Ferndale Schools Starts off Second Year of New Administration
(C. Proxmire, Aug. 23, 2015)
A new school year begins in the Ferndale School District, with the community swimming strongly forward in the midst of Superintendent Blake Prewitt’s second wave.
Prewitt came on last year after former Superintendent Gary Meier left the district in the middle of scandal over using Ferndale Schools time and resources to build his own charter school consulting business during a time when Ferndale Schools struggled financially and academically. When Meier left much of the administrative staff, who were also doing charter school side work on Ferndale Schools time, went with him. The district is now suing Meier to try and recover some of the money, and the new administrative team is still sifting through the mess.
One year into the process of righting the ship and not only is there a three-year financial plan in place, but changes to the culture are obvious. It starts with the most simple of things, a smile. Prewitt and the people around him are genuinely excited to come to work and help kids learn. He is a regular face at school functions, and has a particular pride watching the band kids play, since his background is in music. Last year Prewitt had the administrative offices moved from Harding to the High School so that top leadership could be more accessible.
This year they’ve taken over a row of classrooms on the second floor overlooking the courtyard. There is much movement going on.
Physical Changes and Restructuring
The big story last year for the schools was the challenge of right-sizing the district. Many of the buildings were underutilized and overstaffed. The months-long process of deciding what programs to put where was full of community input and over the next few years some big changes will be made.
This year there are a few.
With the move of the administrative offices to Ferndale High, it left Harding to become the Ferndale Early Childhood Center. This is a central place for multiple preschool including Headstart, Great Start Readiness and tuition-based programs that attract out-of-district children. For the first time they are offering full-day, half-day and after school care.
“This is a good move because all the kids can interact together. It allows for parents to have one place for pickup and drop-off, and the building is centrally located for freeway access. It’s our newest building, very well laid out with close proximity to Harding Park. It allows all teachers to collaborate and work with each other,” Prewitt said.
The other big change this year is to the alternative education program. The Digital Learning Center program ended, and adult education have merged with alternative education. This new program is being done with Berkley Schools, and the University of Michigan School of Social Work, called the Tri-County Educational Center. The Center accepts students from Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties and provides them with a proven alternative curriculum.
The Taft building, which most recently housed DLC, is vacant as the administration explores options for sale of the property. Ferndale Schools is also getting ready to say goodbye to Jefferson, a building located in Oak Park that has already been sold. Wilson, which currently houses University High School, could also be sold in the coming years when the program moves over to Coolidge.
As part of the restructuring there are other changes that will come a little further down the road, including combining elementary programs and putting sixth grade into the middle school. The restructuring is based on a population of about 3,000 students. The previous buildings could have held around 7,000 students.
“Just about every district, with one or two exceptions, have lost enrollment in Oakland County. There are more charter schools, more competition among districts, and declining populations. We have to be more realistic about our enrollment projections or even conservative,”Prewitt said.
Righting the district financially was an immediate need. “We’ve had to be careful about allocating our budget,” said School Board President Jim O’Donnell. “We’ve increased overall instructional spending by 6%. It was important to have retention of all programs and not cutting programs students and parents rely on. We have one of the most robust elective programs in the area.”
But to do that some tough decisions had to be made. After realizing that the expenses for custodial and maintenance staff were much higher than in surrounding districts, the School Board made the decision to outsource. The move allowed the District to keep $500,000 towards expenses that more directly help educate students, but at the cost of letting employees go. Custodian and maintenance was privatized and employees could go to work for the private company if they wanted, though for most it was a wage reduction to do so.
There was also an unexpected $2 million adjustment.
After Meier suddenly left, Oakland Schools had to step in and submit a budget for 2014-2015. Meier’s administration had the 2014-2015 budget set at $35 million. Oakland School’s projections were at $33 million. This meant a $2 million adjustment in a short amount of time.
“Oakland Schools did what they could in the limited time they had to look at it, with the information they were left,” Prewitt said. This meant adjustments during the course of the 2014-2015 year. Mid-year adjustments are common for school districts as expenses vary from expected and as enrollment numbers can be hard to predict. Recently a Detroit News article looked at several districts and their budgeting challenges, including Bloomfield, Rochester, Farmington and Ferndale.
Cuts at the Top
Another area where Ferndale Schools was off balance was in the high compensation packages for top administration. The former Superintendent was one of the highest paid per student in Oakland County. With his departure and that of other top administrators, Ferndale Schools is now spending 42% less on general administrative costs.
Prewitt was scheduled to get a raise at the beginning of this year, which he has refused. He also has volunteered to pay his own way for travel, conferences, workshops etc. “So when I go up to the Superintendent’s Conference in Traverse City, I’ll be paying my own conference fee and staying at someone’s house for free.”
Among the transitional challenges has been that the previous administration did not leave gracefully. Major computer issues happened just after he left, and the system back up was not active, so a devastating amount of information and work was lost.
And there are financial damages that are still being calculated. Because of all this, the Ferndale School District is in the process of suing Meier. The court case is still in the discovery phase while both sides investigate the situation. There is a trial could begin as early as March.
“The board took the legal costs into consideration when we decided to proceed with lawsuit,” said Board President O’Donnell. He explained that legal costs have been down since Meier’s departure. If the lawsuit is successful it will put money back into the coffers, and it has an element of justice to it. “The students and the taxpayers were harmed. This is the right thing to do.”
Keeping the finances, staffing and buildings in good order are all important, but the emphasis for all the changes has been on what the students need. Prewitt and O’Donnell shared several things to look forward to, including the beginning of the Cambridge International Program at Ferndale Middle School. “Over 100 students are enrolled in that program and it’s receiving a lot of excitement,” Prewitt said.
“We’ve also started the early college program with Baker College and over 60 of students have joined us in that.”
There are four early college programs available: Computer Programming, Business Marketing, Medical Pathway and Criminal Justice.
“We’ve been working with Chief [Tim] Collins on the Baker program to give young people interested in criminal justice some firsthand experience with law enforcement, and we’re looking at similar partnerships for the other career paths. We’re trying to get every student, at some point, out into their career field and having some first hand experiences. We don’t want any student to go through all this work on a program and then realize they don’t like it.”
Ferndale has also started a Lower Montessori classroom at Roosevelt Elementary. This is a multi-aged classroom (grades 1-3) taught in the Montessori philosophy. There has been significant interest in the program from many kindergarten Montessori programs and many local pre-school programs. Ferndale’s new Montessori teacher comes with years of experience in the Montessori classroom and can’t wait for the year to start.
The buildings and the financials are an important part of the work, but the Superintendent and School Board President spend much more of their time thinking about the teachers, staff and students. Both have been attending community events and working hard to keep conversations going with the needs of students as the focus.
Prewitt said, “Our theme of the year is, One Team…Endless Dreams. As a Ferndale community we are ‘One Team’ educating all our children and helping each child find their dreams.”
Learn more about Ferndale Schools at www.ferndaleschools.org.
Ferndale Schools Starts off Second Year of New Administration