Supporters of a student health clinic at Grosse Pointe North High School brought signs to display during a special Grosse Pointe Board of Education meeting Jan. 19 at Brownell Middle School in Grosse Pointe Farms.

Supporters of a student health clinic at Grosse Pointe North High School brought signs to display during a special Grosse Pointe Board of Education meeting Jan. 19 at Brownell Middle School in Grosse Pointe Farms.

Photo by K. Michelle Moran

Divided school board derails health clinic project at Grosse Pointe North

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published January 25, 2023

GROSSE POINTE WOODS/FARMS — A clinic at Grosse Pointe North High School in Grosse Pointe Woods that would have provided certain forms of free basic medical care to students in the Grosse Pointes and Harper Woods, regardless of their ability to pay, will no longer be installed.

During a special meeting of the Grosse Pointe Board of Education Jan. 19 at Brownell Middle School in Grosse Pointe Farms, the board voted 4-3 in favor of immediately halting work and expenditures toward the clinic until an alternative could be found that wouldn’t result in the use of tax dollars.

Board President Ahmed Ismail and board members Sean Cotton, Virginia “Ginny” Jeup and Lisa Papas voted in favor of the resolution, while board members David Brumbaugh, Valarie St. John and Colleen Worden voted against it. Although the resolution was worded as a pause in the process rather than a halt to the clinic, the vote essentially derailed the clinic altogether because a condition in the state grant for the facility included a condition that it be running by fall 2023, and Superintendent Jon Dean confirmed that the project couldn’t be completed in time if construction couldn’t begin this winter.

“This was an exciting opportunity, but unfortunately we will not be moving forward,” Dean said after the meeting.

The vote effectively overturns a decision last year by a previous school board in favor of the clinic, which would have been operated by Oakwood Healthcare (Beaumont Health, now known as Corewell Health).

The special meeting was called Jan. 17 by Jeup and Papas, in response to a Jan. 8 demand letter sent by Grosse Pointe Park attorney Anthony L. DeLuca. Ismail said any two board members can request a special meeting at any time.

DeLuca’s letter, written “on behalf of a significant number of residents of the five Grosse Pointes who oppose the Grosse Pointe Board of Education’s decision to use sinking funds to construct a medical facility at Grosse Pointe North High School,” alleged that it was unlawful for the district to use sinking funds for this purpose.

Attorneys Amanda Van Dusen and Thomas D. Colis, of Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone PLC — the law firm that represents the district — disagreed with DeLuca’s claim. In a Jan. 17 response to DeLuca’s letter, the Miller Canfield attorneys wrote, in part, “The Revised School Code and the State School Aid Act both provide ample authority to the School District to enter into the Interagency Agreement (the “Agreement”), dated Dec. 22, 2022, with Oakwood, and to house the Center at North, consistent with the powers and responsibilities of the School District. The fact that Oakwood will operate the Center pursuant to the Agreement does not change the character of the space from a school building to something else, particularly because the intent is to serve School District students and other youth who are resident in the School District. Since the Center will be operated in a school in furtherance of School District purposes, as required by the terms of the State grant, the School District is paying only the cost of the physical improvements to house the Center, and Oakwood is responsible for furnishings and equipment, the use of School District sinking funds to pay the cost of these improvements is appropriate.”

Some board members and residents said that responding with a special meeting to a single letter set a dangerous precedent, and they questioned who was behind the letter.

“I’m concerned that Mr. DeLuca’s letter was commissioned by people in the community who didn’t want to put their name on it,” Grosse Pointe Farms resident Heather Hanneman, a mother of two students in the district, told the board.

Opponents of the clinic cited the project’s price tag and the fact that the district hadn’t explored a similar partnership with a different health care facility, among other issues. The district said Beaumont approached it about this project.

Dean said the district has been looking into ways to provide better health care access to students for years. It was teachers and administrators at North who applied for and acquired the grant.

The cost to the district — originally estimated at around $700,000 — had risen to nearly $1 million, with contingencies, by the time a project bid was approved by the school board in December 2022. These costs were related to retrofitting a single classroom that Dean said is no longer used, as well as building a separate, secure entrance to the clinic from the outside.

“It’s not the health clinic that’s the issue. … We are looking at potential litigation,” Papas said. “So let’s pause this and look for options that don’t cost $1 million.”

As of the last audit, Papas said the fund balance of the district’s sinking fund had decreased by $1 million, to $4.1 million.

“I’ve been going through the budget, and I have serious concerns about the financial viability of the district,” Cotton said. “We are in serious financial straits. We have plummeting enrollment. We have schools that are half-empty. I don’t know that we can afford extraneous expenses.”

Cotton expressed a willingness to “reopen any decision” of the previous school board if he felt it was necessary.

St. John said she was “very concerned” that the new school board was willing to “reopen any decision” made by the prior board based on cost.

“We’re setting a tone that we’re going to do whatever we want and we don’t care what teachers or administrators have to say about it,” said St. John. “That is not attracting people to come to our district and enroll their children.”

Jeup said she “spoke with a lot of teachers who are not in favor of the clinic.”

None of those teachers were among the educators who addressed the board at the Jan. 19 meeting.

Brumbaugh said the district can’t address its budgetary woes with sinking funds, as those can only be used for certain types of expenditures.

In May 2022, the district learned it had been awarded a grant of about $300,000 from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for a child and adolescent health clinic. More than 200 such clinics are funded by the MDHHS. The decision to place the clinic at North was because 26% of North students are economically disadvantaged, while 10% of students at Grosse Pointe South High School are economically disadvantaged. School officials say that’s why the state awarded the grant for North.

