Muskegon Heights School District Wants Emergency Manager

As challenges to Michigan's emergency manager law mount, Muskegon Heights school officials are practically begging Gov. Rick Snyder to put someone in charge of saving the school district from running out of cash.

The school board voted Dec. 7 to officially request an emergency manager from the Michigan schools superintendent. The move was unprecedented. Muskegon Heights is the third Michigan school district to move toward an emergency manager, following Detroit Public Schools and Highland Park Schools. But in the other school districts, and in the four Michigan municipalities currently under an emergency manager's authority, the takeover was imposed, not requested.

Dave Sipka, the Muskegon Heights interim superintendent, said school board members know the emergency manager will usurp their authority, but found the request necessary to help fix the district's growing $11.5 million deficit and preserve the school system. Michigan law gives an emergency manager the power to break collective bargaining agreements and consolidate or sell assets.

Sipka remembered the exact moment he decided he needed outside help. "It was 4:47 p.m. on Dec. 1," Sipka said. "I met with the superintendent at the time, Dana Bryant. At the end, I remember looking at the clock and thinking, 'OK, you guys need an emergency manager, because as a district you don't have the ability to climb out of this financial hole.'"

Over the years, the once industrial, majority black town steadily lost students, but the district didn't cut its budget accordingly. Bryant's retirement in December left a legacy of debt.

"The community of Muskegon Heights really [doesn't] want an emergency manager to have to come in and do the kinds of things he or she would have to do," Sipka said, "and yet the overarching sentiment in the district is we must preserve the district ... at all costs."

But some parents say even an emergency manager can't solve Muskegon Heights' problems. Sarah Willea, who has two children in the district, said she thinks a state takeover makes "no sense."

"What are you going to cut?" she asked. "There's nothing left to cut"

Willea said she moved to Muskegon Heights from downtown Muskegon several years ago because of escalating violence. She tried to send her daughters to another district last year, but Muskegon Heights wouldn't release them.

"In the meetings, they say the number one way you can help is to stick it out: 'We need your numbers, we need enrollment,'" Willea said. "I can't make my babies suffer anymore."

The district's problems aren't just financial -- the poverty-stricken city has some of the worst-performing schools in the state. After Michigan implemented a schools of choice program in the 1990s that allowed students to transfer to other districts, many have left.

Willea's oldest daughter attends elementary school three miles from their home. Closer schools are closed. School employees are laid off, only to return a week later, Willea said. "The teachers are all playing this tightrope game, putting one foot in front of the other," she said. "They have families, they have kids, they have bills to pay."

In January, Sipka asked employees to take pay cuts of 30 percent to 35 percent and to approve increases in health insurance co-pays up to 40 percent. The measures would have reduced teachers' starting salaries to $21,000.

"They rejected that," Sipka said, "as probably I would, too."

Michigan Education Association UniServ director Krista Abbott said teachers are committed to keeping the district together. They offered their own concession suggestions, but Sipka said they were insufficient. Abbott said the union is still negotiating with the district.

"The discussions we're having with the district revolve around all of those things, financial aspects as well as presenting creative solutions to deal with the academics and intensive community involvement," Abbott said.

"If an emergency manager is appointed, they're going to focus on one thing -- finances -- and you can't do this in a district with so many other factors contributing to its failings," Abbott said.

Sipka said only an emergency manager, with the power to break union contracts, could put the district on its feet.

"We've made some improvements, but those maybe add up to $1.5 million," Sipka said. "An emergency manager needs to come in and take care of contractual negotiations that we can't right now."

Sipka said he has own reservations with the emergency manager law. He even signed a petition seeking to put Public Act 4, the emergency manager law, to a referendum. Signatures are currently being counted in Lansing, and the law could be frozen by the end of April until a vote in November.

Willea said she's not waiting to see if the district stays afloat. She's planning to move to Grand Rapids, where she hopes to find better schools for her children as well as a job for herself.

"These are our kids -- not some game where you say, 'Let's see what happens.'"