EL Residents Agree on Need for New School Buildings, Disagree on Configuration

Tuesday, December 6, 2016, 11:35 am
Karessa Wheeler

Above: Dr. Mike Conlin gives his comments on the upcoming bond proposal before the East Lansing Board of Education during a public hearing Monday night.

All of the speakers at the East Lansing Board of Education Bond Proposal Public Hearing last night agreed that the District’s elementary schools are in dire need of reconstruction, and that the best time to do the work would be now.

But many also expressed concerns that the details of the plans, along with the specific wording of the proposal, will be the key to whether the bond proposal passes or fails as it did in 2012. The Board will vote on the bond proposal language at its Dec. 12 meeting, and it is expected to come before voters in the spring.

Board President Nell Kuhnmuench opened the hearing by reminding the audience that “every day of delay will cost money in the future. Interest rates are beginning to rise and construction costs are going up. Investing soon will save us money in the future.”

Before the public commented on the report released last week by the Community Bond Committee, members of the Committee reviewed the process and results of their twelve meetings. The report recommended two scenarios: rebuild five smaller elementary schools and renovate Red Cedar Elementary school, or rebuild three medium and two smaller elementary schools (similar to the current configuration) and renovate Red Cedar. The majority of the Committee supported the first scenario which would cost between $67.5 and $75 million. The second scenario would cost between $72.6 and $80.7 million. Either scenario would require an additional $9 million to renovate Red Cedar.

Committee member Steve Merriman explained the results of a community survey that asked residents to rank what was important to them and whether they would support the bond. According to the survey, 74 percent of residents want to see site improvements in the elementary schools and 75 percent would vote in favor of a bond to play for those improvements.

Dan Bollman, architect and Committee member, justified several of the Committee’s assumptions about the District. The Committee assumed that the current population number of 3,629 students would remain relatively stable in the future and would include the current percentage of Schools of Choice students, which is roughly 25 percent. They were also charged with considering all six elementary school buildings, including the now-closed Red Cedar Elementary.

“I have heard this particular limitation used as a reason to dismiss the Committee’s finding and I find that disturbing,” Bollman said. “We are well aware of the percentage (of Schools of Choice students) and the consequences of changing that percentage.”

Parent Sarah Comstock opened the public hearing with concerns about current overcrowded conditions at MacDonald Middle School, and asked the Board to reconsider the use of Schools of Choice students to fill the spots in elementary schools when space is not available for them in the upper grades. She also asked the Board to consider the additional vehicular traffic brought by Schools of Choice families when most schools already have problems with drop-off and pick-up situations.

“Increasing Schools of Choice feeds directly into increased vehicular traffic problems for both the schools and for the neighborhoods housing the schools,” she said.

Mike Conlin, parent and recent school Board candidate, urged the Board to undertake more analysis of enrollment trends instead of assuming that the population would remain stable.

“Overall the student population has been incorrectly calculated for a long time,” he said. “How can you figure out how to configure the schools without an idea of how many people you will have?” We must have objective experts analyze the numbers because without well-defined definitions, the bond will not pass.”

His concerns were echoed in part by Doug Barcy, a parent and banker experienced with school finances, who believes enrollment is actually in decline and the use of Schools of Choice students to prop up the numbers is not sustainable. He supports the idea of four new, larger elementary schools, citing their flexibility and lower overhead costs compared to five or six smaller schools.

Former City Council member Kathleen Boyle supports the Committee’s recommendation to renovate Red Cedar Elementary School and requested that the Board not “be bullied” into removing Red Cedar from the bond proposal in fear that some will vote down any measure that includes the controversial school. Ruth Ann Stump, president of the Red Cedar Neighborhood Association, also presented the Board with a petition in support of reopening the school.

“We are not one of the wealthy or privileged neighborhoods but we are an important part of the District,” she said. “We have a workable building that can be renovated with comfortable space on a quiet street a safe distance from travel.”

Retired school social worker Dorinda Van Kampen shared her experiences with mold, water problems, traffic issues and other problems at the five elementary schools built in the 1950s. She asked the Board to work with the City to include sustainability measures during construction of the new schools, possibly including solar panels on the roofs, improving energy efficiency and using best practices with water and sewage plans.

At the close of the public hearing, members of the Committee were allowed to respond to comments from the public. Steve Haider came forward to emphasize that the Committee took into consideration the needs of non-traditional students such as special education, English Language Learners and developmental kindergarten classes.

East Lansing Mayor Mark Meadows, also a Bond Committee member, told the room he was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the condition that Red Cedar is currently in, and also reminded the Board that the current schools have security issues with multiple entrances and no fire suppression systems.

Finally, Michael Kaplowitz explained that the Committee was made up of very diverse community members who were able to come together to recommend the rebuilding of the majority of schools. His work leads him to the conclusion that East Lansing would be best served by four large and flexible elementary schools that can accommodate changing numbers and programming. However, if politics won’t allow for the closing of two schools, he would support a six school configuration.  Six buildings would be ideal for educational purposes and give us capacity and capability. Assuming that the bond is right-sized and we aren’t building Taj Mahals but good, solid schools,” he said. “This would allow us to do good work together.”


Update: This article was amended to clarify that Mayor Meadows was pleasantly surprised (and not shocked in a negative way) about the condition of the Red Cedar School following a tour of the building.