School officials reflect on MDCR report, reconfiguration plan

By: Maria Allard | Grosse Pointe Times | Published July 1, 2019

 Michigan Department of Civil Rights Executive Director Agustin Arbulu shares the Department’s summary report with the Grosse Pointe Public School System Board of Education June 24.

Michigan Department of Civil Rights Executive Director Agustin Arbulu shares the Department’s summary report with the Grosse Pointe Public School System Board of Education June 24.

Photo by Donna Agusti

GROSSE POINTES — With Trombly Elementary School and Poupard Elementary School in the Grosse Pointe Public School System to close at the end of the 2019-20 school year, school officials will have the task of determining the new student boundaries.

District Superintendent Gary Niehaus said that will be worked on over the next school year.

“We have to find ways to make the transition welcoming,” Niehaus said. “I think there’s some sadness. We’re losing two of our elementary schools. There’s a mourning period.”

At the June 24 GPPSS Board of Education meeting at Brownell Middle School in Grosse Pointe Farms, the board voted 5-2 on a resolution to close both schools. Board members Brian Summerfield, Margaret Weertz, Judy Gafa, Kathleen Abke and Christopher Lee voted in favor of the school closings. Cindy Pangborn and Christopher Profeta voted against the resolution.

Closing Trombly, located in Grosse Pointe Park, and Poupard, located in Harper Woods, will save the district approximately $1.1 million. The board had looked at closing two schools. Mason Elementary School in Grosse Pointe Woods and Maire Elementary School in Grosse Pointe City also were considered, but those schools will remain open at this time.

While Profeta saw the need for the reconfiguration and feels that more drastic cuts could happen “if we don’t do something with our buildings,” he still voted against the school closures.

“I had issue with closing our only Title I school (Poupard),” he said. “My approach was trying to make this as least disruptive as possible.”

Profeta also said he has “full confidence in the teachers and administrators” of the district to work with the reconfiguration process.

The closings are part of a reconfiguration plan designed to deal with declining enrollment. Districts 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.

The reconfiguration plan also was designed to address the district’s size, ensure that buildings are being used to their capacity, and provide for more educational opportunities.

At the same meeting, the board voted 6-1 on a resolution to adopt a K-4, five-eight grade configuration effective the beginning of the 2020-21 school year. The elementary schools will include grades K-4, and the middle schools will include grades five-eight. Pangborn voted against the measure.


The decision process
At the Jan. 14 school board meeting, Jon Dean, district deputy superintendent for human resources and educational services, and Lisa Abbey, district deputy superintendent for business and support services, gave a district reconfiguration PowerPoint presentation that included seven options.

A 58-member Blue Ribbon Committee of community members with and without children in the district, school board members and district staff members then met several times to discuss the different reconfiguration options.

The reconfiguration plan was discussed at school board meetings for the past several months and at 15 town hall meetings including each school building this past spring. School officials also met with the PTOs of the four elementary schools considered for closure. Niehaus kept “an open-door policy” during the process and welcomed individual and small group meetings in his office. Board members also communicated with the public through emails.

Families of the schools that might close did all they could to sway school officials not to close schools. Trombly, for instance, held an exercise, A Walk Thru Rush Hour, the morning of May 17 to demonstrate the increase in pedestrian traffic that would occur along Jefferson Avenue if the Trombly students walked to Defer Elementary School. Playdates also were held so families from different schools could meet each other.

Niehaus, concerned that maybe not all the residents were being heard, invited the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, or MDCR, to hold four listening sessions in late spring where residents could speak freely about how the reconfiguration process was being handled. A reported 30 members of the community shared their concerns.

MDCR Executive Director Agustin V. Arbulu presented his summary report at the June 24 school board meeting and encouraged the board to hold off on voting. According to Arbulu, “It is clear that the community perceives that the process for deciding the fate of their neighborhood schools lacked transparency and the effective involvement of the people most impacted by the reconfiguration. The process also failed to adequately take into consideration issues of racial equity and disparate impacts on children and communities of color. For these and other reasons we outline in our report, we strongly recommend that the school board restart their deliberation with an eye to creating a more inclusive and transparent process.”

The department offered the following seven recommendations for improving the reconfiguration process:

• Extending or restarting the deliberation period with an eye to creating a more inclusive and transparent process.

• Tightening the in-district transfer policy that has disadvantaged the school with the most students of color.

• Developing a marketing plan aimed at increasing enrollment.

• Providing additional resources to the district’s only Title I school, Poupard.

• Closing a middle school in lieu of closing one or more elementary schools and retaining the current grade configuration.

• Implementing training for the school board and staff on racial equity, implicit bias and structural racism, and holding community forums on equity and inclusion.

• Adopting a racial equity lens to guide the decision-making process on reconfiguration.

“I don’t know what else we could have done to make it more transparent,” Niehaus said.

Niehaus agreed with some points in the report.

“We need to market our district better,” Niehaus said. “We need to have more equity training.”

Pangborn felt that the school board should have waited on voting after hearing the MDCR report. She also felt that the district didn’t have a plan regarding the reconfiguration process.

“We’re just doing this too fast,” Pangborn said. “We can review his report and come up with a better plan that does not tear apart our community.”

Speaking on behalf of herself, Weertz explained in an email why she went through with voting on both resolutions.

“When the report was delivered, I read it thoroughly. The comments by those at the meetings did not provide anything different from what we heard at the individual PTO, townhall and BRC meetings. We have been listening and studying this for almost a year, six months intensely,” Weertz said. “Asked if any other school districts had this amount of public meetings for school closures, (the MDCR) could not provide one.

“Furthermore, it was not the role of the MDCR to advise on which grade configurations or schools should be closed. Unfortunately it also was hard to critique the fairness and transparency of the process when the MDCR did not witness the entire process. Dr. Arbulu asked us to consider whether the process was fair, transparent and inclusive. I believe it was,” Weertz said. “I also take to heart Dr. Arbulu’s report and the several suggestions he made regarding implicit bias training for board members, board member diversity, taking a look at our transfer policy, and other suggestions that are related to improving equity for our students. I want to be clear that moving to the vote was a different decision than other parts of the report.”

“I was very interested in Dr. Arbulu’s report. There were no violations of civil rights in our process,” Lee said. “He was basing his thoughts on 30 people, whereas we’ve had more than 1,000 at the town meetings. We have done our homework and looked at data.”