The Pontiac, Mich., school system can accommodate 20,000 students, but current enrollment is only a third of that. The school board has sent every employee a pink slip — and officials say they'll recall only those needed for next school year.
The Pontiac, Mich., school system can accommodate 20,000 students, but current enrollment is only a third of that. The school board has sent every employee a pink slip — and officials say they'll recall only those needed for next school year. iStockphoto.com
While officials in school districts across the country are making some very tough decisions in this dour economy, one school district in Michigan is doing the unprecedented: pushing the reset button and laying off every employee.
Pontiac is an industrial sister city to Detroit. And like the Motor City, this gritty suburb shows all the signs of economic decline.
It's teetering on what Gov. Jennifer Granholm termed a "financial emergency." That was before she began calling in outside police agencies to patrol Pontiac's streets — because the city's own police department was decimated by cuts.
Inevitably, the crisis has extended to the schools.
Pink Slips For Everyone
The Pontiac school system was built to accommodate 20,000 students, but current enrollment is but a third of that. Students either moved out of the district as jobs have become scarcer, or they chose to attend private or charter schools.
Superintendent Linda Paramore says to deal with this reality, the school board has sent every employee a pink slip.
"As we are looking at the world market, everyone seems to be laying off and downsizing," Paramore says. "This district is downsizing. It makes reasonable sense that if you're downsizing, you will not need as many employees as you have."
Board of Education officials say they'll recall only those employees needed for next school year. District officials argue that it's the most efficient way to handle a very complex situation, because this way the staff will know much earlier than usual if they still have jobs.
But education consultant Julia Koppich, who has written extensively about teacher quality, calls the strategy baffling.
"If there's only a month that the district needs to wait to know how many people they need, then why take this action?" Koppich says. "It seems to me incredibly disrespectful of the employees."
The Union's Role
Normally, layoffs of this scale might be seen as union busting. But in Pontiac, the teachers' union is working with the district to make sure their contract is honored.
But the union isn't happy. Michigan Education Association officials say they'd rather see the district identify its staffing needs and then issue pink slips to selected employees.
And there are those who feel that all of this is happening too fast, including Michael Nappere, who chairs a parent support group at Central High School, one of eight facilities slated for closure this year.
"The fact that the magnitude that it was done, this abruptly, was a bit surprising — but it had to be done if they are going to survive," Nappere says.
Expected or not, the layoffs have led to uncertainty among the staff, even those with seniority. Longtime music teacher Clifford Sykes says he thinks his job is reasonably safe, but he still has his doubts and tries to take the long view.
"I feel very positive about it, and it's a new challenge and that's what life is about, facing a new challenge," Sykes says. "Don't move the mountain, but give me strength to climb."
In climbing that mountain, district officials like Superintendent Paramore hope to find a leaner, more effective school system on the other side. And they hope it's not a coincidence that one of the mascots under consideration for the new high school is a phoenix.
Noah Ovshinsky reports for Detroit Public Radio.