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School for Sale

By Nancy Flanagan — November 12, 2008 4 min read
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This is just a little local story about education. But it has some interesting political backspin. It raises some questions about separating public resources from private gain, and putting your money where your mouth is—so to speak—on what real Americans call family values.

Hometown Politics and Picket Fences

I live in a picket fence kind of town in southeastern Michigan. Howell is clean, safe and filled with nice, well-meaning, community-minded people—most of whom look alike and have moderate-to-conservative beliefs. It’s a good place to live and raise a family, actually, and I’ve seen some positive change in community attitudes over my past couple of decades in residence.

Progressive folks have fought hard to rid Howell of a now-undeserved historical association with the Ku Klux Klan, but it will always be a bastion of traditionalist ideals. The local school board is made up of citizens ranging from pretty conservative to far-right diehards, and there are periodic skirmishes around school policy and ongoing culture-war controversies, always featured on the front page of the local newspaper.

Issues include a years-long war over teachers hanging diversity flags in their classrooms and arguments about the percentage of sacred music allowable in concert programs. Probably the most contentious battle came over the selection of Erin Gruwell’s Freedom Writers Diary as an optional reading for a HS English class, causing a citizen of my home town to file suit against the school for “distribution of pornography to minors”—a charge which the local prosecutor dutifully pursued and found lacking in merit.

A Brand New, Short-Lived School

But perhaps the biggest controversy has come recently. The good people of Howell voted in 2003 to spend $70 million on a second, brand new high school and—with a little wrangling—adopted some pretty forward-thinking strategies (including flexible, college-type scheduling, and online coursework) to improve student services and deal with the transition from one to two high schools. Howell Parker High School opened in September 2007. A buddy who taught there gave me a tour last year—and I can personally testify that it is a totally awesome 21st-century marvel.

Unfortunately, the school closed after one year, because there is not enough operational funding to keep two schools open. An older, larger building in the district is now jammed with all of Howell’s high school students. As you can imagine, putting the crown jewel of the district into mothballs after one year was front-page news for months—and it continues to occupy a lot of the school board’s time and energy. The district is renting some of the $70 million dollar space, on an ad hoc basis, to a credit union and a local small college. But essentially, this technology-rich, world-class public facility is collecting dust.

A New Use for the Space

But! Good news! Movie producer B.J. Rack (she of Terminator 2: Judgment Day fame) blew into town and offered the district $180,000 (minus cleaning, insurance, and food service costs) to use the empty school as a movie set for her upcoming film High School (emphasis on the “high”), a teenage stoner comedy which she compared to Ferris Buehler’s Day Off.

Rack emphasized that there would be no nudity, thank goodness, and that the ultimate message would be that drugs can ruin your life. As, presumably, several generations of kids have learned from Ferris Buehler. You know, skipping school is a terrible idea that can destroy your future, not to mention your permanent record. Agreed? Anyone? Anyone? Buehler?

Rack also estimated that $6 million of the $9.5 million film budget would be pumped into the local economy, which caused local business owners and the Chamber of Commerce to salivate. My calculations suggest that the 200 cast and crew members, living in Howell for 10 weeks, would be expected to spend $3000/each per week on…what? I’m not sure. Trips to Home Depot? A really big night at the International House of Pancakes?

Selling Their Souls?

By the way, I’m not completely opposed to this idea. If the deal puts more money in the school coffers, that’s fine. No kids will be harmed in the making of this movie. But it’s easy to draw parallels to the Chris Whittle-Channel One flap years ago, where schools exchanged their scholarly integrity for free technology and programming. And in the end, it represents trading on a publicly owned resource for a tiny, questionable public benefit and lots of private profit.

Seems like we’ve heard a lot about that recently.

The Howell school board approved the plan at a late September meeting, with the superintendent estimating the school’s total take on the deal at $120,000—a puny percentage of the annual school budget. But keeping a close watch out for Adrian Brody, the film’s most recognizable star, will give people in town something to do now that the presidential campaign and related sign-stealing are over.

As for the people who are naïve or disingenuous enough to swallow and repeat assurances that the film is decidedly anti-drug and our conservative values won’t be compromised—well, why don’t we let the students who attended Parker High last year be the judge of that. Because, you know, they’ll be first in line to see this wholesome family flick starring their empty school.

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