutions to make six seats available to 11th-grade Oakland County students in the district’s alternative-education program. It would, in the narrowest definition, make BPS a Schools of Choice district — a move that Nerad acknowledged several times during discussions has not been a popular option amongst board members in the past. 

“This proposition on Schools of Choice should not — and I can’t underscore that enough — be viewed as a public-policy recommendation,” said Nerad. “It’s how we (can) leverage help for the school district financially.”

DeAngelis explained that the district lost state funding for the current school year, contributing to a deficit of nearly $3 million. After careful analysis by the district as to how some, if any, of the funds could be recovered, DeAngelis said BPS could earn back around $430,000 if the district were able to meet seven of eight “best practices,” as outlined by the state. Becoming a Schools of Choice district would bring BPS from six to seven best practices.

The only other qualification that BPS has not yet implemented is to adjust curriculum so students receive physical education classes four days a week. Such a change, DeAngelis explained, would not only be difficult during the already-scheduled school year, but would mean other instruction, such as the unified arts classes, would need to be sacrificed.

During deliberations, nearly every trustee who shared opinions on the resolutions said he or she was unhappy about being forced into such a decision.

“It provides us with a significant amount of money because we comply with these best practices. But what we’ve done is jump through a very small, flaming hoop, and the size of that hoop is exactly six students. That’s it. The choice stops at six students. I find it somewhat ridiculous,” said Trustee Robert Lawrence.

While Lawrence was displeased about having to make the choice, he agreed to vote in favor of joining Schools of Choice, from a fiscal standpoint. Trustee Geri Rinschler, however, said she wouldn’t be able to lend her support to the resolutions.

“I’ve looked at this from all sides. It’s one-time money, and I really struggle with us moving in that direction,” she said.

When the board was called to a vote, the resolutions were approved 5-2, with Rinschler and Trustee Lori Soifer dissenting.

Later, Board President Michael Fenberg discussed why the decision was ultimately made, even though, during the meeting, he referred to the best practices obligation as “malarkey.”

“Unfortunately, the state reduced funding across the board about $470 a student. They came back and said, ‘However, if you can substantiate that you have supported or participated in seven of eight of these best practices, we’re going to give you back $52 of the $470 we took away,’” said Fenburg.

He added that he considered the stipulation “insulting,” since BPS was among the first districts in Michigan to meet many of the best practices, years before they became commonplace.

“We were one of the first districts to contract out our noninstructional services, like custodial,” said Fenberg. “We don’t, as a philosophical issue, believe in Schools of Choice because what it does is erodes other school districts. You should keep your students in your home school district. We believe in the value of neighborhood schools.”

BPS is accepting applications for the six seats through Feb. 1. For registration information, call (248) 203-3089.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Tiffany Esshaki at tesshaki@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1095.