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Grading Michigan's first fully privatized public school district

Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio

Last summer, Muskegon Heights became the first school district in the state to completely privatize its public school system.

In December 2011, after running a budget deficit for six years in a row, the school board requested the appointment of an emergency manager under the now-defunct Public Act 4.

Soon after his appointment in April 2012, emergency manager Don Weatherspoon laid off all of the district’s employees, created a new charter district, and appointed a new school board to run it.

In July, the school board hired Mosaica Education Inc. to run the schools. That left the charter education company less than 60 days to hire and train a staff of 140 teachers before the start of classes.

What happened next is the subject of a four-part series by Michigan Radio’s Lindsey Smith.

Here’s a recap of what she found:

Chaos: Building a school system in 60 days

With just two months to organize before the start of classes, it’s understandable that Muskegon Heights had a rough couple of months to begin the year, Smith reports.

Local stores ran out of school uniforms, class schedules were not delivered to students, and temporary occupancy permits were required for buildings that did not meet state safety standards.

Most worrying, though, were concerns over staffing. Within three months of school starting, more than 1 in 4 teachers had quit.

One principal quit before training was over.

Smith spoke with Alena Zachery-Ross, the Regional Vice President for Mosaica Education Inc., about the high turnover rate.

Zachery-Ross said at the start of the school year some teachers could not resolve discipline issues they found in the schools.

Former teacher Susan Strobel described the challenge to Smith:

Later in the school year, other teachers left because of how little the charter company pays. In July, Mosaica said base teacher salary would be about $35,000 with $10,000 in benefits.

What the kids think

Students in Muskegon Heights High School told Smith that the high turnover of teachers has led to a great deal of confusion in the classroom.

18-year-0ld Tony Harris told Smith that he has had three math teachers in three months.

“Basically it’s confusing because I go from this learning process to this learning process to that learning process and it’s just ridiculous how some teachers leave and then we have to start all over and then we learn something new. It’s just, it’s crazy,” Harris said.

Other students say that replacement teachers are often too young and inexperienced to gain the respect of a class. Muskegon Heights High School student Cody Hauke saw it firsthand.

"I just think it's a game of respect. The longer the teacher's been here the more authority they have over the kids. And when they're gone and you got these new teachers, the kids are going to test them. So far, they have been failing," Hauke said.

When Smith asked students what they did like in their schools, nearly every student she talked to thought Mosaica’s Paragon curriculum has been an improvement from last year.

Over the next five years, Muskegon Heights is paying $200,000 a year for the Paragon curriculum.

Mosaica is expected to make at least $8.75 million in management and curriculum fees over five years from the school district.

Money, Public Act 4, and more

According to emergency manager Don Weatherspoon, the school district was more than $16 million in debt when he took control.  He thinks it could take up to 20 years for the old school district to pay off all its debt.

He sees this as justification enough for the drastic measures taken this year.

“Everything that you can think of basically broke down. Discipline, learning, record-keeping, financial accounting, etc,” Weatherspoon said.

Others are not so sure that emergency managers are the right choice for struggling schools.

Smith spoke with David Arsen, a Professor in the Department of Educational Administration at Michigan State University’s College of Education.

He said the old emergency manager law didn't require that a manager have experience in education. And he says state funding policies play a big role in some districts getting into financial trouble in the first place.

“As much as we’d like to think so, these are problems that can’t be solved simply by changing the boss. It’s wishful thinking,” Arsen said.

Public Act 4, the law that allowed Witherspoon to break union contracts, was repealed by voters in the November election.

A new emergency manager law, passed in the subsequent lame-duck session, will replace PA 4 on March 27th, and would allow for the privatization of a school district.

For more on Mosaica's contract with the Muskegon Heights school district, check out this post from Lindsey Smith.

- Jordan Wyant, Michigan Radio Newsroom

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