When high school seniors worry about whether they can graduate, it's usually because they're failing a class or two.
Not in Buena Vista.
The tiny Michigan township's school district of about 400 mostly black, mostly poor students is broke. Schools are shuttered indefinitely. Seniors don't know if there will be a graduation or a prom. Or even a diploma. The district had students pay a fee for their graduation caps, gowns, hoods and diplomas -- but appears to have already spent the money.
Now that Buena Vista has burned through its funds, the state is deciding whether it wants to set a precedent of bailing out the school district. It's a question that will likely become more relevant in other states, as pension and insurance costs soar and school districts face bleaker fiscal futures.
"It's tragic," said Rae’Onna Barabino, 17, the valedictorian of Buena Vista High School. "We have to worry about prom and graduation and ending our year. It's very confusing, upsetting. It's heartbreaking." Barabino is enrolled in Eastern Michigan University, and wants to study nursing -- but if she doesn't get her diploma, that route may be imperiled. "I can't even think about it," she said.
Her friend Miya Traylor, 18, also worries about her future. She's supposed to serve in the Army after high school, but as her mother, Beatrice Avery, notes, the Army no longer accepts enlistees with GEDs. "I came to BVHS as a childish girl, but now I'm a young lady," Traylor said. "I don't care too much about prom. I just want to graduate with my class, in Buena Vista."
Students like Traylor and Barabino are frustrated because their educational futures are now out of their control. After teachers voted to work for free for at least a week, the school district shut down Monday night, opting to lay off all but a few administrative employees. Students haven't been in school since Friday. Teachers were asked to clear their supplies from school, and don't know when they'll see their next paycheck. Some are already filing for unemployment.
So far, no one is taking responsibility.
Several sources have told The Huffington Post that one option was to have students finish out the year in another local district in Saginaw County. But on Thursday, that plan ran into a hitch, setting back efforts to find a solution, said Richard Syrek, superintendent of the Saginaw County Intermediate School District, the agency that services school districts within the county. "The legal parts have kept us from doing some of the things we wanted to do," Syrek told HuffPost. His legal counsel said one school district cannot pay for its students to be educated in a different one, making it too expensive for the would-be receiving districts to accept Buena Vista's kids. "We've hit a dead end," he said.
So far, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) has been silent on the issue. Representatives from the Michigan Department of Education have said they are in touch with the district to work on a fix, but maintained that the problem is a local responsibility, and that they legally cannot help Buena Vista financially when the district owes the state money.
While Buena Vista has been on a downward financial spiral as enrollment declined over the past decade, the immediate cause of its latest trouble boils down to an accounting error. Buena Vista accepted money for running the Wolverine Secure Treatment Center, an alternative school, even though the district was no longer working with the center -- then spent it. Now, the state is freezing school funding for at least three months to recoup about $402,000.
Rep. Dan Kildee, the Democratic U.S. congressman who represents Buena Vista, is dissatisfied with this logic -- and he says there's a way to send the kids back to school. “Gov. Snyder can -- and should -- immediately act to keep these kids in their classrooms for the remainder of the school year,” Kildee said.
In fact, he notes, the state has bailed out at least one school district before. In February of last year, when the schools in Highland Park faced a financial crisis, the state legislature acted by nudging by Snyder to give the district $4 million in emergency aid. At the time, Snyder called it a way to “keep ... children in the classroom, where they deserve and need to be.”
There has been no indication of such a legislative groundswell to help Buena Vista. Snyder's office did not immediately return requests for comment Thursday, but sources say his staff is concerned that bailing out another school district would set a dangerous precedent.
"This worked much quicker with Highland Park," said Syrek, the Saginaw superintendent. "Our lobbyists are saying that the legislature and governor's office are concerned that other districts [that] are in financial problems would expect the state to bail out everyone. My concern is, let's get these kids educated; worry about the rest later."
Parents are frustrated. One mother is threatening to mount her own graduation, MLive reports. Avery, the parent of the high school senior, has watched the district's decline, and the problems run deeper than money, she said. "Buena Vista has been a failing district for the last five years. We've always been on the watch. Our kids ain't really learning like they used to," she said. "When they go to college, it's hard. The math, they don't get. Their reading levels are low. They're just passing them along. Them being out of school this early is going to hurt them a lot."
Teachers are also incensed. The shutdown has forced them to file for unemployment, some for the first time.
Alexis Ervin has been teaching in Buena Vista for 16 years. Her fourth graders asked her what was going to happen. "They were asking some pretty interesting questions for fourth graders," she said. "When I got my layoff letter, it's a signal that this is the end. ... I have to pay my mortgage, my car, I have insurance, I have credit cards, I have student loans."
Ervin's voice cracked as she started tearing up. She never thought Buena Vista would end up like this. "It's truly unbelievable that we cannot educate our children," she said. "So many people have fought and died in this country for the right for all children to go to school together. We've gone backwards in time."
Laticia Whitehead, a Buena Vista native, has been teaching high school English and drama for six years. She takes pride in her roots, and blames the district's problems on "funding cuts, mismanagement, and high turnover," she said. Services like after-school activities, she said, have been privatized. "We knew we would have to take concessions to survive," she said, "but we never foresaw this happening -- school just being cut off in the middle. It was a big shock when everything came to a halt and suddenly no one in the district has a job." Her students cried when they heard the news, she said. The seniors are worried about accessing their transcripts and completing enough credits to graduate.
School board representatives did not return requests for comment. The school board plans to meet publicly Thursday night -- but it's unclear what parents will glean, since a previous meeting left parents with more questions than answers, WNEM's Andrew Keller reported.
"Save yourself gas, because that meeting was useless," Avery said.
UPDATE: 8:18 p.m. -- At a school board meeting Thursday night, the district passed a resolution approving the class of 2013 for graduation -- including a special vote to approve a student who didn't take pre-calculus. The board also voted to approve a deficit-elimination plan and consolidate high school buildings to save about $600,000.