The Highland Park School District (HPS) has been put on notice that it has a financial emergency and the inability to resolve the crisis. Gov. Rick Snyder’s appointment of an emergency financial manager is the natural order in the short-term.
Deploying an EFM to end questionable practices of mismanagement, waste and declining student enrollment, though, is not the primary issue. Considering all the heart-wrenching and depressing trends, hope will not spring eternal with an EFM merely taking over the schools. What ultimately must be addressed is whether the school district and the city itself should be dissolved as independent governmental units and annexed with Detroit.
The HPS deficit ballooned from just over $6 million to more than $11 million during the past fiscal year. Spending exceeded revenues by almost $4 million. Operating deficits occurred in five of the last six fiscal years leaving HPS without the enough money to pay its vendors or its employees. But finances are only part of the problem.
Student enrollment has fallen 58 percent since 2006, dropping from 3,179 pupils to about 969. Scholastic achievement scores, meanwhile, remain consistently below state averages as the investment in education is eaten up by status quo programs that are out of step with what students need. HPS can’t educate the kids in its care.
What’s taking place in the beleaguered school district, though, is a reflection of the distress that’s occurring throughout the city. The enclave is landlocked within the boundaries of Detroit. As with other aging municipalities, the former “City of Trees,” once glorified as being an “oasis,” has morphed into one of the Michigan’s bleakest municipal units.
The most extreme poverty can be found in this revenue-strapped, physically decaying and economically depressed city. More than half of all residents are on some sort of public subsidy. Commercial businesses are few, job creation practically nonexistent and the tax base all but depleted. Unemployment is among the highest anywhere.
Streets are darkened by the shadows of vacant, decrepit houses, deserted by people who fear sudden and vicious attacks and who know police and fire services are in short supply. Children are at risk of dying in the crossfire of rival drug gangs.
The beleaguered city, recently released from an EFM, has hemorrhaged population, falling from more than 46,000 in its heyday to about 11,000 in the last census. The remaining residents are geographically isolated from the opportunities in outer communities.
An important framework and survival strategy must be the merging of Highland Park and Detroit — and their school districts. Among the potential “economies of scale” would be the extension of police and fire services. The availability of additional services such as water, trash and snow removal and street maintenance could be enhanced.
The two cities already share common social, economic, cultural, and geographic characteristics. There is no logical reason for not sharing a common school district.
Annexation, of course, comes with enormous political hurdles and administrative obstacles. Highland Park and Detroit residents would have to agree to the marriage. But many residents in both cities won’t be happy, especially the politicians. Highland Parkers won’t want to give up their historic “identity.” There too are “image and pride” considerations.
Neither city would bring much in terms of a “dowry” to the union. Ultimately, though, a merger should be pursued with the understanding that Highland Park’s almost insurmountable problems are unsolvable without it.
Nothing in a merger guarantees revival. Highland Park may be hopelessly trapped between the promise of the past and the social and economic deficits of the present. But something must give.
Unless political and geographical boundaries are reordered, the city will remain a barren no-man’s land; a symbol of urban devastation and condemned to historical irrelevance. In that case, the legacy of an EFM will be that help arrived too late to breath new life into a dying city.