By JAMES MITCHELL
Sunday Times Newspapers
LINCOLN PARK – The state of a city and its schools are often one and the same, which was the underlying theme of last week’s first-ever combined annual addresses.
“We’re on the mend,” Mayor Thomas Karnes said while presenting the State of the City address March 10 in the Lincoln Park High School auditorium. “We don’t have a miracle cure, and we have to work together and live within our budget.”
The annual address hosted by the Rotary Club of Lincoln Park – the first since the city had exited its period of state-mandated emergency management in December – featured both Karnes’ municipal update and a State of the Schools address by Lincoln Park Public Schools Supt. Terry Dangerfield.
The district’s top administrator agreed with Karnes that teamwork and communication were the keys to a brighter future.
“We all have to be on the same page of the same book in the same library,” said Dangerfield, who provided a summary of the district’s vulnerable position. State funding for schools, he said, has long been a tenuous issue that – with crisis conditions facing both the city of Flint and Detroit Public Schools – could be even further reduced.
“Our children need the support of this state,” Dangerfield said. “Each of our students deserves the best we can give them.”
In spite of shrinking budgets and increased expenses, Dangerfield said Lincoln Park has actually seen a slight increase in student population rather than the decline seen by most districts in the region. Yet, in spite of increased attendance the district remains at risk for decreasing revenues from the state.
“This is basic math and a problematic funding system,” Dangerfield said. While a recent survey revealed that students generally felt safe at the city’s schools, there remains at times a sense of disconnect between academic goals and how those translate to grades.
“We have to ensure that students know we care about them,” Dangerfield said. “I’ll be frank: Our student performance needs to get better. We must and will get better.”
On the plus side Dangerfield noted several initiatives that have shown promise, including a partnership with Wayne County Community College District Downriver campus that offers associate degree programs to high school students, and efforts by the nonprofit Lincoln Park Public Schools Educational Foundation to provide mediation and intervention programs to reduce truancy.
“We are rethinking education in Lincoln Park,” Dangerfield said. “We can always do better. It’s time for less talk and more doing.”
Karnes offered similar words of encouragement for a city that has only recently come out from under state supervision, a period the mayor said could and should have been avoided.
“Lincoln Park did not benefit from the emergency manager experience,” Karnes said. He credited Emergency Manager Brad Coulter as, “a good man who did what he felt was right,” but said that downside had left city hall a shadow of its former self.
For nearly 18 months the city had trimmed expenses and staffing to skeletal levels, pursued new revenue streams and sacrificed more than was perhaps necessary to stabilize its budget.
Last year the city realized a positive fund balance for the first time since a nearly $5 million deficit had ignited what became state oversight of its finances. Employee and retiree benefits had been reduced and revised, which Karnes said was too high a price to pay.
“It was a difficult period, especially for the employees,” Karnes said. “We had quite a mess to deal with. But our employees shone bright.”
Now entering a recovery phase Karnes said the city remains under the authority of a Regional Transition Advisory Board, and that the final orders that had been issued by Coulter in December will remain in place for at least a year.
Karnes said a number of promising initiatives are at works which indicate a city on the upswing. Community policing, public safety reorganizations, recreation programs, the farmer’s market and efforts such as the restored band shell at Memorial Park each contributed to a municipal renaissance.
“There was more work done by fewer staff,” Karnes said of the various departments at city hall, which will be joined by the Chamber of Commerce operating under the same roof.
“It makes perfect sense to be in the same building,” Karnes said. “We need to work together.”
With continued cooperation among city staff and between entities such as the city and school district, Karnes said better days are now seen on the not-too-distant horizon.
“We are a great city,” Karnes said. “We’re not the same city we were 15 years ago, or 50 years ago, but in many ways we’re stronger.”
(James Mitchell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)