DETROIT (WWJ/AP) - Meeting in public under a court order, a state-appointed review team determined for the second time that a financial emergency exists in Highland Park Public Schools, a district facing the threat of a payless payday by week’s end.
The review team reassessed earlier recommendations that an emergency manager should run the district’s finances and voted 9-0 Wednesday to forward that on to Gov. Rick Snyder.
They were forced to discuss those publicly after a judge ruled on a lawsuit filed by a school board member. The suit said earlier meetings that led to the appointment of an emergency manager violated the state’s Open Meetings Act. Jack Martin temporarily stepped down from the job this week.
About a dozen people – including a few school board members, teachers’ union representatives, district officials and at least one parent – attended the meeting at state offices in Detroit.
“Whatever is going on, fix it. By any means necessary fix the situation,” Melissa Ross, a parent with four children in the district, told the review team. “At the end of the day, the kids suffer.”
District Superintendent Edith Hightower said after Wednesday’s meeting that it is unclear if the state would step in – again – and forward Highland Park Schools enough cash to pay its teachers on Friday. The state gave the district an advance of $188,000 in January and $261,000 already this month.
“That is a possibility, unless some money shows up in the coffers that I have not seen, and we’re talking about roughly, something like $260,000,” school board president John Holloway told WWJ’s Stephanie Davis.
Snyder and state education officials have not said if they’ll open the coffers again for the district, which saw its deficit grow from $6.6 million to $11.3 million last school year. Highland Park also has incurred an operating deficit in five of the last six years, is having trouble paying vendors and has yet to file a promised deficit elimination plan with the state.
“Clearly, the situation is not getting better,” review team member Carol Wollenberg said before Wednesday’s vote.
Holloway said an appeal will be filed if Snyder reappoints Martin or another emergency manager.
Emergency managers are appointed by the state to help fix the finances of fiscally troubled local governments and schools. They have broad authority including the power to toss out union contracts and strip power from locally elected officials. They have also come under criticism by opponents who say they strip away local control.
“It’s all-encompassing. It takes away everything,” said Holloway, who added that the state has been aware of the district’s financial woes for several years.
“They get the audit reports,” he said. “We tried everything we could. The train of losing students we couldn’t stop.”
The district is located in the impoverished Detroit enclave of Highland Park, a once prosperous community that used to host Chrysler’s headquarters. Its money troubles are partially tied to the exodus of students leaving the schools and the subsequent loss of per-pupil funding from the state. The district has seen enrollment drop from 3,179 students in 2006 to about 970 this year.
Union president Katrina Henry said teachers are in favor of letting Martin return to the job.
“Mr. Martin … seems he was on the right track,” she said.
The union and school board have scheduled meetings on Thursday to address the emergency manager issue, as well as the possibility that teachers won’t get paid the following day.
Snyder wants state lawmakers to quickly pass new laws that would allow the Highland Park district to keep operating under an agreement with another school district or charter school that would step in and offer classes to students. Leaders in the Michigan Legislature were discussing possible ways to do that Wednesday, but no votes on legislation were expected until late this week or early next week.
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