Friday, November 1, 2013

Considering School Bond Proposal is Tough Homework

(From the October 10, 2013 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

It’s been hard to know how to vote this November 5 on the Spring Lake Schools bond proposal. I’ve been torn about the prospect of another increase in taxes.

I’m an educator at the college level and value education. I recognize the civic responsibility to support public education, even though my wife and I don’t have children. These initial thoughts would make me favorable towards a proposal that would improve local schools and help them maintain their good quality.

But there are also certain realities that trouble me. One is that I do not make a significant amount of money. So, even though the proposal would cost most homeowners in the Spring Lake School District “only” about $40-50 more per year, that is on top of annual property taxes that exceed $2000. A few “onlys” add up quickly.

Because of this conflict in my head, I attended a public forum in which the Superintendent Dennis Furton gave a presentation and answered questions. Attendees were also given a considerable amount of literature to digest about the proposal. About 25 people attended the event at Jeffers Elementary earlier this week, and stayed nearly two hours.

Here are a few points that I consider most relevant that I think are worth considering as all of us contemplate a vote next month.

The proposed facility upgrades are not a wish list of things that would be nice to have. Engineers did a facility assessment on the 60-year-old elementary school buildings and determined upgrades to facilities and technology that are needed are so expensive in the older buildings that new construction makes more sense. One key take-away from teachers at the meeting is that their classrooms can not be temperature controlled by outdated thermostats and boiler systems that are beyond repair. Rooms typically are near 80 or even 90 degrees. Even in winter some teachers open classroom windows to make the classroom more comfortable.

New buildings also would enable more space and furnishings that are conducive to modern teaching styles, which involves more collaborative learning activities vs sitting in rows of desks. As a college professor I hear from employers who say that is how the workplace is changing also, to more collaborative work styles. Facilities that allow for educating children in this manner will better prepare them for college and the workplace.

Some residents complained that the proposal includes funding for athletics, which could possibly more appropriately be funded by private fundraising. But the athletic-related projects account for only 8% of the total proposal. Also, improvements like artificial turf actually will save the district money over time in maintenance costs.

Some were concerned about having one elementary school and causing many children who now can walk to school to need to be bussed. It was pointed out that when the current schools were built about 90% of the students lived in Spring Lake Village, in walking distance to Holmes Elementary. Today that number is 10% or less.

With regard to the increase in taxes, it was helpful to compare Spring Lake to other school districts in Ottawa County. If the proposal passes, the total millage would be 7.0, 8th out of 11 districts in the county. The highest is Coopersville at 8.69 and the lowest is Saugatuck at 3.0.There was also a sense of urgency to the proposal. The Michigan legislature capped the School Bond Loan Fund at $1.8 billion, and the fund is nearing the cap. If the proposal passes this year the taxpayers will have a .569 mill increase. But if not, the same proposal without being able to benefit from the School Bond Loan Fund would require a nearly 5 mill increase.

When asked about plans should the proposal fail, the superintended said there is none. They may come back to the voters with an alternate or scaled down request. Some in the room seemed surprised that there was not any thought given to contingencies.

There were a lot of other issues discussed at the recent meeting. Perhaps voters have even more thoughts in favor of or opposed to the proposal. I’d be interested to read them in letters to this paper or comments on this column. I know I appreciated the presentation by the Superintendent, and his response to questions and comments of taxpayers in the room. The proposal is a big decision, affecting us all for three decades. I’ve done my homework, and will continue to study the issue, before the proposal meets the test of voter approval in November.

A collection of Tim Penning’s columns is available in the book “Thoughts on Thursdays.” 

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