Superintendent worried as state releases control of Muskegon Heights schools

Muskegon County

MUSKEGON HEIGHTS, Mich. (WOOD) — The state is releasing its oversight of the Muskegon Heights Public School Academy System, causing concern from the superintendent that students will struggle amid a dispute about who’s now in control.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office announced Monday that she had released the district from receivership and dissolved the Receivership Transition Advisory Board that helped govern it.

“Today is a new day for the Muskegon Heights School District and the state of Michigan,” Whitmer said in a statement. “The efforts of the school district and community to identify problems and bring together the resources to solve complex financial challenges are to be commended. I am proud to say that we no longer have any school district or community under state oversight.”

A decade ago, the school district was floundering in more than $12 million in debt, enrollment was plummeting and academic outcomes were poor. It was so bad that the district asked the state to take over.

Part of the shift in control in 2012 included turning the public school district into a charter academy. After about four years under an emergency manager, the financial emergency was declared over and the local-state relationship pivoted to control by the receivership board. The goal of that board was to work with local leaders to get the district back on track.

The governor’s office argued that with the budget balanced and in the black for the third straight year, the receivership board has done its job. That board requested its own dissolution last month and Whitmer granted it in a letter dated Monday.

Whitmer’s office promised that the state will still be there for the district, including maintaining a partnership with the district to work on academic outcomes and the recent grant of $3 million from the state to help Muskegon Heights kids improve their reading.

But local leaders are worried. District Superintendent Rane Garcia said in a statement that while progress has been made in the last decade, the district’s troubles aren’t over. She says it still has $42 million in debt and that it doesn’t expect that to be paid off until 2047.

To make matters worse, Garcia told News 8 in a Zoom call, the charter academy board is facing pushback from the public school board. That public board has to approve charter members, she said — but it simply hasn’t been. Previously, when that happened, the state would appoint someone to fill a vacancy. But with the state stepping away, that won’t happen and the seats remain empty.

Garcia also says that the public board is not allowed to take control of the district again until the debt is paid off, which probably won’t be until 2047.

“The greatest concern that I have is that (the end of the state partnership) could bring the school system, the schools in Muskegon Heights, back to where they were in 2012 under the same leadership that resulted in the system that we are in now,” Garcia told News 8. “We have a system in place, it is working now for the children. And so that is my greatest concern that this ‘fix’ in one method could break the system in another method and ultimately if we wind back up in a financial problem again, then there could be no school like in other communities around the state.”

Garcia called on the governor’s office to approve nominees to the charter board before the upcoming school year.

“We need a board that is willing and able to follow the procedures and follow the plan and to secure a budget that will continue to put children first,” she said.

The Muskegon Heights school district will turn 100 years old this year.

—News 8’s Jacqueline Francis contributed to this report.

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