Red Cedar Decision Stirs Strong Feelings in Community

Wednesday, December 16, 2015, 4:00 pm
By: 
Karessa Wheeler

The ripples of East Lansing Board of Education’s decision to re-open Red Cedar Elementary next fall are being felt throughout the community.

The Board now has eight months to figure out the costs, staffing and student population for Red Cedar. Several Board members expressed their concern about the cost of the plan, and indicated they are prepared to change the opening date if it becomes fiscally difficult to reopen by the fall.

“I'll respond just like I did (Monday) night. We don't have answers to questions regarding the finances, teacher placement and who will attend this school, which is why I voted no. This should be about ALL KIDS receiving excellent programming,” wrote Hillary Henderson Tuesday.

But other Board members expressed the need to follow through with the promises that were made when Red Cedar was originally closed – to return some form of programming to the building.

“Red Cedar is a beautiful facility. It is a waste to have it just sitting there,” said Karen Hoene. “We are wasting potential if we do not put programming back into Red Cedar.”

Board member Yasmine Bouraoui also commented that if the building remains closed for three or more years, it would cost much more money to reopen because it would have to meet “new building” standards for safety. That was one reason given for the opening date of fall 2016, which would be just over two years from the time Red Cedar closed.

Board President Nell Kuhnmuench strongly supported moving forward with the full slate of programming for pre-K through 5 in fall of 2016.

“I am concerned about inertia,” said said. “We have been remarkably moving very quickly with a phenomenal administration, teaching staff, great programming … Yes, it is a lot of change and yes, it is an ambitious agenda. But holding off will not improve it. Sometimes, innovation means getting in and making it happen.”

On social media, parents and others unhappy with the decision are raising the issue of possibly recalling members of the school board who voted in favor of the reopening. Five of the seven members supported the motion Monday night.

Bree Anderson, who was outspoken against the reopening during the School Board meeting, said three of the members are eligible for recall and two are up for re-election this fall. Board members Bouraoui, Hoene and Kuhnmuench, all elected in 2014, are eligible for recall. Kath Edsall and Erin Graham would be up for re-election in fall 2016.

Board members Kate Powers and Henderson voted against the motion.

But many in the Flowerpot neighborhood and those who were formerly involved with Red Cedar Elementary are cheering today.

“I am not surprised at all that this agenda is moving forward because we put people in power who had the desire to open Red Cedar back up as a neighborhood elementary school that should never have been closed in the first place,” said parent Melissa Fore. “What surprises me is how quickly this board has moved and how grass roots organizing and putting time and energy into a cause you believe in can sometimes succeed (against great odds). I'm certainly eager to listen to the new plans. A Band-Aid has been ripped off of a wound that was healing poorly. Let's see what new options are available.”

For both sides of the issue, there are concerns about how this move will affect a potential elementary bond election planned for next fall. Before voting on the Red Cedar issue on Monday, the Board discussed how to go about gathering support for a millage to repair and/or replace two or more elementary school buildings. They did not specify which buildings would be included but later Board member Hoene mentioned that Red Cedar is one of the few buildings that does not need major repairs.

In 2012, voters in the district rejected a $53 million bond measure, some citing the closure of Red Cedar Elementary as a factor in their decision.

“The closing of Red Cedar was the reason the bond issue was voted down,” said EL resident Jim Anderson. “The closure of Red Cedar created exceptionally deep wounds in this community. Re-opening will be part of healing those wounds.”

Parent Mindy Morgan wrote to the board expressing her doubts that the currently under-construction University Village will be able to provide enough students to fill Red Cedar.

“As for long-term impacts, I fail to see how the proposal will do anything to change larger demographic shifts within the district. Spartan Village is slated to be closed in 2017. While much has been made by some regarding the building of new student housing close to Red Cedar, these new buildings actually have approximately 250 less beds that Spartan Village does presently (Detroit Free Press, 3.2.15) Further, the new complex is exclusively for students and does not accommodate visiting MSU faculty or staff. The reality is that many of the elementary-aged international students are children of visiting fellows and faculty who are not pursuing degrees. These families will not be allowed to lease at the new complex. Rather than providing an influx of new families with elementary-aged students, the complex will have the opposite effect,” she wrote

Other community members are concerned about the equity of putting all STEAM training and resources into one building instead of spreading it out equally throughout the district.

Finally there is the on-going issue of teacher contracts. The recently approved agreement with the East Lansing Education Association did not include any salary increases for teachers in the current year. In fact, teachers today are taking home less than they were in 2009, said union president and High School English teacher Tim Akers. At the same time, the District has been reluctant to hire more teachers in order to reduce class sizes. In his opinion, the combination of these policies will create problems for Red Cedar.

“Unless you hire more teachers you are just reshuffling the deck” Akers said. “Unless you change your teacher-to-student ratio, it’s not going to make a difference. Without a professional, well-trained staff, it will be difficult to get this off the ground.”