Above: Glencairn resident and Bond Committee member Terah Chambers speaking to the Board of Education last night
The East Lansing School Board voted unanimously last night to adopt a resolution calling for a special school bond election on May 2, 2017, with all members of the Board in attendance. The proposal calls for a maximum bond of $93,770,000, the purpose of which is to build five new elementary schools where the Donley, Marble, Whitehills, Pinecrest, and Glencairn schools are now located and to refurbish the Red Cedar school.
At the meeting, numerous individuals expressed concern that the bond might not pass if voters do not understand what they said was the critical nature of the issue. Some also expressed concerns about “conspiracy theories” about the bond plan, and called on the District to educate voters in advance of the election.
Trustee Kate Powers said she had heard from members of the community questioning why the ballot language does not specify what the funds will be used for—rebuilding five elementary schools and renovating the Red Cedar School. She said that when a failed 2012 bond proposal was put forward, it had specified the planned usage of the funds. (That 2012 bond proposal was for $53 million, and about 53% of voters voted against it.)
Board President Nell Kuhnmuench responded by saying that including such language was unusual and that she did not realize until late in the process that such language could be included. Kuhnmuench said that the community should be reassured by what the Board has said about the specifics of the bond proposal and also by the details provided in the Preliminary Qualification (“PQ”) letter sent by the Michigan Treasury’s office to the District on February 3.
Kuhnmuench and others said that there would be time, if the bond proposal passes, to work with individual neighborhoods to figure out what would happen with each of the six elementary schools. Acting Superintendent Dori Leyko told attendees that the architects were ready to bring forward preliminary plans very soon and that videos were being made to help explain the proposal.
Several citizens came forward to speak about the bond, including several members of the District’s Bond Committee and two spouses of members. There was no strong opposition to the bond, and many comments in favor.
Terah Chambers, a member of the Bond Committee, said she finds the state of the elementary schools “shocking.” She said she wondered at one point if it had been a mistake for her family to move to East Lansing. Chambers also said the District at this point was asking children and teachers “to perform magic in conditions that are far less than ideal.” Although she said she is not thrilled about having her taxes increase, she felt paying more was worth new elementary schools.
Chris Martin, Tama Hamilton-Wray, and Jim Anderson also came to support the bond proposal. Martin said when they arrived East Lansing, his wife saw the Marble School and said “it looks really crappy.” He said he’s convinced there is a need for better schools and that teachers and students deserve modern classrooms. Hamilton-Wray said she thought the District would greatly benefit from the improved elementary schools. Anderson said he thought the bond passage was necessary to reverse the “torpor” that began when the School District closed the Bailey and Central elementary schools over three decades ago.
Mike Conlin said he did not think this bond proposal makes a lot of sense financially. He said there was no question the elementary schools are in dire need of improvement but, he said, it was possible to reduce significantly the planned costs and create a more modest bond proposal that would be more likely to pass. He said he feared this would be another failed bond. Conlin pointed to places where cost-savings could be reaped and also called for funding of science classrooms in the elementary schools.
Conlin told the Board he is concerned about “bad behavior” that he said occurred during the last school bond proposal. He said the District’s hired lawyer, who was paid substantial sums, issued a last-minute letter challenging claims that he (Conlin) and others had made about what they saw as problems with the bond proposal. He told the Board he felt this kind of problematic behavior was why public education was failing in support across the nation. He strongly encouraged the Board to work more on reducing class size, and said he feared “we’ll never be able to reduce them if we pass this bond.”
Nancy Schertzing noted before speaking in favor of the bond that she is the spouse of the chair of the Bond Committee, Eric Schertzing. She said she had been hearing “so many conspiracy theories” about the bond. She said the bond was “an imperfect proposal by imperfect people for an imperfect community” but she felt it would help achieve great things.
Eric Schertzing told the Board that in his view this bond “finishes up” the project begun twenty years ago with the renovations of the high school and middle school. He said he thought it was important to realize that property values depend on good schools, and that the community of people who don’t have children in schools need to be educated about the value of good schools to all.
Donna Kaplowitz agreed with Nancy Schertzing and said that while the proposal might not be what everyone desires, it “will bring us back together.” (Kaplowitz noted her spouse, Michael Kaplowitz, is a member of the Bond Committee.) Shari Rose agreed with the comments by Schertzing and Kaplowitz and said she thought it was important to create better classrooms.
Kath Edsall told the Board that she had heard people say there were hidden agendas around this proposal, including with regard to Schools of Choice. She said she had also heard people say that the Board will revamp four schools (Donley, Pinecrest, Red Cedar, and Marble) but will end up leaving Glencairn and Whitehills without renovation. She said it was important to build trust, particularly in light of national events, and that there would be “room to continue” after the bond is passed to figure out what each school should have in terms of physical infrastructure.
Before the unanimous vote in favor of the proposal, Trustee Kate Powers said the bond, if passed, would provide “five desperately needed new buildings” as well as renovations for programming at the Red Cedar School. Trustee Nichole Martin said at this point, “it is truly a need and not a want” to have new elementary schools.
The bond proposal comes at a time when the City of East Lansing is facing significant financial challenges for which it may also seek voter approval for bonds. Mayor Mark Meadows, who served on the school Bond Committee, has indicated that he thinks it is important to get the school bond passed before the City asks the voters for any additional bond approvals. As we have reported, City Council may also consider asking the voters to institute a City income tax and to agree to an increase in property taxes.