Class dismissed? A look at how suburban communities are coping with school closings

Shuttered school doors have become an increasingly common sight in Metro Detroit over the past decade.

This past March, after holding several community forums, the Farmington Public School district's board voted to close two schools and move pre-school programming out of an early childhood center. 

O.E. Dunckel Middle School is now shuttered but will serve as the site of a K-8 STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) program next fall. Harrison High is slated for a "soft" closing at the end of the 2019-2020 school year, and the Alameda Early Childhood School's program will relocating to a local elementary school next year. The current round of school shutdowns come in the wake of four other elementary school closings in the district in 2010—and against a backdrop of similar closings throughout the region. 

A petition opposing the closure of O.E. Dunckel and the proposed shuttering of nearby Warner Middle School rallied nearly 900 supporters. In the comments section, parent Julie Lynch noted her child had already been impacted by the previous school closures.

"If Dunckel closes, my daughter will have attended 5 schools PRIOR to entering high school," she wrote. "This is FAR too many transitions for these kids."

Melissa Rakolta, a mother with four children in the district wrote that shutting down either of the schools would be "devastating." 

"The proximity of having our children close was one of the main reasons we moved here," she wrote. "Our home values will decrease and attracting new young families to our neighborhoods will be impossible."

Lisa Holmes has two children attending Farmington Schools. Her local elementary school was considered for closing last year but ultimately stayed open. Nevertheless, the situation was stressful for her family. 

"Second and third graders, they don't get that things will be OK," she tells Metromode. "They worry about their friends, the teachers that they love, staff members."

That said, she believed Farmington's school board made the best decision it could for the entire district, given the circumstances. So what's the reason for closing schools? Farmington Public Schools Superintendent George Heitsch says it's a question of demographics.  

"It comes down to an issue of declining enrollment, not having as many students as we did at our peak enrollment," he tells Metromode.

Over last decade, total enrollment in the school system has declined from a peak of 12,256 in the 2005-06 school year to a low of 9,995 in 2015-16,  a drop of about 18 percent. 

Heitsch attributes the drop in students to a declining birthrate, noting that more families are opting to stay in Farmington and Farmington Hills after their children graduate, meaning that the housing market isn't "turning over" the same way it was a generation ago. 

In addition to declining enrollment, the district had also been dealing with funding issues. According to the Detroit News, Farmington Public Schools revenue dropped nearly $15 million between 2006 and 2014 and the district grappled with an $11 million funding shortfall in 2016.

Asked whether the situation has stabilized, Heitsch is optimistic, saying he hopes the district's decision will help the system as a whole run more efficiently.

"It's always unsettling to have a building close," he says. "We're hoping that we made the right choices with the community and for the community...if we do it right, we're going to increase opportunities, not decrease them." 

School closures and declining enrollment aren't just a trend in Farmington and Farmington Hills, though. Of Oakland County's 28 public districts, 16 saw declining enrollment this school year, while 10 gained students and two remained virtually unchanged, according to data from a state educational database. And since 2010, Bloomfield Hills, Ferndale, Hazel Park, Huron Valley Southfield, Pontiac, Walled Lake Consolidated, and Waterford public schools systems have all announced school closings. Other districts around the region have been experiencing similar difficulties.

And Detroit's public school district in neighboring Wayne County—perhaps the hardest hit of them all—has seen well over 100 schools shuttered over the last ten years.

"This issue is not specific to Oakland County, it is a statewide issue that reflects population changes in Michigan," says Daniel Quinn, executive director of the nonprofit Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice in East Lansing and a doctoral candidate at Oakland University. 

He points to U.S. Census data that found that Michigan was the only state that declined in population between 2000 and 2010, as well as SEMCOG projections that the region's school-age population will continue to dip until at least 2026.

Beyond falling enrollment, Quinn identifies three other factors that pressure districts to cut programming and shutter facilities: school funding that has not kept up with rising costs; increased competition with charter schools; and inter-district school choice policies that allow parents to enroll their kids outside their local districts.

Calling schools "the glue that holds neighborhoods together," Quinn says removing them from a community can affect parents' decisions about moving, negatively impact property values and hamper student achievement. 

"The local school is often the place where people come together for community events, sports, and more," he says. "When schools close, the impact is felt by families who moved into the neighborhood for the schools and the property values of their homes."

So what impact have school closings had in Farmington? Peggy Blumenstein, who works as a substitute secretary with the district says it's been a challenging situation. The closings have been difficult for both school staff who've had to adjust to new working environments and families who've had to get used to new schools.

"It upset the parents of Dunckel [Middle School] students because they have to go to East...or to Warner. They were quite upset," Blumenstein tells Metromode. "Some people have moved out of the area."

The closure has also had a dampening effect on neighborhood community life; the public library across the street from the middle school used to be a natural after-school destination when classes let out, says Blumenstein, but kids are no longer walking across the street after classes end for the day.

As for the actual school facilities, Farmington Public Schools has tried to be proactive; they're repurposing O.E. Dunckel as a STEAM center and working on finding new owners for other properties. While two of its four recently closed elementary schools are still vacant, Flanders Elementary has been redeveloped into a subdivision and Eagle Elementary has been sold and is similarly being considered for redevelopment.

Declining enrollment may be a major contributor to school closings in the region, but scarce funding is also an issue. Last year, Gov. Rick Snyder signed a $16.14 education budget bill into law. While that figure is two percent bigger than 2015, Quinn says the increase comes after more than a decade of "underfunding" Michigan schools.

Poor academic performance is also a reason for concern. Last summer, Michigan's School Reform Office announced plans for a wave of school closings targeting chronically low-performing schools that would take effect this June. It's still unclear how many schools will be affected.

When considering policies to address these concerns, Quinn says it's important to keep the big picture in mind.

"We should be exploring ways to make changes to our tax system so that school officials have stable finances and can make decisions that are in the best interest of all children," he says. "Additionally, we should look at the inequities created by school closings. School closings disproportionately affect some communities, and there is a basic democratic problem when local communities lose the ability to make these decisions."
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