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In Pontiac, Mich., Schools, Everyone Gets A Pink Slip

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In Pontiac, Mich., Schools, Everyone Gets A Pink Slip

Education

In Pontiac, Mich., Schools, Everyone Gets A Pink Slip

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

In school districts across the country, officials are having to make some tough decisions. In the Detroit area, where unemployment and foreclosure rates are some of the highest in the country, the once unthinkable is now happening.

Noah Ovshinsky of member station WDET reports on one school district that's pressing the reset button, teachers and all.

NOAH OVSHINSKY: 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 Michigan's governor calls a financial emergency, and outside police agencies have been called in to patrol the streets because the city's own police department has been decimated by cuts. Inevitably, this crisis has extended to the schools.

Ms. LINDA PARAMORE (Superintendent, Pontiac School District): I know that sometimes everything in everybody's eyesight doesn't appear to be a joyous time. But I can already visualize the first day of school.

OVSHINSKY: Linda Paramore is Pontiac's superintendent and chief cheerleader. She's addressing a group of teachers, parents and concerned citizens, gathering to discuss the merger of the district's two remaining high schools.

The system was built for 20,000 students, but enrollment today is but a third of that. Students either moved out of the district as jobs have become scarcer or chosen to attend private or charter schools because of concerns over the quality of public education.

Paramore says to deal with this reality, the school board has sent every employee a pink slip.

Ms. PARAMORE: This district is downsizing. It makes reasonable sense that if you're downsizing, you will not need as many employees as you have.

OVSHINSKY: Board of Education officials say they'll recall only those employees needed for the 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 this strategy baffling.

Ms. JULIA KOPPICH (Education Consultant): If there's only a month that the district needs to wait to know how many people they need, then why take this action? Again, it seems to me incredibly disrespectful of the employees.

OVSHINSKY: Normally, layoffs of this scale might be seen as union busting, but here the teachers union is working with the district to make sure their contract is honored.

Of course that said, 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 then 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.

Mr. MICHAEL NAPPERE: The fact, the magnitude that it was done, this abruptly, was a little bit surprising, but it had to be done - if they are going to survive.

OVSHINSKY: 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.

Mr. CLIFFORD SYKES (Music Teacher): I feel very positive about it, and it's a new challenge, and that's what life is about, facing a new challenge. You know, don't move the mountain, but give me strength to climb.

OVSHINSKY: In climbing that mountain, district officials like Linda Paramore hope to find a leaner but more effective school system on the other side. They hope it's not a coincidence that one of the mascots under consideration for the new high school is a phoenix.

For NPR News, I'm Noah Ovshinsky in Detroit.

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