School district officials had said that, despite the initial costs associated with converting a classroom into a clinic with its own secure entrance, the estimated value of the services students would receive each year was roughly $350,000 to $400,000, which included annual funding from the grant and the nonprofit Beaumont Foundation. District officials said they wouldn’t be responsible for any ongoing costs related to the clinic.

Students would have gotten medical services for free. If students had health insurance, their insurance would be billed for the services, but any copays would be covered by the clinic.

“No one is ever given a bill” for clinic services, said Dean, noting that the clinic would have been at “zero cost” to students.

Besides vaccines, sports physicals and other health needs, the facility would have given students access to mental health care, which many parents, teachers and students said is an important need, especially in light of an increase in mental health problems related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Parental consent would have been required for any medical care provided to minors, except in areas where state law gives minors access to certain confidential services, such as mental health counseling and testing for sexually transmitted diseases or HIV. Those exceptions apply to any medical facility, not just school clinics.

Dean said the clinic would have been open to anyone ages 5 to 21 who lived in the Grosse Pointes or Harper Woods, or who attended school in the Grosse Pointes or Harper Woods.

He said the clinic was not an urgent care.

For parents concerned that the clinic might be providing abortions or referrals to an abortion provider, Dean said that wasn’t the case.

“There is nothing surgical or invasive done at the clinic,” Dean said. “Under state law, they cannot provide contraceptives of any kind.”

Dean said if a student needed an X-ray or stitches, for example, the student would need to go to a hospital or other medical facility, as those types of services wouldn’t be provided at the clinic. So, in the case of, for example, a student who broke a leg during a fall, that would need to be treated elsewhere.

For those in the community concerned about whether the clinic would be providing gender transitioning assistance for transgender students without parental knowledge, Dean said that wasn’t the case.

“This place does not dispense medicine of any kind,” Dean said. That means they won’t be dispensing hormones.

“If a student has questions about that, the best place for them to go is their parents,” Dean said. “That is not what this clinic is about.”

Former Grosse Pointe Board of Education President Joseph Herd — who headed the board when the clinic was approved — was among those who supported the project.

“It is a resource that will be available to all students in our district, free of charge,” Herd said by email last year. “Minor medical issues will be quickly treated, allowing our students to return to class promptly. Parents will be given the option of not picking their child up from school to take them to a medical facility.”

Dozens of local residents — some in favor of the clinic, some opposed — filed into the Brownell auditorium for the Jan. 19 meeting. Passions ran high and tempers flared as nearly 50 speakers — including some former students — addressed the board during the four-hour-long session.

Michelle White, of Grosse Pointe Park, a mother, said school-based clinics are tools to help students.

“School-based clinics remove barriers to health care, and there are hundreds of them across the country,” White said. “Why are you opposed to a free clinic? Maybe you don’t know what it’s like to choose between buying groceries or putting gas in your car or (paying medical) copays.”

Liz Michaels, a teacher at North, called the concerns about the clinic “largely unfounded.” She said the facility would serve an important need and keep students from missing school due to illness or medical appointments.

“We know that healthy students are better learners,” Michaels said.

Jenny Sherman, a Grosse Pointe Park resident and mother who is also head of the school counseling unit at North, said parents are facing wait times of six months or more to get their children an appointment with a therapist, and many then discover that their health insurance isn’t accepted.

“In my 20 years of counseling, I have never seen a greater need than I do today,” Sherman said.

Clint Derringer of Grosse Pointe City, a former school board candidate, asked what higher priority there could be than protecting the health of students.

“Partisan beliefs should be second to the needs of our students,” Derringer said. “This is a nakedly evil attempt to remove health care opportunities from our students.”

Opponents of this project also spoke.

Longtime Grosse Pointe Park resident Tom Steen, a graduate of the district, said the board hadn’t been “good stewards of the community’s money.”

“I think projects like this clinic should be put on the ballot,” Steen said of expenditures that he said were outside the scope of education.

Terrence “Terry” Collins, of Grosse Pointe Park, a former school board candidate, said the district’s own consultants outlined about $253 million in capital needs over the next 10 years, a figure that “far alone exceeded” available monies in the budget and sinking fund. That assessment didn’t include the district cost for the clinic, he said.

“Proceeding with clinic expenditures at this point would be extremely irresponsible,” Collins said.

Doug Fielder, of Grosse Pointe Farms, echoed that sentiment, saying he felt the funds could be better spent “to improve our schools.”

But some residents questioned why the school board could approve the use of about $4 million in sinking funds to refurbish athletic fields but not $1 million for student health care.

St. John asked Papas if she had any alternative funding sources for the clinic.

“I think there’s many ways to do it,” Papas responded. “I don’t think this clinic is the way to do it.”

Ismail said he didn’t believe any program had been identified that would supplant the school district’s funding to retain the grant.

Worden questioned the need for an emergency special meeting with less than 48 hours’ notice on this issue, which she said had been “vetted thoroughly over a six-month process” last year that included input from parents, students and teachers.

“The reason for the emergency (meeting) was to have this (discussion) in the public forum and have a vote before we get any further down the line with it,” Papas said,

Papas said she questioned the rise in cost for the project, and the fact that the previous board approved the expenditure after a new school board was elected. She also said there would be ongoing costs associated with the clinic, such as repairing the roof at North if there was a water leak in the clinic space.

Brumbaugh said the clinic was “a self-funded service,” and the grant was “a very clever way to provide a much-needed service” to the district.

Although no construction to retrofit the roughly 2,000-square-foot North classroom had started yet, the district is still on the hook for about $150,000 in costs related to the clinic, including architectural drawings. Those funds were originally slated to come out of the sinking fund, but now that the clinic isn’t going to be installed, school officials say those dollars need to come out of the general fund.