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The End of the Line

When an auto plant closes, schools feel the pain, too. With at least six states facing plant shutdowns or cutbacks, what’s happening in Flint, Michigan, might soon be happening in your area.


By Cynthia Kopkowski

It’s hard to miss the ’49 Buick Roadmaster Riviera parked in the concourse at the Flint, Michigan, airport. With its audacious robin egg blue paint and chrome bumpers shining like mercury, it is the sleek, metallic embodiment of what one Flint teacher refers to as a time “when Flint was.” The massive factory that produced that car went under the bulldozer in 1999, leaving behind a vast, weed-choked parking lot. Like many of the automotive giants and parts manufacturers whose factories once made the city a bustling industrial hub, Buick left Flint for more economically advantageous climes.

When the last car rolls off the assembly line at a plant, the repercussions roll right into the hallways of area schools. While the so-called “rust belt” has suffered for decades, a growing number of cities across the country face plant closings over the next few years. General Motors plans to cut 30,000 hourly jobs and close or downsize operations at roughly a dozen factories in the United States and Canada. Ford Motors, in turn, is eliminating 25,000 to 30,000 factory positions. Closings or cutbacks are coming in Georgia and Alabama, Oklahoma and Oregon, and Missouri and Michigan.    

They always seem to be coming in Michigan. At least 6,300 jobs will be affected there in the next two years because of the closings announced by GM and parts manufacturer Delphi. Between 1996 and 2005, Flint alone lost more than half of its manufacturing jobs, according to the Brookings Institution. And those losses came on top of the 30,000 jobs that disappeared in the 1980s.

“This used to be a very optimistic community, but with the drastic changes in a small amount of time, it isn’t now,” says United Teachers of Flint President Steve Burroughs, whose local’s membership has dropped from 1,600 to a little over 1,200 in the past five years. In 1980, there were 33,000 students in Flint schools. Now there are 16,500, and 15 schools have closed. “Teachers are getting pink-slipped and they’re moving elsewhere,” says Burroughs. “When you close a school, you kill a community.”

Last spring, 155 educators in Flint received pink slips, an annual rite of spring for many Michigan teachers. Shortly before this school year began, they were recalled (the pink slips are often a strategy used by districts to balance budgets, says Burroughs), but the stress was overwhelming. “It’s the uncertainty,” says Washington Elementary School teacher Sue Gladstone, who has been pink-slipped six of the 10 years she’s taught in Flint. “Even if you get called back in, they’ve stolen the opportunity to properly prepare for the year.”

When a plant closing or downsizing announcement comes, there is often some lag time before educators start feeling the effects, says Margaret Trimer-Hartley, communications director for the Michigan Education Association (MEA). “Usually it’s up to about two years before people say they can’t find any work and then pick up and move.” Once the exodus begins, school boards and administrators mull school closings, and pink slips arrive. MEA UniServ Director Barbara Bouknight says figuring out how to help the increasing number of affected teachers is like “figuring out how to eat an elephant.”

When teachers head to other areas of the country in search of better job security, their departures and school closures leave the educators that remain overworked in crowded schools. At one Flint high school, a teacher has 18 special education students in her regular class, says Burroughs. At another, he says seventh- through 12th-graders mingle in one building. Even more bad news looms on the horizon. According to the school district, nearly half of the teachers in Flint are approaching retirement. That leaves union leaders like Burroughs to wonder where the new teachers are going to come from. A city with a collapsing economy is not typically an attractive option for talented and enthusiastic recruits.

Flint is now one of the poorest urban communities in Michigan. Once-proud school buildings have fallen into decay around the city, windows smashed, debris piled in the parking lots, spray paint scrawled across bricks. At Pierson Community School, which awaits demolition, thieves have stripped the building’s copper piping for resale. Thousands of homes languish on the market. Michigan as a whole has the dubious distinction of claiming eight of the 20 worst housing markets monitored by the federal government. Quality of life indicators, like infant mortality statistics, are grim. 

“It’s sad when you know what it used to be like,” says Burroughs, shaking his head as he drives through yet another blighted section of town. And Burroughs does remember. He grew up in Flint. His father worked in the auto factories, and he did too, rising through the ranks to become a United Auto Workers representative. In his youth, the parking lots of the auto plants were jammed around the clock with workers entering and exiting the massive factories for three different shifts. A howling five o’clock factory whistle was his signal to come home for dinner. Driving around that same time on a recent workday revealed parking lots with only a few hundred cars dwarfed by the expanse of crumbling asphalt lots surrounding them. “This used to be a very active community, very crowded,” Burroughs says. “That’s all gone now. Making kids continue to dream in this environment is our biggest challenge.”

