A review team appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder determined that Highland Park was facing a financial emergency. Criteria for a financial emergency include deficit spending for more than three consecutive years and having a deficit of more than 15 percent of district revenues. During the 2010-11 school year, according to the report, Highland Park had spent 54 percent more than what it had received in revenues.
The review team recommended that the Highland Park School District be taken over by an emergency manager. Gov. Snyder agreed with the findings and announced in January 2012 that an emergency manager would be appointed to oversee the operations of the district.
After the initial determination that Highland Park was facing a financial emergency, the Michigan Department of Education gave the district a $188,000 advance in state funding so that the district could pay its employees. Less than a month later, the MDE gave the district another advance of $261,000. Legislation was also passed that year which provided $4,000 in per-pupil funding for Highland Park students that would follow those students to attend another district or charter school for the remainder of the 2011-12 school year.
After procedural delays stemming from a suit brought by a former Highland Park school board member, Joyce Parker was appointed as emergency manager of Highland Park schools in May 2012. As an emergency manager, Parker had the ability to void collective bargaining agreements and restructure operations of governments facing a financial emergency.
On June 8, Parker issued her first order, which was to lay off all non-instructional employees of the school district. Later, the district’s contract with the teachers’ union was terminated, effectively laying off all the district’s teachers too.
Just 10 days later, Parker announced that the district would be converted to a system of charter schools — the Highland Park Public School Academy System. According to a financial plan prepared for the district by the emergency manager, the school district of Highland Park would primarily be limited to making payments on the district’s debt and levying district taxes. Under the plan, it is projected that it will take the district until 2042 to pay off its debts.
Parker’s plan stated unequivocally that the district would not be providing educational services. The plan stated: “[T]he District will expend no funds for the direct provision of public educational services by the District in public schools operated by the District.”
In late July, it was announced that the Highland Park Public School Academy System would contract with The Leona Group, a charter school operator, to run its schools. Leona runs approximately 20 other charter schools in Michigan, most of which are located in high-poverty areas, similar to Highland Park. That fall, the Highland Park school buildings reopened as charter schools under the name “Highland Park Renaissance Academy.”
For a timeline of these events, see Appendix A.