LIVONIA, Mich. – While enrollment in the Livonia Public Schools has been declining, a charter public school in its shadow has been growing in popularity. And now that growth could come to an abrupt halt.
Shortly before the school year ended, the district notified Hinoki International School that it was terminating its building lease and starting a carbon-copy Japanese language immersion program in the fall. The move will essentially put Hinoki out of business because the charter cannot find space on short notice in the land-locked city of Livonia. Hinoki is authorized by Livonia Public Schools and must operate within its boundaries.
The charter could find a new authorizer, which would allow it to move to another city. Three parties are interested, according to Hinoki Board President Anne Hooghart but not until the 2015-16 school year when its current charter expires.
Why Livonia Public Schools terminated the lease is a bit of a mystery, but the move financially benefits it. The school’s founder, principal and administrator, Ted Delphia, supports the district’s decision. He says the school needs a “more sustainable” business model going forward. Hinoki supporters point out that the school was operating with a fund balance of more than $125,000, despite the fact that charters don’t receive as much money per pupil as conventional schools get.
One factor could be competition. State grants follow students. Hinoki’s enrollment has grown from 14 when it opened in 2010 to 185 registered for the fall. If students transfer to Livonia’s replacement program, LPS stands to gain at least $8,000 per student, according to Hooghart.
“That will definitely help LPS’s bottom line,” says Audrey Spalding, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.
Starting a competing program from scratch is no small matter. Materials from Hinoki belong to the school’s stakeholders and are now boxed up and in storage. The district will have to hire teachers who are fluent in Japanese. If it hires Hinoki teachers, those teachers will now be represented by a union even though they will work longer hours and for less money than other district teachers, according to Livonia Superintendent Randy Liepa.
Liepa refused to participate in an on-camera interview, saying “we have answered the questions brought to us by interested stakeholders.” Breaking with current practice, the district did not record video of the May 29 school board meeting when Liepa introduced the idea of creating a competing immersion program.
Liepa says Delphia is not currently employed by the district and he had not applied for the lead administrator position of the new program as of July 11. He says it is not clear what role Delphia will have, if any.
The Hinoki school board says it gave Delphia a “minimally effective’ rating this year. This spring, the board started looking for an education service provider to contract with to handle its growing administrative needs. The board also turned down Delphia’s request to make his wife a salaried employee of the school.
Last week, the Hinoki School Board voted to not enroll students for the 2014-2015 school year. It has asked the school district to maintain its charter through June 2015. It will form a special organization to keep the Hinoki community together outside school-related activities.
Editor’s Note: This story has been slightly updated to add more information regarding the school for next year.
Authored by Anne Schieber