It’s not just cities such as Flint, where the auto industry is the only game in town, that are affected by factory closings. Last year’s closing of the General Motors plant in Oklahoma City put pressure on the Midwest City-Del City School District immediately. The plant had been the area’s second-largest employer, behind Tinker Air Force Base. “It doesn’t just mean the plant is gone,” says Jamie McCoy, president of the Mid-Del Association of Classroom Teachers. “All kinds of related businesses are gone already, like the companies that would transport the cars.” The loss of nearly $50 million from the local tax rolls—which helped pay for the district’s 26 schools—means school officials must now lobby the legislature annually to make up the difference, McCoy says. “We know other towns in the country were more greatly impacted, but we’re definitely feeling an impact here,” she says.

Closings affect the entire community. Stress at home spills over into the classroom. “The children feel it,” Burroughs says. That in turn weighs on teachers, on top of their worries about their own job status. “There is definitely an increase in the stress level of our teachers in recent years,” Bouknight says. As a result, holding meetings for educators to share their concerns and publicizing the Employee Assistance Program are necessities.

During a recent lunch break, Washington Elementary teachers collapsed into chairs and couches in their lounge. The school sits less than a half-mile from an AC Delco sparkplug factory that now employs a fraction of its original workforce. The school’s population has fallen from 700 to 500. “So many parents have moved and our transient rate is so high,” says teacher Karen Christian. “Rent money is running out, and they need to move. So then we don’t know what to expect.” As schools close around the city, children are reshuffled into new facilities, and busing increases, drawing the ire of parents. “They’re frustrated, and they come to us wondering what the effect on their children will be,” she says. “Meanwhile, we’re panicking that it’s going to be us [getting pink slips.]”

Christian grew up in Flint, shopping at the mom-and-pop stores downtown and going to the city center for the Fourth of July fireworks. Those stores have long since been shuttered, and she doesn’t feel safe taking her family downtown for the fireworks anymore. Seven of the houses on her childhood block are for sale.

The misery feeds into another struggle in states like Michigan, where manufacturing has traditionally been the lifeblood of the economy: it’s what Trimer-Hartley calls the “tradition of undervaluing education.” It is evidenced in public opinion polls conducted by groups like the Your Child Michigan coalition, which learned in 2005 that only one in four parents in the state believes getting a good education is essential to getting ahead in life. “Our state does not value education enough to participate in the knowledge economy,” says Trimer-Hartley.

For NEA members, plant closures have direct ramifications. Automotive unions are increasingly forced to agree to contracts with higher health care costs and, in some states, cuts to retirement benefits. When it comes time to negotiate educators’ contracts, pressure builds on NEA leaders to accept cuts, too, Trimer-Hartley says. “The folks on the other side of the table say, ‘Well, if the auto workers are willing to take cuts, what about the teachers?’” Even districts that enjoy positive fund balances are asking the union for health care co-pays. “Employers believe they have the upper hand, and they’re taking advantage,” says MEA UniServ Director Jacqueline Thomas.

Understanding that link is crucial. “We see a similar downturn when the private sector is making the decision to cut,” says Bill Raabe, director of NEA Collective Bargaining and Member Advocacy. Along with pressure on health care and benefits, “there is pressure in the state legislature to look at decreasing pensions,” Raabe cautions.

Besides standing in solidarity with their union counterparts in affected industries, educators should be prepared to defend their traditional, defined-benefit retirement plans and advocate for changes to the U.S. health care system, which leaves 47 million uninsured, Raabe says. Closer to home, being armed with research is key. In Flint, local Association officials said that having the Michigan Education Association provide a five-year analysis of the school district’s spending was critical to fighting back on proposed cuts.

Not everything, however, is gloom and doom in the auto industry. In Vance, Alabama, a Mercedes plant opened in the late 1990s. It’s since doubled in size, bringing with it a host of related businesses and factories there and to nearby Brookwood. That’s where 12th-grade economics teacher Sheila Hocutt-Remington watched her school grow from 700 students to 1,200. Ten new rooms are being added. Construction started recently on a new elementary school and the combined middle and high school split into two facilities.

Once a mining town, Brookwood saw the Mercedes plant bring a housing boom, improved school facilities, and more racial diversity to the classroom. Students participate in high-tech apprentice programs at the factory, and teachers benefit from added job security. “It brings in a tax base that has increased money for our schools and programs,” says Hocutt-Remington, who incorporates the impact of the auto industry on the town into her lessons.

Back in Flint, there is little cause for enthusiasm. There is only resignation, and the belief of Christian—shared by many teachers and union officials—that “we can’t go any further down.”

Departing visitors who wander into the airport gift shop find a colorful display of diecast toy cars next to the cash register. Turning them in hand reveals tiny, detailed hood ornaments and nameplates of storied American car companies that once made places like Flint boomtowns. There’s a fire-engine red Chevrolet Camaro, a green Ford pickup truck, a Buick convertible. Turning them over reveals a small sticker: Made in China.

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