Buena Vista School District Officially Closes For Year, Offers 'Skills Camp'

Schools Shut Down A Month Early

It's official.

For the 400 or so students in Buena Vista, Mich., school is over, even though the academic year isn't supposed to end until the middle of June.

Instead, they will likely attend "skills camp." If the school board approves the advancement of students -- despite not finishing out the year -- students will be able to attend "skills camp," a voluntary substitute for school, the district announced Monday at a press conference with Superintendent Deborah Hunter-Harvill, Saginaw Intermediate School District Superintendent Richard Syrek, and Michigan Department of Education chief Michael Flanagan.

Last week, the Buena Vista School District fired all of its teachers and closed its schools because it had run out of money. Because the district accepted money from the state for a program it was no longer providing, the state is withholding the district's school aid for at least three months.

Skills camp would be paid for by federal Title I and Title 31 A grants, although Syrek told The Huffington Post it is unclear how much money is available. Teachers will have to interview for positions, and camp will last six hours per day. Syrek didn't know whether the program could provide for students with special needs.

Beatrice Avery's son, Miquel, was supposed to start in Buena Vista High School in the fall. Miquel has special needs, and benefited from the district's special education program, Avery said. But she's not sure skills camp is a good enough substitute -- especially since it might not cater to her son's needs. "I think they just gave up on Buena Vista," she said. "I don't think the camp is going to be geared toward my child. I don't know what to do. I'm tired of fighting."

One-third of her friends are transferring their children into surrounding district or charter schools. "They're worried about school next year ..., " Avery said.

While the case in Buena Vista is confined to a tiny township, school districts across Michigan -- and the country -- might have cause for concern. Mounting pension costs and cuts to state aid have forced school districts to make cuts in recent years. The Michigan Department of Education found that as of February, 49 schools were running deficits described in a report as "almost insurmountable," as MSNBC noted. One such district, Pontiac, came close to missing its payroll -- but over the weekend, the state approved its deficit reduction plan, and said it would advance the district money so that its schools could finish the school year.

The difference between how the problems in Buena Vista and Pontiac were resolved caused some to ask whether tax-paying families are having their constitutional right to an education fulfilled.

“The students of Buena Vista have a constitutional right to an education and deserve the same educational opportunities as other Michigan children, and that means being in a classroom full-time to complete their school year," said Rep. Dan Kildee, a Democratic congressman who represents Buena Vista, on Monday. "I do not believe that a voluntary camp amounts to a proper education for the children of Buena Vista."

He called the solution a "dangerous precedent." Joe Ann Nash, a third-grade teacher and president of the Buena Vista Education Association, expressed similar doubts. "This is [the district's] fault, but they tell us we have to reinterview for our own jobs?" she asked. "How are they going to explain to parents that this is what they're doing to provide an education? Our superintendent talks about education as a civil right, but now we're going to have camp?"

Syrek thinks the camp will satisfy the constitutional requirement. "Whether they've met the educational requirements, that's a local decision. In all probability, they're going to get more education than they would have otherwise gotten," he said, because skills camp is slated to last for up to six weeks.

Flanagan, Hunter-Harvill and local superintendents developed the plan. "The goal was always to keep the youngsters in their own building," Syrek said. "I don't know how much money it will cost."

Rep. Stacey Erwin Oakes (D), a state legislator who represents Buena Vista, is incensed. "I just don't understand why anyone would suggest anything other than open the doors of the schools for the last few weeks," she said. "We know from past history that students have been treated differently, going back to Brown v. Board of Education."

She said she thought the state should tap into rainy day or school aid funds to just make sure the students can finish the year in school. "But they're choosing not to make that loan based on the superficial reason that a deficit elimination is not in place, but it can be in the next week or so," she said.

"The path of least resistance would be to put them back in school," she said. "This leaves more questions than answers."

Students in Buena Vista said they are used to being treated differently. Lorenzo Caldwell is graduating from Buena Vista High School this year, after the school board last week voted to approve the seniors' graduation despite not finishing school.

Over the last few months, memes on Facebook have popped up, making fun of Buena Vista for its poverty, he said. He remembers a picture of a homeless man captioned with the name of his district. More recently, there was a picture of his school, with the phrase "ride up to the scene and my teacher's missing," a spoof of popular song lyrics.

After he graduates, Caldwell says he doesn't think he'll have a school to return to. "I feel like I got cheated on by someone I really love," he said. "It hurts."

Because of the recent problems, Cassandra Frazier's daughter is starting at a local charter school on Tuesday. "I just don't have time for public schools anymore," she said. "They have too much money problems. I was raised here. I wanted at least one of my daughters to graduate from my high school. But I don't think it will exist next year."

UPDATE: At a Tuesday morning meeting, Flanagan said Buena Vista schools could actually reopen and avoid skills camp -- if the school board approves a deficit reduction plan Tuesday night. Flanagan said late Monday, following the skills camp announcement, that the school district submitted an acceptable plan for the first time. "We think we can approve that tomorrow," Flanagan said, according to the Detroit News.

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