State debt forgiveness positions Muskegon Heights schools for strong future

For the first time in a dozen years, the future looks bright for Muskegon Heights Public Schools.

In December, the struggling district’s state debt was forgiven, positioning the community’s K-12  schools for future success. 

As part of a recent budget supplemental bill signed into law, Muskegon Heights Public Schools (MHPS) is among five districts across the state to receive debt forgiveness. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed House Bill 4292 and Senate Bill 174, providing $114 million in emergency loan debt relief. 

Muskegon Heights will receive $31.3 million, the largest portion. Others benefiting are Pontiac, Benton Harbor, Ypsilanti and Inkster. Funds are expected in mid-February. 

Debt forgiveness will benefit the entire community, says Trinell Scott, president of the MHPS Board of Education. 

“I have advocated for local control for years, anticipating the state’s debt forgiveness so that we can continue rebuilding our district – one that is stronger and better than ever,” Scott says. “Our children, teachers and community deserve the very best education for our children.” 

An opportunity to rebuild

As part of the debt relief, MHPS will develop plans to increase enrollment, attract and retain certified teachers, and for capital improvements. The district will offer school board training focused on finances. Other objectives include increased attendance and graduation rates. 

The state took over the school district in 2012 in response to mounting debt. 

“When you lose funding, you lose the ability to do certain things that normal school districts do, whether it be extracurricular activities or special events,” Scott says. “You begin to lose students because parents want to be able to offer their children a wide variety of experiences when it comes to their education. We weren't able to do that because of the lack of funding that we had.”

“The funding gives us a blueprint for not letting it occur again and puts the responsibility at the district level. We have to make sure that we are financially responsible so we won’t go back to where we came from,” Scott says. “Our goal is to restructure so that we actually are able to bring families and students back.”

She praised Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and State Rep. Will Snyder for championing the debt forgiveness plan.

“They saw that this was hanging over the district here and that it stifles our children from being able to get that quality education they need,” Scott says. “Once the debt is forgiven, we have the ability to hire those highly qualified and certified teachers and have our buildings fully staffed.”

Property tax cut

Homeowners will benefit from the debt forgiveness with a cut in their taxes. Property taxes will go down 13 mills, saving the average household in Muskegon Heights $375 a year.

“This is a huge deal for not just the school district but for the city,” says Scott. 

Snyder agrees.

“This will allow the school district and community to move forward, to heal, and to begin a new chapter,” Snyder says. “This money is tangible proof of the state’s commitment to help right this educational injustice. “This is a huge victory not only for  Muskegon Heights, but also for all of Muskegon County. The debt has been an issue our community has been working toward solving for over a decade. Being able to erase (the debt) will have such a profound impact not only on the educational system, but on the ability for prosperous economic development in Muskegon Heights. This isn’t merely erasing numbers; it’s providing hope, empowering educators and prioritizing children.”

With Muskegon Heights and the other four school districts no longer having the burden of heavy debt loads, they can focus more resources on students.

“Over a period of time, debt relief can translate to improvements in staffing, curriculum, facilities, materials, and equipment,” says State Superintendent Dr. Michael Rice. “State funds to pay off district bond debt can also help lower taxes in those communities.” 

“This is welcome, long overdue relief for these districts,” says State Board President Dr. Pamela Pugh. “The state has the responsibility to better fund its school districts—all its districts, and particularly those whose children need more from schools and often receive less.”
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Shandra Martinez.