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Hazel Park, Madison Heights

January 1, 2014

The changing landscape of 2013

By Andy Kozlowski
C & G Staff Writer

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Hazel Park kicked off the season with its annual Harvest Festival at Green Acres Park Sept. 20-22. Tyrese Tucker, 15, of Hazel Park, watched the proceedings from a hill nearby on Sept. 21.

The winds of change blew through Madison Heights and Hazel Park in 2013 — optimistic, but not without a hint of uncertainty.

Dramatic change is afoot in the schools of both cities. Fresh faces are at the helm of Madison Heights. Volunteers are improving quality of life in Hazel Park. 

Wherever you look, people are changing the world around them, trying to make the best of things. And their work continues in 2014.

But first, here’s a look back at some key developments in 2013.

Madison district consolidates
In Madison district, exactly 100 votes decided the passage of an $11.4 million bond issue May 7, one that will forever change the district serving 1,300 students in the south end of town. The bond will pay for the creation of a central campus at 11 Mile and Hales, where two elementary schools — Halfman and Edison — will combine in a renovated and expanded Schoenhals building, complete with a new access road off 11 Mile.

The bond won’t cost taxpayers anything beyond what they’re already paying. Officials said the transfer of an expiring debt property tax would finance the bond.

At the time, Madison Board President Albert Morrison said the call for a new school was in part out of concern for student safety in a post-Sandy Hook world.

“Unforeseen and uncontrollable variables face us every day,” Morrison previously said. “We have an obligation to offer the best learning experience in the safest environment possible. This project affords us the (opportunity) to do that.”

In addition, a district-wide space-utilization study found the district had 50 percent more space than needed. Concerns about aging infrastructure also prompted the move.

This is just the start of a planned five-year district-wide consolidation. The intent is to approach voters again at a later date for permission to build a new middle school behind Madison High on 11 Mile, relocating the Wilkinson Middle School students there, and linking all of the schools together in one interconnected campus, while finding a way to finance this second phase without raising taxes, as well.

The Early Childhood Education program will stay at Schoenhals. Madison Preparatory Academy, an alterative education program at Schoenhals, will relocate to the old Edison building. Central administration will also relocate there.

The new gym at Schoenhals will remain. New features will include a dedicated security lobby; 12 new classrooms, with retractable walls and abundant natural lighting; a new cafeteria and kitchen; new fire alarms, overhead sprinklers and emergency lighting; a new air-handling system; a new preschool wing and playground; a new parking area and parent dropoff lane; a central outdoor classroom; and more.

Officials at the time said the plan is to retain all staff. Transportation and other details are being worked out with resident input. Construction will begin in 2014, with the new building open for occupancy in 2015.

Hazel Park district revamps
Change is more immediately evident in the Hazel Park district, which also serves parts of Ferndale, where the athletic complex at Hazel Park High has been revamped from top to bottom, to the tune of $2.6 million. This is paid for by part of an $8 million bond approved by voters in August 2012 — a bond that will also pay for district-wide technology upgrades and other renovations. The tax levy will be repaid throughout 20 years.

Voters had also approved a building and site sinking fund, raising roughly $304,340 each year for five years — money that can only be spent on fixing and maintaining existing facilities, but not for operating costs or other expenses such as salaries.

The changes to the athletic complex are dramatic: A brand new football and soccer field with synthetic turf, a new track, new baseball and softball diamonds, six new tennis courts, a new multipurpose practice area, a new three-bay garage and storage facility, new energy-efficient stadium lights, new safety fencing and press boxes in the home and guest bleachers, a new irrigation system, and more.

Previously, conditions were so bad that the baseball and softball teams had to practice at Green Acres Park, and the track had deteriorated so much that meets couldn’t be held there. The renovations make the facilities fully functional again.

“Remembering the condition and state of the facilities just this past spring, it’s a quantum leap,” said Fred Nix previously. Nix is the owner’s work representative and a former student, teacher, coach, principal and assistant superintendent with the district. “Every precinct passed the measure. Every citizen and resident of Hazel Park has a right to be proud of what has been accomplished.”

In 2014, attention shifts to technology upgrades in every classroom in the district. Major upgrades to the district’s infrastructure will allow for data capacity 10 times greater than it was before the bond work. This requires new servers and cabling, and it will greatly increase efficiency for students and staff. There are also intentions to acquire new equipment, from specialized projectors to the possible use of tablets for more individualized learning. The district is also surveying the condition of the schools’ roofs and parking lots, prioritizing their needs for this summer, when repairs can begin.

