Closed Schools. Distraught Students. Stunned Teachers. Shocked Community. Buena Vista: An Education Fiasco

“How can you close school…isn’t that against the law?”

School-with-Chained-Levers-764x1024This question has been rolling around in my mind for a few days, as I come to the painful realization that we really don’t value education at all. We don’t take it seriously. We pay it lip service. Education is a long-term goal. We worship short-term gain. The significance of educating all children just doesn’t impress us.

This is hardly an epiphany, but a stark reality as I’ve watched a small, poor, black community in Michigan weather an unimaginable series of events. The Buena Vista School District near Saginaw is completely broke. The financial emergency is the result of state budget cuts to education, as well as mismanagement and neglect by school district leaders.

With the district unable to make payroll, some might expect its money-grubbing, unionized teachers to walk out the door. Wrong! Buena Vista’s dedicated teachers refused to abandon their students. They voted to continue working while the district resolved its financial crisis; the district answered their generosity by shutting down schools on May 7, National Teacher Day.

Today marks the fifth day that 400 students in Buena Vista are locked out of school and 27 teachers are on the unemployment line. The outcry from Congressman Dan Kildee, whose constituents are Buena Vista parents and educators, was swift and forceful. His call to re-open schools was soon followed by urgent appeals from state officials. But the one politician who could bring this inconceivable situation to a prompt and favorable end so far refuses to act.
empty classroom
Governor Rick Snyder, who was urged to draw funds from Michigan’s rainy day fund by Kildee, State Sen. Gretchen Whitmer and Rep. Stacy Erwin Oakes, continues to stall, claiming rainy day funds are not intended for this purpose. The rainy day fund has a $500 million surplus; state leaders are asking for $500,000 to help Buena Vista students finish the school year. It’s like a kid with a jar packed to the rim with jelly beans, rejecting anyone who asks for a few just in case he gets hungry later.

Meanwhile, this analogy is playing out for real with Buena Vista children. 9 out of 10 kids in the district qualify for free or reduced-price meals at school. Every day they are out of school is a day they don’t eat. Snyder is hoarding his jelly beans while these children go hungry.

Parents are begging for school to resume. Teachers, struggling with their own sudden unemployment, continue to advocate for their students’ education. “How can you close school…isn’t that against the law?”

What’s happening in Buena Vista is being covered by a few committed journalists and bloggers, and is beginning to get some national attention – but not nearly enough! Letting these children suffer for adults’ ineptitude and intransigence should be abhorrent to anyone who holds that a free public education for all is an essential component of our democracy.