A tale from Bay City: Working together for students to literally cross a bridge

Buddy Moorehouse
Jan 29, 2024 1:08:15 PM

A fascinating tale played out in Bay City last year that showed the great things that can happen when charter school leaders and MAPSA officials build bridges with community leaders to do what’s best for students.

It’s a long story that has a happy ending, and above all else, it’s another story that shows just how hard charter school leaders and educators will work to protect their students.

Here’s the story in a nutshell: Bay City is located right near Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay, where the bottom of the Thumb connects to the rest of the mitten. It’s a city of about 32,000 people that’s divided right down the middle by the Saginaw River. There are four bridges that connect Bay City’s east and west sides.

Two of those crossings – the Liberty Bridge and the Independence Bridge – were owned and operated until recently by the City of Bay City, and they were both in need of tens of millions of dollars of repair. Bay City didn’t have the money to make the repairs, so in 2019, the city sold the two bridges to a private company called United Bridge Partners (UBP) for $5 million.

UBP signed a contract with the city and promised to make the needed repairs on the bridges, but with one big caveat – they would turn both crossings into toll bridges. City residents could cross for free for five years, and after that, they’d have to pay. Out-of-towners would have to pay a toll starting immediately.

The contract also said this: Buses carrying students from the Bay City Public Schools District could cross for free. Bus drivers would be given a transponder that would allow them to cross toll-free every time they were carrying students to and from school.

The Liberty Bridge – the main bridge of the four bridges in Bay City – was officially converted into a toll bridge in the summer of 2023, which meant that any vehicle that didn’t have a transponder had to pay the toll.

And that’s where the problems began.

The traditional school district in town, Bay City Public Schools, got the transponders right away. The two public charter schools in Bay City – Bay City Academy and State Street Academy – did not.

When they realized that their bus drivers were not being given transponders, officials from the two charter schools cried foul. They immediately reached out to officials from Bay City Bridge Partners, the local company that UBP had set up to handle bridge operations.

Administrators Brian Lynch and Darci Long from Bay City Academy were told by Bay City Bridge Partners that the contract with the city only required them to provide transponders to the Bay City Public Schools district – not to the charter schools. Superintendent Lisa Leimeister from State Street Academy was told the same thing.

The school officials were rightly furious. Their students are public school students in every way, and yet they were being discriminated against because of the type of public school they attend.

“That’s when we got involved,” said Alicia Urbain, Vice President of Governmental and Legal Affairs at MAPSA. “The schools contacted us and asked if we could help. I wrote letters to Bay City Bridge Partners and Bay City, asking for more information, including copies of the contract. We knew this wasn’t right what they were doing to the students.”

Being forced to pay the tolls was no small matter, either. Both schools had students on both sides of the river, and Liberty Bridge was the most convenient crossing for the buses. The tolls were going to cost tens of thousands of dollars a year, though, and the schools didn’t want to take that money away from academic programs.

So when school started in late summer 2023, the buses from Bay City Academy and State Street Academy had to take the long way around. Students would be spending an hour or so more on the bus every day, in some cases having to miss after-school programs and tutoring because of it. The students were the ones having to pay a toll.

In addition to bringing MAPSA into the fight, the school officials did another very smart thing – they built on the relationships they’d established with their local officials.

They contacted their two state lawmakers, who happened to be from both sides of the political aisle. They alerted State Rep. Timmy Beson (R-Bay City) and State Sen. Kristen McDonald Rivet (D-Bay City), and both signed onto the effort in support of the charter schools.

City Commissioner Joseph Rivet also offered his support, and after some urging from MAPSA, the city attorney wrote a letter to Bay City Bridge Partners, as well, saying that the contract language supported giving free transponders to the charter schools. The school leaders and MAPSA had built a strong and powerful coalition in support of the students.

“We were also working with some other groups to explore the option of a lawsuit,” Urbain said. “Based on the language in the contract, we believed that a lawsuit was a viable option."

They were pulling out all the stops. Students at Bay City Academy and State Street Academy were spending far more time that necessary on the bus every day, and it was taking a toll on their mental well-being.

In December, MAPSA took one additional step, laying out a public-relations strategy that would be used to garner public support for the charter school students.

At that point, Bay City Bridge Partners relented. The charter schools were provided with transponders for their buses, and once school started up again in January, the buses from Bay City Academy and State Street Academy were freely crossing Liberty Bridge.

The charter schools – more specifically, the charter school students – had won.

“There are a lot of lessons here, but the real heroes in this story are the school leaders from Bay City Academy and State Street Academy,” said MAPSA President Dan Quisenberry. “They didn’t just sit back and accept this when it was happening. They knew this wasn’t fair and that it was damaging to their students, so they took up the fight. It also shows how important it is to have great relationships – relationships with your local officials and relationships with MAPSA. Everyone worked together on this to give the story a happy ending.”

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