Democracy Watch: The Sad Disappearance of the Highland Park School District
EXCERPTED FROM THE METRO TIMES
Sitting on the front porch of the Highland Park duplex she owns, Michelle Belton looked out on what used to be Cortland Elementary school.
A single mom who works the late shift in the office of a trucking company, Belton once enjoyed the convenience and safety for her children that the school provided.
But no more.
Cortland — located in a neighborhood littered with vacant lots and dilapidated, abandoned houses — was turned into a Head Start facility after the Highland Park School District closed the school in 2014.
By that point, Highland Park’s public school system had been under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager for two years, the result of a state takeover that was supposed to halt the decades-long decline of a district once renowned for providing its students with a high-quality of education.
Indeed, in almost every facet of public life, Highland Park — the tiny Detroit enclave where Henry Ford revolutionized the auto business by creating the assembly line to crank out his Model Ts — had long since fallen on hard times. And as the town struggled, ravaged by unemployment and plummeting population, so did its school system. The decline of the schools combined with the other woes to force Highland Park into a devastating and dispiriting downward spiral.
The appointment of an emergency manager wielding unfettered authority was hailed as a way to halt the school district’s precipitous decline. And, considering his much touted desire to run government like a business, Gov. Rick Snyder unsurprisingly selected certified public accountant Jack Martin to run the district in January 2012.
A former General Motors executive, Martin also served as CFO of the U.S. Department of Education during President George W. Bush’s administration. Martin also did a brief stint as vice president of White Hat Management, described by the newspaper group MLive as a “controversial for-profit company that runs charter schools in Northwest Ohio.”
Snyder immediately expressed strong support for his choice. “Given his understanding of the critical importance of education and his background as a CPA,” the governor said at the time of Martin’s appointment, “I’m confident Mr. Martin is well-suited for this post, and will work quickly and efficiently to address the financial emergency faced by Highland Park schools.”
Things fall apart
Unfortunately, things did not go as predicted by the governor for the 11,000 or so residents of Highland Park, a city where more than 93 percent of the population is African American and nearly 48 percent of residents live below the poverty line.
Setting off a revolving door of emergency managers, Martin lasted only a few months before, with Snyder’s approval, he moved on to a new job with the city of Detroit. Shortly afterward, Martin was named emergency manager for Detroit Public Schools, which has had its own revolving door of state-appointed leaders since 2009.
In all, the Highland Park School District has had five emergency managers at the helm over the 4 1/2 years it has been under state control. Still, Highland Park’s public school system continued to disintegrate, finally reaching the point today where it barely exists at all.