Red Cedar School’s Long-Term Future Unclear
Under the current East Lansing Public Schools district-wide plan, in less than eighteen months, the halls of Red Cedar Elementary school will once again be filled with students. But they won’t be “Red Cedar” students—at least not at first—and what will happen with the school building long-term is, at this point, not clear.
With the narrow passage of the $93.77 million bond millage on May 2, East Lansing will see the Red Cedar School reopen as a District facility soon. The language of the millage provides $10.8 million for the renovation of the south-side school in order for it to operate as a “swing school” to house the populations of students, teachers, staff and administrators while their school is undergoing a complete reconstruction.
Between Fall 2018 and Fall 2021, this means the physical structure of Red Cedar could be the temporary homes for Glencairn, Pinecrest, Marble, or Whitehills elementary school populations because their sites require the current buildings to be torn down before new construction can begin.
Donley Elementary, by contrast, is situated on a site that is big enough to let students continue at their current school while construction is underway at the new school. Once the new Donley is completed, the old structure will also be housing one of the other elementary school’s population, so that two new schools will be under construction simultaneously.
But once all the buildings have been completed and the various school populations have moved into their new homes, what becomes at Red Cedar School remains uncertain.
The school will almost certainly be home to a district-wide early education program, as this has been a goal of the School Board for that property since the closure of Red Cedar Elementary. However, the bond language specified that Red Cedar would be home to up to 7 elementary classrooms, in addition to facilities for early childhood education.
Acting Superintendent Dori Leyko, in response to questions posed by ELi, has said much of the decisions about the Red Cedar School will be dependent on elementary enrollment in 2021. “After the construction of the new buildings is complete, Red Cedar School will be used to house early childhood programming and up to seven elementary classrooms, depending on elementary enrollment in 2021,” she said.
Because the Bond Committee was charged with assuming the future enrollment numbers would remain the same as the current numbers, it had to keep the same number of classrooms throughout the District.
One of the scenarios pitched by the Bond Committee would have kept the current configuration of students – with three larger schools (Marble, Pinecrest and Donley) and two smaller schools (Glencairn and Whitehills).
But a second scenario – the one that was selected by the School Board for the bond vote – instead downsized Marble, Pinecrest and Donley to the about the size of Glencairn and Whitehills. This means each of the five currently-operating schools will end up about the same size with 13 teaching stations for 290 students each. This math left approximately seven sections worth of students without a classroom. These seven sections would be accommodated with the seven elementary classrooms in the reopened Red Cedar School.
Leyko says she believes this was clearly stated in all the presentations and materials provided by the administration prior to the May 2 election. She tells ELi, this “has been consistently communicated in the district’s informational literature and presentations.”
At the administration’s bond information website, a FAQ (frequently asked questions) page states that: “There are no plans for grade reconfiguration. Some boundaries will likely need to be redrawn slightly for Red Cedar coming back on-line and given the planned student capacity for the new buildings. Future resident enrollment will drive this discussion.”
Nell Kuhnmuench, School Board President, tells ELi that, speaking for herself and not the entire Board, she also feels like the intent to reopen Red Cedar as an elementary school was clearly communicated. However, she also acknowledges that the wording deliberately left the administration with the flexibility to address the situation as it exists in 2021.
“We did the best we could do at the time. The committee was charged with looking at the current population and looked at ways to make the schools more equitable,” Kuhnmuench said. “So that the numbers are equitable, we ended up with a potential need for another section of K-5. What we looked for was flexibility in how to provide that.”
“Nothing is certain at this time,” she adds. “The world changes all the time and none of this is set in stone. We have the flexibility to be able to address the future needs and determine the exact catchment area (or school boundary) at that time.”
Kuhnmuench understands that people are likely to interpret the bond wording in many different ways, but she personally does not feel that anyone was deliberately trying to trick voters. She hopes those who did not support the bond will be willing to participate in the construction process moving forward and have their voices heard.
