Legislation introduced in the state House and Senate are apparently on the fast track during the lame duck session of the state Legislature and could present an obstacle for the Huron Valley Schools Board of Education, which has been trying to sell or demolish Baker Elementary and White Lake Middle schools.
In response to the legislation, the school board held a special meeting on Thursday, Nov. 15 to discuss the district’s next steps.
“When a bill is introduced in lame duck session after an election, it’s an indicator that this is a priority — at least of the governor’s — to move them through,” said Board of Education President Sean Carlson. “Whether they pass or fail remains to be seen.”
The bills would add several sections to the Revised School Code and amend existing sections, including a provision calling for a statewide inventory of used school buildings so they can be leased or sold to other educational entities, meaning either public (including charter schools), university schools or non-public schools or entities.
Each school district would be required to inform the state Department of Education whenever a school building that was previously used for classroom instruction is closed, unused, or vacant. School buildings placed on the registry would be required to be maintained in suitable condition.
“The main points that give us the most concern is this is an unfunded mandate coming across both sides of the aisle,” said Jim Baker, the district’s interim superintendent.
If a school building appears on the department’s list for at least four years, the school district that owns the school building may sell or dispose of the school building in a manner the school board considers appropriate.
“Paying to maintain buildings for four years that could allow other charter schools to go in and take over our buildings — the money isn’t going where it should be and takes away from (Huron Valley Schools) kids,” Baker said, adding that to maintain Baker Elementary and White Lake Middle schools, the cost would exceed $250,000 per year, a hefty price tag for a district that is already low on the state funding totem pole.
“Our school district is drop-dead last in the state in school funding, yet we outperform the state (averages),” Carlson said. “This is an example of big government creating unfunded mandates and taking away local control.”
The bills also state that if a school district indicates a building may be reclaimed for instruction during a two-year period after the school first appears on the registry, the Department of Education must designate the building as unavailable for those two years. If the building is reclaimed, it must be used within one year for classroom instruction.
A listed school district would be required to lease or sell the unused school building to an eligible public school. The lease would be required to be written to reflect fair market value. If leased, classroom instruction would have to start within two years.
To deal with these hurdles, the Board of Education voted to revise a previously adopted resolution to state that Milford Township and Highland Township have until Tuesday, Dec. 4 — rather than March 31, 2013 — to express an interest in the pair of shuttered school buildings.
“These bills create a sense of urgency to move the timetable up and also put an RFP (request for proposals) on the street for demolition,” Carlson said. “We are looking to Milford Village and Highland to make an offer.”
The Highland Township Board of Trustees previously voted not to proceed with the purchase of Highland Middle School, but given that a new township supervisor and other elected officials have come on board, the district plans to resurrect discussions.
“The new supervisor, Rick Hamill, attended our meeting and talked about presenting the idea to the (Highland) Downtown Development Authority,” Carlson said. “He said he appreciated us extending an offer and expressed interest.”
Former Highland Supervisor Tricia Pilchowski confirmed Hamill’s interest.
“He’s taken an interest in the property and discussed it with the DDA. He’s also interested in the Duck Lake Center,” she said. “We’ve survived difficult economic problems and made serious changes and my concern is that this would put us at risk.”
The district had been in discussion with former Milford Village Manager Arthur Shufflebarger about Baker Elementary School, but when he died suddenly earlier this year, Milford officials stalled any more discussions until the new village manager, Brent Morgan, came on board.
“I updated (Village) Council and it will be an agenda item for our meeting on Dec. 3, but time is shrinking since the resolution date is now Dec. 4,” Morgan said. “My understanding is that the Milford council has had concerns Baker Elementary would remain vacant for a lengthy amount of time.”
The school board also authorized the district to put out an RFP for demolition.
The proposed bills also would establish in statute the Education Achievement Authority, which would oversee a separate state school district called the “reform district.” A chancellor would helm the district where student achievement, as measured on state tests, fall within the lowest five percent of Michigan schools for three consecutive years.
School districts in jeopardy would have 90 days to formulate a plan to improve pupil performance in the subject areas where students were failing to adequately achieve.
If passed, the law would become effective Jan. 1, 2014.