Above: A still from the ELPS-produced bond video.
With just over a month before the special May 2 election for the East Lansing Public Schools bond proposal, people on both sides of the issue have been stepping up their appeals to voters, with the “Yes” side garnering support from a number of prominent local politicians, including East Lansing’s Mayor Mark Meadows, Ingham County Treasurer Eric Schertzing, State Senator Curtis Hertel, and State Representative Sam Singh.
This week, the teachers’ union also announced its endorsement of the bond. Union President Tim Akers delivered that news at Monday’s ELPS Board of Trustees meeting. Akers tells ELi, “Because of the contentious nature of this particular bond, we surveyed our membership before bringing it to our executive board for a vote. After considering our members' responses, it was clear that, despite some reservations, as a whole, they felt it was important to support the bond.”
The “Yes” side, lead by Schertzing, has formed an official campaign organization, registered with the County Clerk. Called “Yes for Excellent Schools,” the group has Meadows as its treasurer. As a registered organization, the group can fundraise and use those funds for promotional materials, including mailers.
Created by members of the Community Bond Committee which issued a report to the School Board recommending the bond, “Yes for Excellent Schools” has an active campaign of yard signs, a web site, a Facebook page, and recently conducted door-to-door visits to pass out flyers.
One advertisement from the group (shown below) used Meadows’ image and indicated he’d be voting yes, but in fact Meadows can’t vote in the election; while he lives in the City limits on the northern edge, he does not live in the ELPS District. (The boundaries of the City and District are close but not the same.) Asked to explain the advertisement, Meadows said he could not, and said he believed it had been pulled.
Meanwhile, some of those opposed to the bond have also begun to mobilize, creating a “Vote NO on ELPS Bond 2017” Facebook page. The “No” side has not yet seen formation of an official campaign, something that at this point appears unlikely to happen. Administration of the Facebook “No” page is by Joe Borgstrom, who owns his own economic development consulting firm.
Citizens are allowed, under campaign finance law, to spend their own funds sending out opinion mailers, and this happened recently with a letter sent to some citizens by Raphael and Rima Addiego—firmly on the “No” side. Rima Addiego, a former ELPS School Board President, joins her husband in writing that the School District and Yes committee have been misleading voters by not showing them the full price of the bond.
The District has been indicating that the bond would increase the current tax rate by 1.795 mills at the outset, but the ballot language indicates the amount levied would be 2.11 mills, and says “The estimated simple average annual millage anticipated to be required to retire this bond debt is 4.45 mills.” What the bond’s passage would actually cost taxpayers yearly and in total is a very complicated issue because of when some other bond debt will be finishing up. ELi has a separate report on this issue which concludes that "effectively, homeowners are looking at increase in taxes of approximately 3.25 mills to 5 mills compared to a No vote over the next decade."
In their letter, the Addiegos also object that the ballot language does not state which schools the bond funds are meant to cover. They raise concerns about “the need to redistrict some neighborhood schools, forcing over 200 children to leave their current schools.” They question the cost of reopening the Red Cedar School, writing that the Board is adding $400,000 to the annual operating budget for that purpose. They say that the District may have to “remove 7 teachers, increase class size and removing grade level sections, increasing School of Choice students by 52.”
The District administration has indicated it intends to use Red Cedar as a “transition school” to house students as their schools are rebuilt, because a lack of ground space at school properties means all schools but Donley need to be demolished before construction. Following the reconstruction of five schools (Donley, Glencairn, Whitehills, Marble, and Pinecrest), the Board has said it expects Red Cedar to become an early childhood center/pre-school. The District has indicated that no redistricting or other changes in the operations of the currently open five elementary schools would take place until 2021 at the earliest and then only after discussions with the community and action by the Board.
On the pro side, former School Board Trustee Kath Edsall recently penned an essay for website Public Response which outlines the reasons she believes the District needs to pass the bond and maintain the levels of Schools of Choice students. Without opening the doors to students from outside the District, Edsall writes, the residential population would only be enough to support three of the current five elementary schools.
