This is just a little local story about education. But it has some interesting political backspin. It also raises a few questions about separating public and private, and putting your money where your mouth is. So to speak.
I live in a picket fence kind of town in southeastern Michigan. It’s clean, safe and filled with nice, well-meaning people—most of whom look and think alike. Progressive folks have fought hard to rid Howell of a now-undeserved historical association with the Ku Klux Klan, but it will always be a bastion of traditionalist beliefs. The local school board is made up of citizens ranging from pretty conservative to far-right diehards, and there have been ongoing public battles over teachers hanging diversity flags in their classrooms, the selection of “Freedom Writers” (labeled “pornography” by a local school watchdog group) as an optional reading for HS students—and several other culture-war controversies.
The good people of Howell voted in 2003 to spend $70 million dollars on a second, brand new high school and—with a little wrangling—adopted some pretty forward-thinking strategies (including flexible, college-type scheduling and online coursework) to deal with the transition from one to two high schools and improving student services. Howell Parker High School opened in September 2007. A buddy who taught there gave me a tour last year—and I can personally testify that it’s a totally awesome 21st century marvel.
Unfortunately, the school closed after one year, because there aren’t enough operational funds to keep two schools open, and an older, larger building in the district is now jammed full of all the high school students. As you can imagine, this was front-page news for months—putting the crown jewel of the district into mothballs after one year. The district is renting some of the space, on an ad hoc basis, to a credit union and an “adult learning center” but essentially, this technology-rich, world-class facility is collecting dust.
But! Good news! Movie producer B.J. Rack (she of Terminator 2: Judgment Day fame) blew into town and offered the district $180,000 (minus cleaning, insurance and maintenance expenses) to use the empty school as a movie set for her upcoming film High School (emphasis on the “high”), a teenage stoner comedy which she compared to Ferris Buehler’s Day Off.
Rack emphasized that there would be no nudity, thank goodness, and that the ultimate message would be that drugs can ruin your life. As, presumably, generations of kids have learned from Ferris Buehler that skipping school is a terrible idea that can destroy your future, not to mention your permanent record. Agreed? Anyone? Anyone? Buehler?
Rack also estimated that $6 million dollars of the $9.5 million film budget would be pumped into the local economy, causing local business owners and the Chamber of Commerce to salivate. My calculations say that the 200 cast and crew members, living in Howell for 10 weeks, would be expected to spend $3000/each per week on…what? I’m not sure. Trips to Home Depot? A really big night at the International House of Pancakes?
By the way—I’m not completely opposed to this idea. If the deal puts more money in the school coffers, that’s fine. No kids will be harmed in the making of this movie. But it’s easy to draw parallels to Chris Whittle-Channel One flap years ago where schools exchanged their scholarly integrity for free technology and programming. And in the end, it represents trading on a publicly owned resource for a tiny, questionable public benefit and lots of private profit.
Seems like we’ve heard a lot about that recently.
As for the people who are naïve or disingenuous enough to swallow and repeat assurances that the film is decidedly anti-drug and our conservative values won’t be compromised—well, let’s let the students who attended Parker High last year be the judge of that. Because you know they’ll be first in line to see this wholesome family flick starring their empty school.
Image: National Register of Historic Places/Livingston County Courthouse/Howell, MI.