When hearing news about the financial issues of major cities in the United States, headlines often point to Camden, Cleveland, St. Louis, and, of course, Detroit. Countless articles have been published about the downturn of these formerly bustling hubs. Detroit alone has garnered international development attention from planners looking to avoid such collapses in the future.
Unfortunately, despite similar hardships, small cities often receive much less attention than the larger municipalities. These areas with fewer resources, fewer people, and fewer headlines — places such as Vallejo, CA, Harrisburg, PA, and Flint, MI — have been in financial turmoil for the better part of the last decade with very few garnering headlines similar to the larger cities above.
While much can ben written about the plight of each of these smaller cities, their citizens, and their schools, the city of Flint — located one hour north of Detroit — has made recent headlines because of its lead infested water. But the Flint crisis is much more than just a water-related disaster. Coupled with scarce job opportunities, intense poverty, a dwindling population, and a ballooned deficit, Flint’s water issues are but an already soot covered canary in the coalmine, particularly for its equally dilapidated school system.
Flint’s first set of issues came to attention in 2004. Sidled with a $30 million deficit and increasingly intense job cuts from primary employer General Motors, Flint had been on a foreseeable track toward financial crisis for years. Considering unemployment alone, the city had lost 28,000 GM jobs from the late 1980s until 1999 when the corporation finally closed its Buick plant doors. Acting to curb further disaster, then Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm appointed an Emergency Manager, Ed Kurtz, to drag the city back into the black.
Kurtz gutted municipal operations, cutting jobs and salaries of city employed workers. His decisive actions were covered widely in local news and in Michael Moore’s 2004 documentary Fahrenheit 9/11. Kurtz managed down the Flint budget deficit to between $8 million and $9 million by the end of his tenure in 2004. The city appeared to be on the right track.
But, over the next decade, Kurtz’s actions began to take their long-term toll, with schools as the prime indicator of Flint’s dwindling future. At its peak in the 1980s, Flint schools housed more than 30,000 students. By 2007, as jobs began to leave the city, and poverty took hold, the student number was less than half. By 2014, that number was hovering around 6,000. Between dozens of consolidate schools district buildings being closed, demolished, and repurposed, and with thousands of teachers receiving pink slips over the past couple of decades, the future has been dim for this challenged district. A quick glance at the list of Flint’s school closings shows that nearly 25 have closed since 2002 and most occurrences in communities of color — a tangible indication of this future.
In 2011, Flint’s financial woes continued and governor Rick Snyder appointed a new Emergency Manager — Michael Brown. The city looked to get back on track once again. In 2014, under Brown’s guidance, the municipality struck a deal to switch their water supply from the city of Detroit’s Lake Huron source to its local Flint River source. The deal was designed to save the fledgling city $5 million over two years and to reengage the city’s water treatment facility. Flint had been receiving water from Detroit for the previous 50 years, so a rudimentary study was conducted, and the dormant existing system was deemed safe. Financial managers argued that the switch was a necessity, and in April of 2014 Mayor Dayne Walling pushed the ceremonial button to make the historical switch.
The effects were immediate. Within 48 hours, citizens of the greater Flint metro area began seeing, tasting, and smelling the toxins in their water. Fecal Coliform received the initial attention as a boil order was given in late 2014 and additional Chlorine was pumped into the system. But the levels of lead were the more hidden contaminants. In early 2015, city water was tested showing lead levels nearly 27 times the federally recommended amount.
The deepening effects of the Flint’s water crisis continue to receive national attention. Major news outlets — the NYTimes, Washington Post, NPR, and Fox — have all covered the crisis. But the long-term effects of the lead water crisis only compound the long-term effects of poverty that are already rooted in Flint’s Metro area. Young people who have ingested Flint’s leaded water are at extreme risk for a host of neurological issues. According to the Center for Disease Control, there is no “safe level” of lead for young people, and lead poisoning can result in increased behavior issues, learning disabilities, and long-term health issues.
With the documented effects of lead poisoning undeniable, the youngest generation of Flint residents faces a nearly perfect trifecta of indisputably destructive factors — poor community health, poor schools, and poverty. Students in Flint schools are encountering increases in classroom size (current averages are around 36-42 students in all grades), systemic school faculty and staff layoffs along with dramatically reduced salaries, continued budget problems, and school building closings. Combined with the well-documented neurological effects of poverty, the futures of these young people need to be considered with a serious eye.
As teachers, we often find ourselves in situations that call for our multi-faceted skill-set. We act as social workers, counselors, mentors, and advocates as we put our students in situations that lead to their success. But Flint’s trifecta is indicative of the larger action that is required at all levels for students in similar municipalities to be successful. From ongoing grassroots efforts by school based staff, to sound financial management, to visionary district leadership, to care for community health, a holistic effort must be made to avoid the disastrous future that lies ahead for Flint’s youngest generation.