The academic school year ended early for the 435 public school students of Buena Vista School District in Saginaw, Michigan. As the district’s slow-burning budget crisis came to a head, its three schools have been shut down and the entire teaching staff has been laid off.
“Our analysis of the District’s cash flow demonstrates to us that, absent an extraordinary situation, we will not be able to make payroll for staff on May 24,” according to a letter on the school district’s official site.
Buena Vista School District’s financial woes are due in part to money it wrongfully received from the state government, and now needs to return. The state of Michigan provided the district with $400,000 in aid for students in Saginaw’s Wolverine Secure Treatment Center, a facility for juvenile offenders, not realizing that the students were no longer enrolled there. After an audit of the district’s finances, the state demanded the return of the money.
Because the district is running a deficit and lacks a deficit reduction plan, the state government is also withholding financial aid which the district was supposed to receive for the months of April, May and June.
“The students, the parents, and the teachers are innocent pawns in this high-stakes game, and it now requires the district and the state to come to an agreement so that the state will send money to allow the district to complete the school year,” said Michigan Education Association spokesperson David Crim. On Monday night, MEA members in the Buena Vista School District voted to continue teaching students for free. However, as of Wednesday, school remains closed.
Superintendent Deborah Harvill told msnbc that the school board had not yet made a final decision on how to address its financial woes. One possible outcome involves installing an Emergency Manager as the head of the school district.
“We’ve been very transparent about the fact that we will probably request an Emergency Manager, or a financial review,” said Harvill.
Under Michigan law, Emergency Managers (EMs) in local governments and school districts are appointed by the state government and given sweeping authority to overrule the decisions of mayors, city councils, school boards and superintendents. The EM for public schools in the town of Muskegon Heights fired all of the school’s 158 teachers in 2012, and turned over management of the district to Mosaica Education, a private company. In other districts, EMs have used their power to unilaterally modify union contracts and force teachers to accept benefit and wage cuts.
“We’re not big fans of the Emergency Management process, because it usurps local control, eliminates contractual protections, and so forth,” said Crim. But “whatever they are able to do to get schools open at this point is something we’d be interested in.”