Flint, MI— Flint Community Schools held the first of 10 community forums where residents weighed in on how they’d like the district spend $99 million in COVID relief funds and shared what changes they hope to see in the future.

Superintendent Kevelin Jones hosted the meeting that took place at Freeman Elementary School on Nov. 30. Approximately 20 community members attended in-person while around 10 tuned in via Zoom.

“(We’re going to) talk about the idea. The idea of how we’re going to engage our community and engage our community partners to make recommendations to our board for the future,” Jones said. “We’re rebuilding and re-energizing, and so the structured community conversation starts with you.”

The forums are part a new, long-term initiative called “Future Focused: Renovating, Rebuilding, Re-energizing” aimed at reviving the struggling district.

The initiative centers around four components: community conversations, an Impact Advisory Committee to represent the “community voice,” committee chairs and the superintendent who will be responsible for gathering community input, and the Board of Education who will make final decisions for the district.

Flint Community Schools Superintendent Kevelin Jones II hosts a forum with the community to discuss the incoming ESSER funds on Nov. 30, 2021. (KT Kanazawich | Flint Beat)

The incoming funds offer Flint schools a chance to rebuild, Adrian Walker, assistant secretary/treasurer for the Flint Board of Education, said.

“We have an opportunity to reimagine our school district,” Walker said. “We have to look at it as not just spending but investing. If we do it right, with this amount of dollars that we have, we could have a significant impact as it relates to the future of Flint Community Schools.”

The $99 million is the third installment of ESSER funding, or Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds, which is part of the United States Educational Stabilization Fund Program to provide financial relief to K-12 institutions impacted by the pandemic.

The first two rounds of ESSER funds were already released. Flint schools received approximately $54 million between them. Jones said the money was used to purchase personal protective equipment, two laptops for every student, stipends for staff, building improvements for Doyle-Ryder Elementary, and transportation needs.

“So now we come to ESSER III. We need your input for ESSER III,” Jones said.

Jones asked attendees to participate in a Jamboard style feedback session where attendees responded to questions on posters placed around the room. Each was given a pack of Sticky Notes to write out their responses.

“I would like to see skills trades for parents offered during the after-school hours of the day and also during the weekends,” Jordan Munerlyn, community school director for Freeman Elementary, said. “A lot of (parents) don’t have their GED, so that’d be one part of the program I would like to see. But also, just teaching them some skilled trades because not every parent has a chance to go to school. So, giving them a skill that they can use to earn some extra income.”

Emily Schneider, program data assistant for the Flint and Genesee Group, said she’d like to see Flint schools expand their fine arts programs.

“Art can apply to every area of your life. Expanding your creativity can help you in every area in your future,” Schneider said.

Community members make suggestions at a forum hosted by Flint Community Schools about the incoming ESSER funds on Nov. 30, 2021, at Freeman Elementary School. (KT Kanazawich | Flint Beat)

Following the Jamboard session, Jones opened the floor for discussion. Several community members voiced their opinions.

Sara Tavora, a clinical therapist who works for a third-party contractor with the district’s School Wellness Program said health workers do not feel appreciated.

“The whole program for Health Services has worked throughout the entire pandemic. It’s very frustrating for us when the nurses have tenfold the amount of work to do for themselves…. We feel really undervalued and underappreciated because let’s be real, the economy is changing. We have never gotten raises or stipends. It’s very frustrating. So, I think showing some kind of gratitude and appreciation for all staff, not just Flint Community Schools staff, that have been here this entire time,” Tavora said.

Jones said one of the district’s goals is to eliminate third-party services.

“We also value our third-party employees, which we don’t want you to be third party. Our board doesn’t want third-party employees. We are working now to come up with plans that can rectify that and bring everyone back to our district. Can I say it’s easy? No, it’s not easy…. I don’t believe we can get anybody to do anything as it pertains to educating scholars 100% with their heart if they don’t feel valued. And so, this is a burden I go to sleep with at night,” Jones said.

Brooklyn Golden, a senior at the University of Michigan-Flint who will be certified to teach when she graduates in April asked Jones how the district plans to incentivize up-and-coming educators to come to Flint schools.

“Absolutely, we are going to sign on bonuses…. We have those opportunities. And like we stated before, for our stabilization, each Flint employee is receiving $22,500 this year, just to stabilize our staff members. And if you come on as a teacher, you will definitely be a Flint employee and there will be some type of signing bonus that goes with you coming on staff,” Jones said.

But Golden, who also works at Freeman as an attendance liaison, said she wouldn’t want to teach at Flint schools in its current climate.

“No, absolutely not. Before I had this job, I was subbing a lot. So, I got to see the lack of support that there is, not even just monetary support…. But it’s difficult. It’s not enough support because you have kids that have different type of behavior issues, emotional support issues, education issues because (of) the water crisis, and just a plethora of different things,” Golden said.

While Golden wanted to feel encouraged by the forum, she said she must see change to believe it.

“Being a Flint native and seeing how funds have been mismanaged in the past, it makes me a little leery. It sounds good, but is the money going to go to what it really needs to go to? I want to see it before I believe it,” she said.

However, Jones remains optimistic.

“I am not going to be happy until we get a shovel in the ground and start building buildings for our scholars. I think that is so important. I think that we need to look to the spring and try to make this happen and get a shovel in the ground and say, ‘Flint Community Schools is building new buildings,’” Jones said.

While ESSER funds cannot be used for new construction, they can be used to renovate.

“The board is making decisions on what buildings we’re going to utilize and what buildings we’re not going to utilize. We haven’t gotten to that space where we know exactly what those buildings are, but that is a part of the process,” Jones said.

Nine other community forums will take place in the upcoming weeks. A schedule can be found here.

Those who cannot attend in-person are encouraged to join via Zoom. Zoom links can be found here.

The district has also created a Google Survey and is asking all community members to submit their responses.

Carmen Nesbitt is a journalist with diverse experience in news reporting and feature writing. She wrote for Hour Detroit and SEEN Magazine before joining the Flint Beat news team as an education and public...