Retiring Farmington Schools chief talks about district’s past, future

The last few weeks have given Farmington Public Schools (FPS) Superintendent Dr. George Heitsch a collection of memories he’ll take with him as he retires on July 1.

He’s received touching gifts from students and proclamations thanking him for his service, enjoyed a retirement party, and despite his best efforts, found himself tearing up more than once.

”I’ve been surprised by my own emotions more than anything else,” Heitsch said. “This has been a long exit.”

George Heitsch Robert Herrera
Farmington Public Schools retiring Superintendent Dr. George Heitsch is pictured with incoming Superintendent Dr. Robert Herrera.

The former FPS assistant superintendent was hired in 2014, after serving eight years as Avondale Schools superintendent. He entered a district struggling on many fronts after two failed bond issues and a controversial grade restructuring.

Farmington Schools has made progress, but Heitsch also sees work undone, work that will likely continue long after he’s gone.

Better fiscal picture

The recent closure of Harrison High School (soon to become a Farmington Hills community center) is just the latest in a series of painful moves that have meant staff cuts and the privatization of custodial services. But Heitsch said the district’s fund balance has risen to the point where “it’s fair to ask whether it’s time to start reinvesting in programs and staff.”

“We got a little more realistic about our enrollment decline,” he added, “and more conservative about what we would receive from the state.”

Heitsch described student performance as “steady, stable, and growing in ways not reflected in one snapshot achievement test.” He said SAT scores in parts of the district have “significantly outperformed” both Oakland County and state averages, “with always room to get better.”

However, he added, students still bring a wide range of abilities to the classroom and the district needs to do a better job of “meeting them where they are.”

“A kindergartener who comes in reading at the level of a three-year-old is never going to get to that 3rd grade standard,” Heitsch said.

Currently, he said, 24-26 percent of Farmington Public Schools students qualify for free or reduced lunches; some schools are at or close to 50 percent. “That economic disparity brings some challenges with it.”

‘Critical care unit’

While the district has been in what Heitsch described as a “critical care unit” for a while, he sees its current framework as a foundation for dynamic future growth. But the cost has been steep; many 2019 graduates attended five or six schools during their FPS careers.

“Some may look back and find that added to their grit and resilience,” he said. “For some, it just felt awful. I don’t think many of us thought we’d have to close a high school. That was a system trauma.”

The community has also responded to those moves in different ways, with the business sector largely supportive and viewing the district as “efficient and effective,” Heitsch said. He believes many employees believe the district made some of the right moves.

But those affected most directly by Harrison’s closing – who were also touched by other school closures – “think we just made a series of bad decisions.”

‘Keep talking to each other’

Despite the difficult times, Heitsch said he leaves with no regrets.

“As painful as some of these moments have been, I asked to come back and be part of it, and I’m glad I did. I came back to serve, because I saw an issue and thought I had the skill set that matched up with it pretty well.”

His advice for successor Dr. Robert Herrera?

“Just lean in. This is a great community, a great school district. They’re going to embrace him. From a foundational standpoint, we are ready for such success for kids.”

For the community he leaves behind, Heitsch offers this:

”Keep talking to each other. That conversation has to continue. You can’t get into tribes and camps. Find commonality. That’s always been one of our strengths.”