“This is a wonderful time for the community to come together and move forward for the kids,” she said.
As for the next action of the Board, Kuhnmuench said she is waiting for the administration to take the next steps in determining the specifics for the construction of the new facilities, as well as the order in which they are to be rebuilt.
Red Cedar School was closed in June 2014, following a controversial School Board vote in November 2012 to restructure the elementary schools and move 6th grade into the middle school. Six months after that vote, residents rejected the Board’s $53 million millage request to renovate school buildings.
In December, 2015, the Board attempted to reopen Red Cedar as a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) school. They had voted to begin preschool programming in the fall of 2016 with full programming at the school in fall of 2017, but later rescinded the vote after public outcry.
In November 2016, Red Cedar again came up as a contentious subject during elections for seats on the School Board. Longtime Board member Kath Edsall lost her seat to newcomer Nichole Martin, in part because of what some saw as her “obsession” with reopening the school, which is just a few streets over from her home in the Flowerpot Neighborhood.
Another candidate who lost the election, MSU economics professor Mike Conlin, cited his concern about the cost of operating the sixth elementary school following the construction of the other five schools. In advance of the most recent school bond vote, Conlin wrote on his website:
“The bond proposal includes $10M to renovate Red Cedar without a viable, long-term plan as for how to use the space. The current thought to use part of the building to operate an elementary school with one classroom per grade and part of the building to operate a pre-K/childcare program (possibly in conjunction with MSU) involves significant programmatic difficulties, is very risky and will either subsidize relatively affluent parents with pre-K children or impose significant costs on the district’s general fund (resulting in larger classes).”
And, during the bond election, a group of residents formed an active opposition group, which included former Board President Rima Addiego. Addiego and her husband formed a Political Action Committee (PAC) which sent out informational flyers on the bond election. The Addiegos’ numbers were disputed by East Lansing Mayor Mark Meadows, who supported the bond’s passage but was not able to vote for it because he lives in a section of the city outside the East Lansing Public Schools’ boundaries.
Addiego believes that as Michigan State University is decreasing the amount of family housing with the opening of the new 1855 building and closing Spartan Village, there will not be enough students within Red Cedar’s traditional catchment district to support a full school. This means that the school will either have to be filled with Schools of Choice students who come from outside the District, or by redistricting another school, most likely the neighboring Glencairn which absorbed the Red Cedar staff and students following its closure.
“One of the major motivations of this bond was to reopen Red Cedar,” Rima Addiego tells ELi. “One of my major objections to the bond was the lack of disclosure and transparency by the board and the ‘Yes’ committee. This is a completely blank check for Red Cedar. The campaign was extremely misleading.”
Addiego was Board president when the decision was made to close Red Cedar. She said the main motivation at the time was the moves made by MSU to raze family housing at Cherry Lane and to close Spartan Village.
“It is very, very difficult to close a school. I took no pleasure in leading the effort. It was a nasty time,” she said. “But our district was in trouble and the numbers were clear. We were very up front throughout the process and all hell broke loose.”
Addiego fears little has changed in the make-up of East Lansing, or in the decisions by MSU, that would allow for a feasible, neighborhood-based elementary school at Red Cedar. Figures she received from the university show that for fall of 2017, only 70 school-aged children will be living in campus housing. This is down from 126 in fall 2016 and a high of 159 in fall of 2013.
Her biggest fear now is that when the current Board and administration realize there are not enough children to fill six elementary schools, they will simply choose to not rebuild one of the other schools, effectively reopening Red Cedar School and closing a different school. “It’s really trying to go backwards,” she tells ELi. “They will reopen Red Cedar anyway they can.”
Meadows, in a Facebook post on May 16, disputes that the numbers of school-aged children will be reduced, stating that he and Addiego received different numbers from different sources within the university.
“I have confidence in the numbers I received, she has confidence in her figures. I can agree to disagree on the numbers,” he wrote. “It is time to move forward on the school bond and start the community planning process. The vote is over.”