Dealing with deficit
Overhauling infrastructure isn’t the only way Hazel Park Schools continued to change in 2013, although it is part of an effort to attract more students. This is crucial for the district of 4,000-4,500 students to climb out of the red and back into the black.

The district avoided state intervention back in August, when the Local Emergency Financial Assistance Loan Board, part of the state treasury, declared there were no signs of “probable financial stress” that would prevent the district from rebounding once it completes its five-year Deficit Elimination Plan, which the state approved for a sixth year ending 2015.

The plan included negotiating wage concessions and a new health plan; eliminating positions through attrition — retirement, departure — when possible; maintaining School of Choice student enrollment; offering severance packages to help with layoffs; and a 3 percent cut to administration’s wages.  

For the current school year, staff was to be reduced by 16 teaching positions, at least one administrative position and at least two secretaries, two outreach coordinators, four paraprofessionals and five custodians. The district was also considering the impact of closing another elementary school in FY 2014-15, should it be required to move the district out of deficit, although “that would be an act of desperation,” and “certainly nothing we would anticipate with relish, and we would do anything and everything to stave that off,” said the district’s director of curriculum, Michael Barlow, back in August.

The district has been in the red since fiscal year 2006-07, when the deficit was around $191,500. The deficit grew to about $1.5 million by FY 2011-12. Now, it’s estimated to be $3.3 million at the close of FY 2012-13.

This is largely due to a sharp drop in enrollment — roughly 350 students between October 2011 and October 2012. Some enrollment was lost at the high school due to families moving out of the district; enrollment also dropped due to a change in vendor programs. The situation was made worse by a reduction in per-pupil allocation from the state, cutting at least $470 per student.

“It was a double-whammy,” Barlow previously said.

Now, the district with a budget of $41.1 million in FY 2012-13 is still in deficit. Before the drop in enrollment and per-pupil allocation, the deficit had been improving, from 8 percent to 5 percent to 3 percent, Barlow said.

District officials told the state extra time is needed, and extra time was received. Ultimately, the loan board noted the district’s deficit amounted to 8 percent of their total budget — safely below the 15 percent demarcation used by the MED before any state intervention is deemed advisable.  

The district has been working to recruit more students, boosting enrollment by focusing on the features that make HPPS special. This includes the new athletic complex and district-wide technology upgrades.

They’re also focusing on the Promise Zone, where, beginning with the Class of 2012, all students who live in the district and graduate from Hazel Park High are eligible for two-year college scholarships — up to $2,000 a year — for the equivalent of an associate degree from Oakland Community College.

The amount of the scholarship is determined based on the length of consecutive attendance at Hazel Park Public Schools. The program also takes into consideration other state or federal money received by the graduate, since the program is designed to help the most those who wouldn’t qualify for other funding sources.

New leaders emerge in Madison Heights
By the end of 2013, voters placed two new faces on Madison Heights City Council. And earlier in the year, City Council hired a new city manager to help advise them in the policy-making process.

The previous city manager, Jon Austin, retired Feb. 28. Austin served the community for 21 years — the longest tenure of any city manager in the history of Madison Heights.

His successor is Ben Myers, the previous deputy city manager. When Myers applied for the position, he had 25 years of experience in municipal management, including 20 years of service in Madison Heights. His most important duties had been running the Department of Public Services.

City Council selected Myers at the end of November 2012 and approved his contract this past February. However, Myers’ selection didn’t come without some debate. Some councilmembers wondered whether the city should try to cast a wider net and interview more candidates. As it were, Myers was the only candidate who applied.

In the end, the prevailing opinion was that Myers more than satisfied the minimum requirements for the role, and that his intricate knowledge of the city was an advantage.  Myers’ contract includes an annual base salary of $121,542, which excludes five unpaid holidays, reducing the annual compensation to $119,187 — the same as Austin.

Austin’s guidance left the city in strong enough financial shape that the city actually had its bond rating upgraded in 2013, at a time when many cities in Southeast Michigan are still struggling. Standard & Poor evaluated the city and revised their outlook from “negative to stable,” indicating the city’s finances have stabilized to the point where they would remain steady for the year.

Previously, their outlook had been more downcast, due to falling revenues and rising expenditures. The S & P report also affirmed their “A+” underlying rating for the city’s existing general obligation debt, meaning S & P believes Madison Heights can meet all current financial commitments.

The year wrapped with two new people sitting on City Council: Mark Bliss and David Soltis. They, along with incumbent Richard Clark, were elected in the Nov. 5 general election. Six candidates competed for three four-year terms, since Kyle Geralds chose not to run again.

