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Flint schools end turbulent year with more big changes ahead

 Flint Community Schools Superintendent Derrick Lopez attends an emergency meeting to discuss the district's bleak finances.
Flint Community Schools Superintendent Derrick Lopez attends an emergency meeting to discuss the district's bleak finances. (WJRT)
Published: Dec. 31, 2019 at 5:48 PM EST
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(12/31/2019) - Flint Community Schools see their place in the education community, but the district is ready to embrace its role in 2020.

"We might be a district of last resort, but we're gonna be a damn good district of last resort," said Superintendent Derrick Lopez.

The district's future remains a little hazy as 2019 ends. A more than $9 million debt has the school board scrambling to save money while the state is overseeing the district's plan to pay off its debt in 16 years.

A plan proposed at an emergency school board meeting in November calls for closing four more school buildings.

"We looked at geographic locations of buildings," Lopez said. "We need to have equal distribution across the city. We looked at the proximity of buildings to one another."

Before the district starts chipping away at its overall $9 million debt, he believes leaders need to tackle a structural debt of $5.7 million. Lopez suggested closing the Pierce, Eisenhower, Scott and Northwestern buildings, which he believes will save at least $5 million a year.

"The costs are cut with respect to utilities, first because if we're not using the space, custodian -- we have to clean those buildings every night," Lopez said. "So there's a cost per square foot of cleaning buildings every evening. Transportation routes, you would consolidate routes."

At the next few meetings, plans to close the schools were not greeted warmly. Community members who live nearby those schools, students who attend them, their parents and teachers showed up in large numbers to keep their schools open.

A majority of the board members don't want schools to close either.

Lopez said cuts have to be made somewhere -- and closing those four schools would save $5 million. The school board has until February to come up with a plan.

Board members seem shocked the district is so far in debt. But enrollment has declined significantly over the years and so has the tax base.

Lopez points to another issue that sent the district's finances spiraling.

"Five years ago, a private accounting firm was actually engaged by the district to actually do our accounting," he said.

The district took out a $22 million loan from the state. Lopez said at that same time cuts were recommended to help pay that loan, but none of those measures were taken.

"You can't borrow your way out of debt. Everyone knows that," Lopez said. "What should've happened with the accounting firm and the administration, they should've worked hand in glove to figure out what structural cuts can be made while also not hurting the classroom over that time period and we wouldn't have found ourselves in this position."

Flint Community Schools now manages its finances in-house.

Now, to pay off the debt the district is turning to taxpayers for help. Voters in the district will see a millage renewal on the March ballot.

If passed, Lopez said it'll generate around $30 million, which will be divided into a sinking fund and paying off their debt.

"Then we'll actually be out of that in seven years as opposed to 16 years, which is an incredible gift to be giving to our children," he said.

Until then, Lopez is making cuts every day to tighten the district's spending.

"We just recently updated our security services and so what that does is allows us to not use old landlines that are costing us upwards of $30,000 to $50,000 a month," he said.

Lopez also is closely monitoring legal fees and assurance fees.

"We're monitoring all of those costs that are within our discretion and control to make sure we're making the best decisions and the best use of the dollars we have available to us," he said.

Lopez also hopes to speak with the Genesee Intermediate School District and Michigan Department of Education about funding for special education students.

He said the state average of students who require special education services is 12%, but that number is more than double in Flint Community Schools at 24% to 26%.

"The amount of resources we need to educate those students, which is almost double what you need to educate a general ed student -- we have to discuss those things," Lopez said.

Flint Community Schools spend an extra $3.6 million a year from what they get from the state to cover their costs for special education students.

Karen Christian, the United Teachers of Flint president and a fifth grade teacher, is optimistic about the future of the district. While many say they don't believe the district will survive another five years, she said it's critical that it does.

"They deserve the best that we can give and certified teachers who work in public schools do phenomenal work for these kids and they help them through their trauma and they help them through all of the things going on in their family life," Christian said. "And if we abandon them to just go to a charter school, then we've let them down also. And we can't let our students down."

Another challenge: Funding is based on how many kids are in school on Count Day each year. Last year, that day was Oct. 3.

Lopez said 160 kids came to the district after Count Day, which means Flint Community Schools didn't get money for those students. That adds up to more than $1.3 million that Flint schools have to find somewhere else.

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