While efforts continue to reverse Michigan’s controversial Emergency Manager law, seven of these appointees continue their work across the state. They’re trying to restore financial stability in four cities and three school districts.
Opponents of last year’s law say it subverts the democratic process by granting Emergency Managers unprecedented authority. That includes the power to cancel union contracts, dismiss employees and sell assets. Proponents, including Governor Rick Snyder, say it’s the only way out for cities and school districts mired in debt.
Dr. Don Weatherspoon is the recently appointed Emergency Manager of the Muskegon Heights school district. Late last week, he proposed an unprecedented solution for that district’s woes. He formally asked to dissolve the district and replace it with a K-12 charter school system. The new district would be launched this fall without debt, while a plan is devised to pay off the debts of the existing one. Red ink stands at 12-million dollars and continues to grow.
Shortly after the announcement, the Haslett resident said that, in his view, the district had run out of options.
DR. DON WEATHERSPOON: There was no other way to go because consolidating districts, annexing with other districts, dissolving the district---all were not options---either financially or politically in such short order.
BASHORE: How do you deal with people who don’t like the Emergency Manager law in Muskegon Heights?
WEATHERSPOON: I’ve not had that experience in Muskegon Heights. Remember, the Board of Education asked for an Emergency Manager back in December of 2011 and prior to that in 2002. So this is, I think, a culmination of things that the community has wanted and the governor responded by agreeing to appoint an Emergency Manager there. So the spirit of cooperation as far as I can see has just been wonderful. They’re looking for new options and a new direction.
BASHORE: Do you think your charter school plan will jeopardize the consensus that you’ve enjoyed so far?
WEATHERSPOON: I don’t think it will jeopardize anything and let me tell you why. Right now, the deficit is having a dramatic effect on our ability to deliver educational services. Because there are so many cuts and reductions that had to be in place. The charter means that every child will have the full state aid for that child, under the charter law, going to that school. So the old district will work on repaying the debt. The new district will work on educating students.
BASHORE: What do you like most about your Emergency Manager role?
WEATHERSPOON: The support I’m getting both here in Lansing and back in the community.
BASHORE: What do you dislike most about it?
WEATHERSPOON: That you have to affect peoples’ lives directly and sometimes it may be permanently. Because their livelihood is now being changed from one form of payment and insurance and things like that…to another. So that creates uncertainty for them.
BASHORE: The week before last you let 158 people go. How many of those people, do you think, in a best case scenario might be able to join the charter at Muskegon Heights?
WEATHERSPOON: I wouldn’t be able to speculate on that and I don’t want to because we haven’t decided what a contract’s going to look like, we don’t know who’s going to apply and we’ve got to look at the curriculum and I don’t know how those people and their credentials would to fit into the delivery model. I think it’d be unfair to both parties to pre-judge who’s going to be picked up or not.
BASHORE: Is there something about the role of an Emergency Manager that you think people ought to know that they don’t know? Any misperception?
WEATHERSPOON: Oh, you mean other than it’s lonely? (laughs) People know your name when you walk into restaurants and say ‘Gee I know (you), you’re name (and) face was in the paper.’ And I say ‘Well, at least it wasn’t in the post office.’
WEATHERSPOON: I don’t think so. I think that with the announcement of an Emergency Manager being appointed and the transition that normally occurs with the announcements from the Treasury (Department) that normally occurs, no, there’s no misperception.
BASHORE: Is it your hope, or do you think, that the charter school proposal that you’ve put forward here today could become a model for other districts?
WEATHERSPOON: Each district is unique and I would not want to speculate what would work in that district. I would hope that the debt ratio that exists in Muskegon Heights would not be the same in terms of other districts. But I think this will send a message to districts and their governing bodies that they’d better take a close look at how they watch and manage their financial affairs.