MDCR holds listening sessions in GPPSS

By: Maria Allard | Grosse Pointe Times | Published June 5, 2019

 Michigan Department of Civil Rights Enforcement Director Patricia Barrera, left; Executive Director Agustin V. Arbulu, center; and managing attorney Sylvia Elliott participate in the listening session held the morning of May 29 at Pierce Middle School in Grosse Pointe Park.

Michigan Department of Civil Rights Enforcement Director Patricia Barrera, left; Executive Director Agustin V. Arbulu, center; and managing attorney Sylvia Elliott participate in the listening session held the morning of May 29 at Pierce Middle School in Grosse Pointe Park.

Photo by Maria Allard

GROSSE POINTE PARK — In an effort to ensure that all residents of the Grosse Pointe Public School System, or GPPSS, are being heard on the district’s redistricting plan, the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, or MDCR, held four listening sessions to hear from the public on the matter.

The first two sessions were held May 29 — one in the morning and one in the late afternoon/early evening — at Pierce Middle School in Grosse Pointe Park. Parents and members of the GPPSS community were encouraged to attend. People could make comments publicly or make written comments.

A third session was scheduled from 9 a.m. to noon June 4, after the Grosse Pointe Times went to press, at the Grosse Pointe North High School Performing Arts Center at Grosse Pointe North High School in Grosse Pointe Woods. A fourth session was scheduled from 4 to 7 p.m. June 4 at the Monteith Elementary School gymnasium in Grosse Pointe Woods after the Grosse Pointe Times went to press.

According to GPPSS officials, the listening sessions were held with the Wayne County Regional Educational Service Agency, or RESA. The primary purpose of the MDCR is to investigate complaints of discrimination in employment, education, housing, public accomodation, law enforcement and public service.

According to an MDCR brochure distributed at the listening sessions, the MDCR is neutral when conducting an investigation. If the investigation shows that discrimination has occurred, “We will attempt to reach a resolution between the parties,” the brochure states. “If they cannot agree on a resolution, MDCR will enforce civil rights law and may bring a charge before the Michigan Civil Rights Commission.”

MDCR Executive Director Agustin V. Arbulu, who headed the listening sessions, said he received a call from GPPSS Superintendent Gary Niehaus asking if he and Arbulu could meet.

“His comment had to do with them not totally sure they’re hearing from all the voices,” Arbulu said. “(This) might allow for all the voices to be heard. (Niehaus’) office has been very cooperative answering questions that would better help me understand some of the issues the school district faces. I am aware of some of the district’s problems.”

One aspect of the listening sessions, Arbulu said, was “to provide a safe and secure place for people to voice their concerns without any retaliation.”

“We are here today to provide a platform for listening to the challenges and opportunities facing parents with school children attending or planning to attend the Grosse Pointe Public School System,” Arbulu said. “We do not yet know what we might do in response to (the) community’s concerns, nor do we know what we might recommend, but we are committed to not offering recommendations without first listening to those who are directly affected.

“We are also aware that decisions that are ultimately reached on school closings or other actions may or will have an impact on certain neighborhoods more than others as well as affecting students of color,” Arbulu said. “Realizing this, the administrative leadership inquired if we might be willing to hold a forum or listening sessions to hear from those that could be directly or indirectly affected by the final decisions that will or may be made by the school board of the Grosse Pointe Public School System.

“You have a beautiful community with fine schools,” Arbulu said of the district. “What draws (people) here? They like the lifestyle. They like the schools, obviously. They like the sense of tradition.”

After the final listening session June 4, Arbulu and MDCR staff members will evaluate the testimony they heard and information they received while hearing from the public. The sessions were recorded via audio format but were not videotaped.

“I plan to review and talk to staff and put together a summary of what we have learned and provide it to the superintendent and the school board,” Arbulu said.

The summary also will be released to the public “so everyone can look at it.” Arbulu may make a public statement or hold a press conference when the findings are released publicly.

“We will keep it very transparent,” Arbulu said, adding that he hopes the MDCR will have the summary ready for either the June 10 or June 24 GPPSS school board meeting.

GPPSS Superintendent Gary Niehaus said he reached out to the district’s MDCR representative, Anthony Lewis, director of community and business affairs, regarding the reconfiguration process. According to Niehaus, Lewis has been the district’s representative for the past four years and has been involved in school closings across the state of Michigan.

“We both agreed a listening session would be good, one on the north side and one on the south side, to make sure all voices are heard,” Niehaus said. “I found our community wanting to be helpful. I think we’re ready for a decision.”


The reconfiguration plan
The GPPSS is dealing with declining enrollment and what school officials call a lack of public school funding from the state of Michigan. In addition, not all the district’s school buildings are being used to their full capacity.

Because of this, the school district needs to cut costs and save money, which will include closing school buildings, as per school officials. Earlier this school year, the school board asked the administration to consider a district reconfiguration plan in an effort to cut expenses. As per state law, school districts must balance their budgets.

The reconfiguration plan also is an opportunity for the district to offer more educational opportunities for students. The plan, too, will address the district’s size as it deals with a decrease in enrollment.

The district currently has nine elementary schools, three middle schools, two high schools, one early childhood center and one administration building, known as “389” in the plan because it is located at 389 St. Clair Ave. in Grosse Pointe City.

The district’s current grade configurations are K-5, six-eight, and nine-12, but those could change if a new district concept is adopted. The reconfiguration plan is to be implemented no earlier than the 2020-21 school year.

At this time, four reconfiguration plan scenarios are on the table. The four scenarios have a plan of adopting a K-4, five-eight and nine-12 grade configuration and possibly closing two of the four following elementary schools: Trombly in Grosse Pointe Park, Mason Elementary in Grosse Pointe Woods, Poupard in Harper Woods or Maire in Grosse Pointe City. District officials have held town hall meetings throughout April and May to discuss the reconfiguration plan with residents. A possible fifth scenario of closing a middle school could be presented at the June 10 school board meeting.

Districts also lose money when they have fewer students, as public schools in Michigan receive a per-pupil allowance from the state based on their student enrollment. According to school officials, Grosse Pointe’s enrollment was more than 11,000 students during the 1975-76 school year. Enrollment projections for the 2021-22 school year are just over 7,000.

Districts statewide are losing students for several reasons: families are having fewer children, charter schools, Schools of Choice and home schooling.

According to Neihaus, the school board is ready to vote. At press time, he said the school board will vote on a resolution regarding the K-4, five-eight configuration, and another resolution about the school closings, at the June 10 school board meeting.

The reconfiguration process has taken an emotional toll on the community.  

“A decision will help us begin the healing process,” Niehaus said.

 At press time, the June 10 school board meeting was scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. at the Brownell Middle School multipurpose room, located at 260 Chalfonte Ave. in Grosse Pointe Farms. For updates to ensure that the time, date or venue has not changed, check the district’s website at www.gpschools.org.

As the reconfiguration process has continued, a play date has been scheduled. “The Northside GPPSS Elementary Schools Playdate” will be held 2-4 p.m. June 9 at Poupard Elementary School, 20655 Lennon St. in Harper Woods. The event is to welcome all Ferry, Mason, Monteith and Poupard families, and is designed to join them in building community bonding between the schools. Check the district’s website and social media in case of inclement weather.