Soltis had the most support at 19.72 percent of the vote, while Bliss came in close behind at 19.09 percent. In third place, only 10 votes separated Richard Clark from fellow incumbent Bob Gettings. Overall, Madison Heights had 10.45 percent turnout, or 2,161 ballots cast.

“We now have the opportunity to continue what (past councilmembers) have done well, but add two new voices and do things maybe people haven’t thought of before,” Bliss said after the election.

Volunteers shape Hazel Park
Perhaps the most dramatic change in Hazel Park came from the volunteers who literally changed the land, creating new parks and gardens while improving existing ones. Together, they enhanced quality of life for residents of The Friendly City.

This past spring, the city of Hazel Park had about 100 vacant lots. Working together with volunteers and expert gardeners, they took three lots on Merrill Street, between East Elza and Milton, across the street from the administration building for the Hazel Park school district, and converted all 32,000 square feet into a community garden.

There are no individual plots. Rather, those who participate in the collective effort are entitled to some of the harvest. The rest goes to local churches and food distribution programs feeding the needy. And someday, if the garden grows enough, the city may establish a farmer’s market to help sell a portion of the crops at a low price, the proceeds helping support the garden.

Residents had already begun planting on the lots in 2012. The city donated the land and enlisted the help of Charles Lisee, a Hazel Park resident and urban studies student at Wayne State University. As part of the SEED Wayne project at WSU, he has worked on sustainable food systems on campus and around Detroit. Now, he has applied his urban agricultural know-how to Hazel Park as the manager of the garden project.

Also, several residents volunteered to steward plants in their own homes, growing them to the point where they were ready for transplanting when the garden had its official groundbreaking in May.

Separately, Hazel Park began collecting donations for the city’s first dog park, in the south end of Karam Park, on Couzens between Woodward Heights (Nine 1/2 Mile) and 10 Mile. The goal is to create two fenced-in areas — one for small dogs, and one for large dogs. The park will also have its own parking area, coming off of Couzens, so people won’t need to use the side streets.

Users will have to pass through two gates, opening only one at a time to avoid any dogs escaping from the park. There will be doggy bag dispensers and waste receptacles, as well as benches and watering areas. The trees provide for natural shade — a cool alternative to the more open Red Oaks Dog Park in Madison Heights. Once the money is lined up, development can begin. The plan is to have the park open sometime in 2014.

In June, Hazel Park unveiled its first Art Garden, in a green space next to Dairy Park on John R near Granet. The centerpiece of the garden is a sculpture fashioned out of road signage from the city’s past. Tom Jones, the public works supervisor, used signs that had been in storage for several decades.

The refurbished lot was transformed by the generosity and sweat equity of numerous individuals and businesses in Hazel Park. Volunteers pulled weeds, mowed grass, swept up debris, installed a new privacy fence, donated flowers and a hazelnut bush, and more.

Private donors funded two cement pads and an exposed aggregate walkway. The first pad has the sculpture by Jones; the second has a 1,200-pound concrete chess/checkers table with two stools, memorializing long-time Hazel Park resident Beverly Hamby. Nearby, a bench pays tribute to another long-time volunteer, Thelma Holtzman.   

One of the biggest movers and shakers in Hazel Park in 2013 were the volunteers from CityEdge Church. They revamped Tuski Park and created the all-new BMX Sports Complex for the city’s thrill-seekers to enjoy.

At Tuski Park, located at the corner of Vassar and Tucker, east of John R and south of Woodward Heights, CityEdge spent months repainting the playground equipment, much like they’ve done at Green Acres and Scout Park. But at Tuski Park, they also created a fall-zone filled with sand, and added two patios with picnic tables. They created a full-sized volleyball court and added a “welcome center” with a beautifully landscaped berm and curved retaining wall near the park sign. There are also plans to add a pavilion in the southeast portion of the park.

The BMX Sports Complex was created in the fall, located behind a business on the corner of Woodward Heights and Melville, just west of Dequindre. The track occupies what was formerly a vacant field. Now, there are mounds of dirt, dug up from where the volleyball court was installed at Tuski. They have been shaped into hills that people can ride their bikes on to catch some air. Volunteers also painted the nearby walls.

“We never thought we’d get into projects this big; we thought we’d be doing smaller projects in people’s homes,” Lyle Hayman, cofounder of CityEdge, said previously. “When these opportunities came before, we said no, but we kept getting the same message (from God). So we shut our mouths, went forward, and next thing we knew, things were happening.”