“As funding for public education has decreased, it has been imperative to maximize the number of students in each classroom from kindergarten through graduation. A reality some may disagree with, but a reality nonetheless,” Edsall says.
Eliminating Schools of Choice students from ELPS would also leave excess capacity in the middle school, which was recently redesigned to accommodate 6th graders. In addition, transportation costs increase with fewer buildings, according to Edsall. She contends that with the stability of resident enrollment and stable finances, a six-elementary-school plan would allow the District to address the significant needs of the elementary buildings and focus on early childhood programming at Red Cedar.
The use or non-use of Red Cedar School as a sixth elementary school and/or something else has been and continues to be a contentious issue in East Lansing. It is likely to become even more so with the new revelation that MSU has been talking with the District about having MSU use Red Cedar as the location for another MSU-administered early childhood lab school under the condition that part of Red Cedar also be operated by ELPS as an elementary school, all assuming the bond passes.
In their letter, the Addiegos raise the issue of Red Cedar. (Rima Addiego was Board President at the time the Board voted to close Red Cedar.) The Addiegos quote an email by Board Trustee Nichole Martin, saying it showed that the “School Board is not confident in this bond proposal as evidenced by School Board member Nichole Martin’s March 5th 2017 letter to hundreds of East Lansing faculty, staff, Board members and the Superintendent,” because in that letter, Martin raised questions about the costs versus benefits of reopening Red Cedar.
Martin says in fact the letter was only intended for the rest of the Board and the acting superintendent. Martin also says she was asking about the costs of renovating Red Cedar, not objecting to them, and tells ELi, “Those things, as a parent, make sense to me now. It doesn’t make sense to me to not move forward with those upfront costs for that building.” She adds the Addiegos took her email out of context and misconstrued her questions as expressions of opinion.
Meanwhile, the Board of Education, not allowed by law to choose a side in the election, has been hosting informational meetings, with the “Yes” side encouraging people to attend those. The District has also put out a series of fact sheets and a video, which some on the “No” side say present far more of the pros (for example, the new buildings) than the cons (for example, the need to relocate elementary students for several years).
The City of East Lansing gave Acting Superintendent Dori Lekyo space in the most recent Dialog newsletter to advise people of the bond. There, Leyko concluded, “This bond proposal offers solutions that will provide equitable and flexible learning environments for decades to come in safe, efficient buildings that will last for generations on sites with safe pedestrian and traffic patterns.”
Asked about whether this amounted to recommending citizens vote “yes,” Leyko tells ELi, “I believe that the statement above is informational and does not encourage voters to vote ‘yes.’” She added that she believes she would in any case be allowed to encourage voters to vote “yes” under Michigan Campaign Finance law, because she has policymaking responsibilities.
Earlier this month, the City also used its email distribution to the Council of Neighborhood Presidents to offer visits from the “Yes for Excellent Schools” campaign at neighborhood association meetings. By tradition, East Lansing’s mayor meets with the Council of Neighborhood Presidents about once a month and the City uses that group to push out information. In this case, the city’s mayor is also, as noted above, the treasurer of the “Yes” campaign, although the mailing from the City offering visits from the “Yes” campaign didn’t mention that.
Asked about this use of City email to offer visits from a registered political campaign, City Manager George Lahanas checked with City Attorney Tom Yeadon and then defended the action as legal under Campaign Finance Law. Lahanas was previously found by the State to have misused Dialog under Campaign Finance law when he explicitly recommended voters vote “yes” on a City-related ballot initiative, contrary to Yeadon’s advice to him in that case. Lahanas was strongly warned by the State not to again use City resources for partisan election purposes.
While the “Yes” and “No” sides tend to put out clear opinions, voters are indicating to ELi and through social media that they see this bond election as complex, involving many calculations and some unknowns. Those unknowns include what they might be facing in tax increases because of the City’s need to raise revenues, and whether there will be another chance to fix East Lansing’s aged elementary schools soon if this particular bond fails to pass.
Note: This article was updated on March 31 to provide a link to and the conclusion of our separate report on what a "yes" vote on the bond would cost property owners.