It is heartbreaking to witness the unfolding scandal at Muskegon Heights [MI] Public Schools. The breathtaking mismanagement has inflicted long-term damage on students, the community and the staff of the school system.
More than anything, this sad situation developed due to a lack of leadership in the school district. When it came time to pitch in to help bail water out of the sinking ship, Superintendent Dana Bryant “accidentally” fell into the lifeboat of a taxpayer-funded pension in the middle of the current school year. How much is that pension, you ask? We don’t know. That’s apparently none of the taxpayers’ business. If this is any indication, his annual compensation package totaled $185,082 when he abruptly retired.
Bryant is Muskegon Heights’ own Francesco Schettino, the captain of the Italian cruise ship that recently ran aground. Instead of saving lives, Schettino reported “fell” into a lifeboat to save himself. He has rightly earned global scorn for his cowardice and dereliction of duty.
Is Bryant really any better?
Make no mistake, this is a multi-year problem that festered under Bryant’s watch. Instead of sounding the alarm and asking for help, Bryant and his school board apparently didn’t know how to deal the problem, or worse, chose to look the other way.
The mismanagement was widespread. According to a recent Muskegon Chronicle story, interim district managers are “trying to hold off creditors, deal with a school utility shut-off notice, satisfy state requirements to eliminate the district’s debt, negotiate concessions with staff, cajole the state to keep per-pupil aid flowing, recommend cost-saving measures to the school board and deal with serious facility needs.”
What a remarkable failure. After all, in the 2009-2010 school year, Muskegon Heights received $15,013.21 per student – the most of any district in Muskegon County. Income was not the problem.
Add on top of that the truly dismal academic record of the district. Recent data published by the district shows that 6.8% of 11th graders are proficient in reading and writing while only 2.2% of those same students are proficient in math. Let those numbers sink in – they’re worse than any in Detroit Public Schools.
Last winter, I met with Bryant to discuss a short documentary film idea I was developing with Fox News analyst Juan Williams. We wanted to look at the plight of students and parents trapped in the Muskegon Heights system. We wanted to shine a light on the district’s predicament, to raise awareness, but also treat it as a call to action.
Bryant bristled and claimed we were “picking on” Muskegon Heights students. He wanted no part of it. On the one hand, I understand that human beings naturally shy away from high-profile scrutiny. On the other hand, Muskegon Heights moved beyond emergency status years ago. This dire situation calls for everything – including the kitchen sink – to be thrown at it.
In case you’re wondering, Juan and I ended up focusing our project on Chicago, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel willingly discussed his city’s educational challenges on camera. Needless to say, Chicago’s public school system is a mess, but at least the teachers in that district can count on a paycheck for the rest of the academic year. That’s apparently not the case in Muskegon Heights.
In all likelihood, the situation is irreversible without a significant infusion of cash from the state. But should state taxpayers be forced to bail out a system rife with incompetence and limited hope for the future? District officials recently announced that the starting annual salary for first-year teachers could be as low as $21,000 per year. Who on earth is going to take a job in that district for a salary that would probably make them eligible for food assistance?
We must have a radical rethinking of the education offered to Muskegon Heights students. From this point forward, we must have “all hands on deck” to assist the students, parents and taxpayers of Muskegon Heights. They have been let down by their elected school board and disgraced and victimized by Dana Bryant.
For the good of the community, Bryant should surrender the pension he didn’t earn and clearly doesn’t deserve.