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In anticipation of a massive turnout to Monday night's board meeting, Ypsilanti Public Schools administration called for support from the fire department.
By the time the fire marshal from the Ypsilanti Township Fire Department had arrived 15 minutes before the meeting started, the room the meeting was to be conducted in at Ypsilanti High School was already at capacity.
By the time the meeting got underway at 7 p.m., there were more than 100 people struggling to watch the meeting on a monitor set up in the cafeteria outside and nearly an additional 100 people sitting in the audience in the board's meeting room.
For the most part, people were there to address the board and air complaints about proposed budget cuts and purported plans to close schools in the district. Of the nine people who addressed the board, eight spoke out against cuts to the budget and closing district schools. The first hour of the meeting was dedicated to audience participation, board responses and repairing audio problems for those trying to listen in from the cafeteria.
During one speaker, the crowd outside began to chant, “We can't hear,” repeatedly, prompting a short recess to look into the technical difficulties.
Momentum has been gathering in the district since the board passed a four-year plan to eliminate more than $6 million from the district's budget in December. The plan, which was passed at a similarly attended meeting but with most everyone in the board's meeting room, calls to lay off 41 teachers among other cuts to athletics and district support services. The next academic year is expected to contain the brunt of the cuts, estimated at nearly $5 million.
While the board has not considered a detailed plan for next year's cuts, administration plans to close district schools were discussed at community forums held in January. Two separate restructuring plans have touted that could result in the closing of two elementary schools or one elementary school and one middle school.
Both options maintain an all kindergarten school, currently Perry Child Development Center, and grades nine through 12 at the high school. From there, both plans diverge.
Option one would close two elementary schools, leaving two open to house grades one through four. Grades five and six would be housed in one middle school and grades seven and eight would be housed in another. This option is estimated to save the district $968,000.
Option two would close one elementary school. One elementary would house students from kindergarten through six grade, while the remaining two would house grades two through six. The school housing kindergarten students would also house most of the district's first grade students as well. The only remaining middle school would then house grades seven and eight. This option is estimated to save the district $1.3 million.
While district administrators and board members have repeatedly said no specific school is up for closure yet, it is widely believed Chapelle Community School is the elementary school that would be closed in both scenarios. Firm among those who believes the district intends to shutter Chapelle are parents with children in the school.
After one of the forums in January, a group of parents already active with the school's parent advisory board began meeting about the suspected closure of their school. The group eventually launched a Web site and organized a community meeting at Chapelle last week.
Chapelle community meeting
Approximately 100 people sat in Chapelle's gymnasium to hear arguments from the school's parents for not closing schools in the district.
The events organizers presented a slide show outlining their views on the district's budget, the laws behind budget deficits and the possible impacts closing a school can have on a district.
Presenters and members of the audience said closing schools would result in larger class sizes, children leaving the district and vacant buildings in area neighborhoods as reasons to keep YPS buildings open.
Several pointed to possible net losses in the district's budget if enough children left YPS after a building closure. Additionally, as Chapelle serves the highest percentage of African American students, as well as those from poor families, many said closing the school would effect the most vulnerable students in the district.
Instead of closing schools, many pointed to increased marketing and finding new revenue streams to balance the district's budget. To attract more students to the district, people suggested offering new and better services to attract more families to the district. One such idea was to organize shcools to practice the Montessori method.
One of the presenters last week highlighted what he thought were misconceptions being spread by district staff and board members. Charles Groce went through the district's budget process to date, and asked whether or not cuts were necessary at all.
Chief among Groce's concerns was whether or not it was illegal for the district to operate in a deficit. After reading the law, he determined it was “impermissible,” not “illegal” as those who run the district have stated. He said the only response the state has for schools in deficit spending is the requirement to file a deficit elimination plan with the state.
“It is not illegal to run in the red,” Groce said.
“We can run in the red,” he said. “We just have to submit the deficit elimination plan.”
Ypsilanti Board of Education President David Bates was one of four board members at the meeting at Chapelle. After it was over, he did agree that it was unlikely the state would take over districts who operate in a deficit, he said the districts in the red must borrow from the state to fulfill expenses. He said if this borrowing continues to long it can harm the district's credit rating and could eventually dry up any future credit lines. He said such a scenario, though gradual, could result in the district's inability to make payroll.
After the meeting last week, two separate standing committees were organized by the attendees. Announced at the board meeting Monday night, the first is called the Ypsilanti Public Schools Alliance. The second is called the Ypsilanti Action Committee.
Maria Cotera, one of the parents running last week's meeting, announced the committees' formation to the board. She said the YPSA was formed as a big-tent group for all stakeholders in the schools and community opposed to building closures in the district. She said the YAC is made up of district teachers and support staff to oppose privatizing services and excessive teacher layoffs.
Aside from packing Monday night's board meeting with parents, staff and teachers, and forming two different community groups, the meeting held last week likely also lead to more meetings by the board of education to bring more community involvement to the decision making process.
Toward the end of the meeting, the board agreed to holding at least two meetings with the community to discuss its budget and proposed cuts. In light of the audience at Monday night's meeting, the board will first hold a meeting much like the first hour of Monday's meeting. It will consist mainly of concerned community members voicing their thoughts for the board.
The second will be a forum held to present more concrete plans for cost savings after they are formalized and before the board will address the matter in March.
Bates said both at last week's community meeting and Monday's board meeting, the district's administration and board members are willing to hear other options from the community to create a plan for cost cutting. However, he said it will also be likely, but not guaranteed, a building will be closed in the restructuring.
Ypsilanti Schools eye 40 teacher layoffs in four years
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