SHIAWASSEE AREA — It was a year of change for most area school districts, as four asked voters to consider ballot measures for infrastructural upgrades, one began formulating the scope for an upcoming bond proposal and one unveiled the first of many improvements courtesy of a 2017 ballot measure.
The year also saw the majority of area districts decline in enrollment — excluding Durand, Laingsburg, Morrice and New Lothrop — though many administrators expressed optimism about the future.
That sentiment was reflected most when Dr. Michael Rice, the state superintendent of public instruction, paid a visit to Ovid-Elsie Area Schools in October.
Rice’s visit was planned as part of National School Lunch Week, and during the three-hour tour of the district, he met with administrators, visited several Ovid-Elsie High School Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs and had lunch with students at Leonard Elementary.
Reflecting on the visit, Rice said one of the things that impressed him was the number of CTE offerings in the district, which include courses in wood working, welding and television/radio production. He added he’d like to see CTE programs expand across the state.
“It’s real important, it’s one of a number of efforts that we’re pushing,” Rice said. “We want kids to graduate from our high schools, yes, but we also want them to graduate with some measure of direction as well, so we want kids to try different programs and to see, ‘Is this something for me or is it not?’
“We want kids to have the widest range of options,” Rice continued. “You know, there’s an old expression ‘You can’t be what you can’t see’ and for a lot of our kids, they don’t have an enormous amount of exposure. We want to expand that exposure to the absolute extent possible, so kids are able to choose for themselves what they want to pursue in their careers.”
While speaking with administrators, Rice was also made aware of the ongoing challenges facing Ovid-Elsie, including a shortage of teachers, particularly those in special education.
“There’s no doubt that we don’t have the requisite numbers at all, not even vaguely close, and you’re seeing it across the state,” Rice said. “What’s concerning to me, additionally, is it used to be that when we had an elementary education teacher leave, we could fill that immediately. In (the Kalamazoo Public Schools, where Rice previously served as superintendent for 12 years), we’d have a dozen people who were in long-term substitute positions waiting for that next opportunity. You don’t see that as frequently any more. You just don’t have the pipeline.
“We’re going to have to build back a profession that was denigrated and chipped away at for the better part of the last decade and it’s going to take at least a decade to build it back up,” he continued. “I’m going to start advocating harder for cadet programs and grow-your-own programs across the state, but I’m also going to start pushing on higher education in the legislature. I think it requires a multi-faceted approach.”
Ovid-Elsie Superintendent Ryan Cunningham said he was grateful he and his fellow administrators were able to voice some of their concerns.
“We understand that one person can’t change all policies in education but it’s nice that somebody wants to listen, hear those concerns, ask ‘How can I support you as a state superintendent?’ Just being heard is important, because a lot of times people just don’t listen,” Cunningham said.
Turning to the voters
Four area school districts asked voters to approve ballot measures this year that would finance an array of infrastructural upgrades.
In May, district voters approved a $6.2-million bond extension for Ovid-Elsie Area Schools.
According to the proposal, the bond will be used to remodel and refurnish classrooms, purchase instructional technology for schools, construct school storage buildings, purchase buses and improve athletic facilities.
“We’re really excited. There’s certain things that absolutely need to get done like our roof, improving our busing and improving our technology,” Superintendent Ryan Cunningham said. “A lot of districts have the ability to employ a sinking fund, we don’t have that, so for us this is a method we were able to use — without increasing taxes — to accomplish our goals.”
The approved measure is a three-year extension at the current rate of 7.80 mills for the years 2035-38, according to Cunningham.
Voters in Laingsburg overwhelmingly supported a $17.8-million bond proposal for Laingsburg Community Schools in May, by a tally of 734-355.
Proposed upgrades under the approved bond include the construction of a 650-seat auditorium and an auxiliary gym, as well as the addition of secure vestibules in multiple district buildings.
In October, the Laingsburg Community Schools Board of Education — as well as the general public — received a glimpse of what the upcoming bond work would look like in the district, as chief architectural firm TowerPinkster, of Grand Rapids, presented a full schematic design of the upcoming renovations.
TowerPinkster Design Architect Matthew Murphy indicated that the bond work will be divided into two separate bid packages.
Package one will encompass the addition of secure vestibules to the Early Childhood Center, the elementary school, the middle school and the high school. The measure will also provide air conditioning throughout the elementary school, as well as cover the cost of reconfiguring the high school’s main entrance, removing the “skeletonized steel” overhang, according to Murphy.
Package two of the bond project will include the addition of a new 650-seat auditorium at the high school, to be constructed on the building’s northeast side near the student parking lot. The auditorium space will have two separate dressing rooms as well as a designated storage space for props and scenery.
Package two will also finance the addition of a new auxiliary gym — to be constructed adjacent to the existing high school gym — as well as the creation of a larger space to accomodate the high school band.
Under the new design, the current band room, large group meeting room, and existing auditorium space will be renovated into a larger band room — which will feature increased space for instrument storage and practice rooms — as well as a new mat room, to be used by the wrestling and cheerleading teams.
Package one was put out for bids in November, with an expected construction timeline of June through August 2020.
Package two will be placed out for bids in two separate increments, the first in March and the second in May. Construction on package two will begin in May, with a tentative completion date projected for August 2021.
