Feature                                                 Pages 32-34


Birth of a Charter School


A Michigan community exercises state law to revive a district in decline through a charter management firm


It was December 2011 when I asked the superintendent in Muskegon Heights, Mich., “How much do you owe your vendors?”

“$12 million,” he replied.

The answer surprised me, as the head of the region’s intermediate education service agency, even though I had known the school district had been in financial difficulty for six years. The district had submitted a Deficit Elimination Plan to the Michigan Department of Education during each of those years while the deficit continued to grow from $500,000 to its current level.

I looked at the superintendent and his board president and said, “It’s time to ask the state for the help of an emergency manager. You have no feasible way of working your way out of this deficit.”

Muskegon Heights, a four-square-mile inner-city district of 1,400 primarily African-American students, owed the Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System more than $1 million, and health insurance companies were owed more than $2 million. The district had been unable to pay its water bills to the city, the food service contractor was owed $400,000, and other vendors lined up as the news that the school district appeared to be insolvent became widely known through media coverage.

David Sipka, superintendent of the Muskegon Area Intermediate School District in Muskegon, Mich., expects the new charter district in Muskegon Heights to rebound as it begins its third year in August.

Building conditions were so bad that a team of maintenance staff from other area school districts voluntarily made repairs for the sake of the students. Those volunteers found drinking fountains covered with black garbage bags because they were unusable, restrooms in disrepair, broken windows and doors, and leaky roofs in several schools.

Drastic Action
On March 16, 2011, Michigan’s governor approved Public Act 4 of 2011, allowing an emergency manager to take over either a school district or a municipality. An emergency manager could negate contracts, sell properties, modify district boundaries and radically change the operations of a government entity.

The Muskegon Heights Public School District was ripe for a state takeover. My advice to the board president was for the school board to invite the governor to place an emergency manager at the helm, an action that would be unprecedented because the few previous takeovers of districts and municipalities in the state had been hostile. Such an action would mean the board and the superintendent would lose their authority, and the emergency manager would have full control of financial and academic decisions. The board of education and community members would do almost anything to keep neighborhood schools within their community.

The process of placing an emergency manager in a school district required two reviews of the district’s finances that took three months to complete. The first review was conducted by a team appointed by the State Superintendent of Instruction Michael Flanagan. That team found “reasonable cause to indicate financial distress.” The second review team, appointed by the governor, was responsible for verifying the financial distress.

The superintendent had planned to retire at the end of the calendar year just three weeks after our meeting. As superintendent of the county’s intermediate school district, I was appointed the interim leader until the financial reviews were complete and an emergency manager could be appointed.

Ripple Effects
After three months of state reviews, Gov. Rick Snyder appointed Donald Weatherspoon as the emergency manager. Weatherspoon, with several degrees in education, had worked as a professor at Michigan State University and assistant superintendent with the Michigan Department of Education. It didn’t take long for him to realize the school district needed what he called “a complete transformation.” The high-poverty school district had some of the lowest-performing schools in the state, and its high school had the lowest test scores in Michigan.


Defining School District Charters

Additional Reading

Weatherspoon distributed a request for proposals to charter school management companies to operate the academic program in the two elementary schools, one middle school and high school, effectively making Muskegon Heights one of the few charter school districts in the United States and the first in Michigan.

The ripple effects in the other 11 school districts in the county were palpable. No one wanted an emergency manager to take control of their district. Contract negotiations in many districts took on a more urgent nature. The per-pupil foundation allowance that funded K-12 schools in Michigan had been stagnant since the 2006-07 school year, and districts had collectively consumed 50 percent of their fund balances in the previous five years. Combined with the fear of an emergency manager and charter school takeover, several school districts settled concessionary contracts with reductions in salaries and benefits for not only their teachers, but for support staff, as well.

Weatherspoon contracted Mosaica Education, a for-profit company, to lead the school district rebound. All 125 Muskegon Heights teachers and six administrators were terminated, and new staff members were hired — including some from the school district who reapplied to work for the charter company.

The first several months were tough going because Mosaica came on board midsummer and school began the day after Labor Day. Staff came and went because salaries and benefits were lower and the student population was demanding. Some positions, especially in special education, were difficult to fill.

The culture of the previous district had to change, and communicating the new expectations to all students would prove to be challenging. Transitioning from a public school district to a public school academy was daunting. The charter company was expected to produce an average increase in academic achievement of 1.25 years.

Assessments at all grade levels showed that while some students were achieving academically under the previous system, the vast majority lagged years behind. High school freshman reading scores showed almost every student had no better than a 6th-grade reading ability, and some scored at the 3rd-grade level.

Quieting Naysayers
As the first charter public school district in the region, the backlash from some community members was vitriolic. They pointed to the lower pay for staff, the constant turnover of teachers and unfilled positions, and low performance by students as clear signs the charter district was not working.

Mosaica had to upgrade the facilities just to meet occupancy codes before the first students walked through the schools’ doors in September. The first months seemed chaotic as school leaders created the needed structure for instruction and support. But then noticeable changes started to emerge, and the naysayers began to quiet. At the end of year one, test scores revealed students were not only gaining a year’s growth on average, but some were reaching the 1.25 years of growth that had been expected of the charter management firm.

Hallway security was upgraded in the high school to eliminate the fights that had been common between classes and during students’ lengthy trips to the restrooms. By the beginning of the second semester, the hallways were quiet. Higher expectations were making a difference in social behaviors. Teacher training on working with children in poverty was ongoing, as many of the newly hired teachers had never dealt with the challenges presented by generational poverty.

Rallying parents and care-givers to support an academic focus became a priority. Mosaica brought a new curriculum, called Paragon, to the school. School leaders and teachers would hold Paragon Nights where students displayed the work they had completed to a greater audience of parents and friends. School leaders pointed to the new curriculum as a plus, but the emergency manager raised questions about its lack of alignment with Michigan standards, forcing adjustments.

Enrollment Toll
Staff at our intermediate school district now offer more comprehensive support for the charter academy, such as meeting with each school’s leadership team on a monthly basis to oversee compliance with state and federal programs. Because the traditional district had been low-performing and the new charter district inherited the status of the predecessor, our intermediate agency dedicated a team of consultants to work with the charter company’s staff to turn around student performance.

Area school superintendents observed the changes under way at the Muskegon Heights Public School Academy System. Now in its second year, the charter district began school operations in mid-August with the school year extending into late June. School uniforms were mandated for all students. Those two factors took a negative toll on district enrollment, which dropped from more than 1,200 students in 2012-13 to 859 students as the 2013-14 school year began.

Expectations for the coming school year are that enrollment will increase once community members understand the positive impact of the many changes on student behavior and, most importantly, on student achievement. The evolution from a local public school district to one of the nation’s few charter school districts is continuing. For a community whose priority was to keep its schools within the neighborhoods, the charter school solution remains a cause for hope. n

David Sipka is superintendent of the Muskegon Area Intermediate School District in Muskegon, Mich. E-mail: dsipka@muskegonisd.org


Give your feedback

Share this article

Order this issue