Commentary: Buena Vista's shame, and ours

May 9, 2013

If you want to see a perfect example of irrationality, go to Saginaw County’s Buena Vista School District’s website.

There, it says this:

“Buena Vista School District and its community of parents and stakeholders has (sic) a long tradition of pride and excellence. We pride ourselves on the caring and committed staff with which we are blessed and consider it our highest calling to be entrusted with the care and education of the community’s children.”

However, it then adds that the district has closed down because it ran out of money. The teachers have offered to work temporarily for free, but the administration said no. And they add: “It is impossible for us to predict whether the District will be in a position to enroll students next year.” That’s followed by the “Top Ten Reasons to Attend Buena Vista High School.”

Anyone who has been paying attention to education issues has to wonder what is going on here.

Twenty years ago, Michigan made embarrassing national headlines when the rural northern district of Kalkaska shut down long before the year was over. That was back when school districts depended mostly on property tax revenues for funding.  Kalkaska was poor. That helped lead to the school funding revolution called Proposal A, where schools are mostly state-funded with a per-pupil grant. School closings weren’t supposed to happen anymore.

But now one has. What seems pretty clearly to be the case is that the Buena Vista district has been struggling with sharply declining enrollment, but it also seems to be a district run by financial incompetents. The district admits it took more than $400,000 to educate students who are no longer in the district.

When this was discovered, the state suspended school aid payments for the next three months to make up the difference.

But the district had spent all the money already, and decided to shut down. So much for the best interest of the students.

This is embarrassing to a lot of people, including Dan Kildee, the freshman congressman from that area. Yesterday, he wrote an open letter to Governor Rick Snyder that said, “The students of Buena Vista have a constitutional right to an education and the state has a legal responsibility to provide it.“

Kildee urged the governor “to use any means necessary to work with the local school district to swiftly reopen the Buena Vista schools. The state of Michigan must act to ensure that the students …can finish out the remaining days of the school year.”

The congressman is right. The Michigan Constitution requires the state to quote, “maintain and support a system of free public elementary and secondary schools.”

But as far as I can tell there has been no response from the state. Which is a mystery to me. If there ever was a case crying out for an emergency manager, this is it.

Clearly a massive investigation is needed. But even if the administrators were criminally incompetent, the more than 400 kids in Buena Vista schools don’t deserve to have their futures suffer.

Governor Snyder moved quickly to declare parts of Michigan a weather-related disaster area earlier this week. In the disaster known as Buena Vista schools, there really is no time to lose.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.