Byron Area Schools voters once again renewed the district’s sinking fund in August, by a vote of 485-356, which will allow for continued repairs and upgrades to the district’s exisiting infrastructure.
The five-year, 3-mill sinking fund is expected to generate approximately $555,000 in the first year for capital improvements and will not raise taxes, according to Superintendent Tricia Murphy-Alderman.
“We’re very, very excited, very grateful for the community’s support of our sinking fund,” Murphy-Alderman said via phone in August. “This will allow us to do our upcoming projects, including the parking lots…We’re very appreciative of this community.”
Upgrades under the sinking fund include resurfacing school parking lots and driveways, replacing interior and exterior lighting with energy efficient solutions and updating the football stadium bleachers.
A sinking fund proposal intended to maintain Chesaning Union Schools’ existing infrastructure, as well as provide additional upgrades throughout the district, was narrowly defeated in August, 591-500.
The five-year, 0.75-mill proposal would have generated approximately $244,000 per year for capital improvements and would not have raised the district’s current rate of 5.62 mills, according to Superintendent Mike McGough.
Possible improvements under the proposed sinking fund would have included upgrades to the district’s pool, parking lots, plumbing and mechanical systems, as well as lighting, sound and electrical upgrades to the district’s auditorium.
In August, McGough indicated that the district would bring the proposal to voters again, and on Dec. 9, the Chesaning Union Schools Board of Education approved placing the sinking fund proposal on the March 2020 ballot.
The Durand Area Schools Board of Education is moving forward with a $28-million, 30-year bond proposal, voting unanimously Dec. 16 to authorize Integrated Designs Inc. (IDI) — a consulting, engineering and architectural firm — to draft and submit language necessary to place the measure on the May 2020 ballot.
The proposed bond — developed by a citizens committee — would fund the addition of an auxiliary gym, a 599-seat auditorium and a three-classroom addition to Robert Kerr Elementary, as well as district-wide upgrades and repairs.
The board also authorized IDI to draft a second ballot initiative that would finance replacing the grass at Roundhouse Stadium with synthetic turf, a $1.6-million cost over 30 years. In the coming weeks, IDI will draft and submit language for both proposals to the Michigan Department of Treasury for review and, if approved, the district will be permitted to place both initiatives on the ballot for district voters to decide in May.
Ongoing bond work
After three unsuccessful attempts, voters approved a $45.5-million bond for Owosso Public Schools in November 2017, which includes a levy of 4.73 mills for 30 years.
The approved bond covers the cost of the building construction and renovations to combine grades 6-12 at the high school campus, while maintaining separation between middle school and high school students.
The measure also includes funding for an updated career and technical education space, a new gymnasium for middle school students and a multi-purpose education space capable of seating 1,000 people, serving as both an auditorium and a classroom, which will be located at the front of the building off North Street.
Upgrades at Bryant Elementary, Central Elementary and Emerson Elementary were also covered by the bond, and were unveiled to community members in August ahead of the 2019-20 school year. Approximately 5,200 square feet was added to each elementary, according to Superintendent Andrea Tuttle, to accomodate new cafeterias, new kitchens, as well as designated space for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics (STEAM) programs.
The added area will allow each building’s gymnasium to serve exclusively for physical fitness and health. In the past each gym also served a variety of functions, including as a cafeteria. In addition, basement classrooms and portable classrooms will no longer be in use, Tuttle said.
Emerson Elementary Principal Jessica Anderson said it’s been great to really see the upgrades come to life.
“I know a lot of staff members have been excited to come and see it, but then to see the families come in and see the kids get just as excited as I am, that was probably the best part,” Anderson said. “I went to Emerson, and I had music class in the portables so I know what it’s like to go out there. I’m glad that we finally have space for all of us in here.”
Upon completion of the 6-12 campus — which is expected in December 2020 — the current middle school, 219 N. Water St, will be vacated and deemed “no longer of educational service to the district.”
The district began seeking bids for the purchase of the middle school in May, and — after a six-month bidding process — the Owosso Public Schools Board of Education unanimously authorized Tuttle on Nov. 25 to enter into negotiations with Community Housing Network (CHN) on a purchase agreement for the middle school property.
The organization’s intent with the middle school property is to create a mixed use space, according to Tuttle, including residential and commercial space on the building’s lower level.
On Dec. 12, the Shiawassee Regional Chamber of Commerce announced it had received a $150,000 grant from Consumers Energy to transform the middle school into a residential and professional community for up to 30 artists. According to a press release, the Chamber will use the grant for renovations at the Owosso Middle School as part of the ArtLive Project, a “living and working space with retail outlets for residents.”
“The city of Owosso has long been an impoverished community, but over the last seven years, an upturn in development and collaboration began. We have seen some really substantial development in the downtown historic district including the Lebowsky Center for Performing Arts, the Wessener Building and the Owosso Armory, which sits right next to the middle school,” Chamber President/CEO Jeff Deason said in the release. “This grant gives us the opportunity to build on the prosperity that has been generated. We can make sure the middle school building is a useful jewel of Owosso.”
As for the ongoing negotiations with CHN, Tuttle said she hopes to have a purchase agreement negotiated and recommended to the board of education for future action by January or February, with the board voting on the agreement the following month.