Feb. 22 2012 12:00 AM

East Lansing school plan divides a passionate community


The fight over the East Lansing School District’s $53 million bond proposal to rebuild five elementary schools and close a sixth, up for a public vote Feb. 28, goes beyond a schoolyard brawl.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen our community so divided,” East Lansing School Board Trustee Donna Rich Kaplowitz said.

Supporters of the plan say the district needs to act on a grand scale now, before plunging property values erode its capacity to apply for bonds in order to replace or upgrade 40- and 50-year-old elementary school buildings. Opponents say the plan is too big and uses unrealistic enrollment projections that will ultimately result in empty seats or more closed schools.

To throw gasoline on the fire, supporters of Red Cedar School, slated for closing by 2016, are irate over the impending loss of a proudly multicultural school on the city’s south edge, near MSU’s international student community.

The proposed bonds would pay for a near tear-down and rebuild of Glencairn, Pinecrest, Whitehills, Marble  and Donley elementary schools.It would also fund building a new MacDonald Middle School, with a sixth grade addition. The district’s bond application calls for about 90 percent new space and 10 percent renovated space. The elementary schools would hold 300 to 350 students and the middle school would hold 990 students.

Two grassroots groups, Support a Better Plan and 50,000 Strong for Red Cedar School, have sprung up to oppose the bond proposal. The East Lansing City Council and neighboring MSU oppose the closing of Red Cedar. Other community leaders, including Ingham County Treasurer Eric Schertzing and State Sen. Gretchen Whitmer, are in favor of the bond issue.

To finance the new debt, the district’s 7-mill school tax will be extended 12 years, to 2040. Without the bond issue, the millage would phase down to 2.64 mills in 2029.

“We are not coming out of the blue and asking for a new millage,” Board President Rima Addiego said. “But that’s what we would be doing if we wait a whole lot longer.”

Time is running out on the plan because the district’s bonding capacity is tied to the taxable value of city property. Based on January 2012 property tax projections from the district’s financial adviser, Stauder & Barch, bonding capacity will slide from $62 million this month to $34.5 million in November 2012 to $19.7 million by November 2013.

“This is a window in time that we on the board have known was coming for years,” Addiego said.

MSU Economics Professor Michael Conlin, an outspoken critic of the school board’s math, agreed that “a good chunk of money” should go into the schools, but not that much.

“We want an investment in the schools, but we want a more responsible investment,” he said. “We can put another bond up in six months and build smaller.” 

Emotion over the closing of Red Cedar School has overshadowed the fiscal debate. In a letter to the school board delivered at a public hearing in September, East Lansing Councilman Kevin Beard wrote that the community is facing “a land use decision at the most basic level.”

“Our fear is that this neighborhood will not be able to absorb the loss of Red Cedar Elementary … without it significantly changing the character of this part of the city,” Beard wrote on behalf of the Council.

East Lansing School Board Trustee Kaplowitz called it “a question of educational equity.”

“The decision to close a school that is our most multi-cultural, our only minority-majority school, causes me concern,” Kaplowitz said.

The Red Cedar closing also prompted rare rumblings from neighboring MSU. In a Sept. 6, 2011, letter to East Lansing School Superintendent David Chapin, Fred Poston, MSU’s vice president for finance and operations, wrote that Red Cedar “deserves to remain open,” in part, because it “embraces the value of global participation.” Poston warned that if Red Cedar closes, MSU grad students may seek education for their children “outside the district” and the university might change plans to keep international student housing close to East Lansing.

Addiego said it was impossible, “financially and academically,” for the district to hang on to six elementary schools, and the board found that Red Cedar least fit the formula of a “neighborhood school.” She put the number of resident students at Red Cedar, defined as “someone who could easily walk to that school,” at about 40, out of about 260 students. The formula excludes about 70 students from MSU’s Spartan Village because they are a mile and a half away and have to cross railroad tracks. The rest of Red Cedar students are English language learners from all over the district and “permeable boundary” students who are driven from other neighborhoods to take advantage of the Red Cedar staff’s multicultural skills.

Like much of the debate over the bond proposal, the numbers depend on the frame of reference. Stretch the “resident student” distance to 1.5 miles, as opponents of Red Cedar closure prefer, and Red Cedar becomes the most walkable of the district’s elementary schools.

Addiego said that closing Red Cedar and moving its principal, teachers and unique programs to Glencairn Elementary “as a cohort” would cause the least disruption to resident students in the district as a whole, especially because Spartan Village students are bused to Red Cedar anyway.

In a January statement, Conlin and six other MSU economics professors said the school board’s calculations “significantly overestimate” cost savings from closing Red Cedar, but Conlin has a bigger concern. He thinks the bond proposal will build too big and predicted 600 empty seats in five years.

“We’re a shrinking school district, and building capacity like this is financially irresponsible,” Conlin said.

Conlin said it’s a “political” process.

“No one wanted their local schools closed,” he said.

In a January statement, the school board said the bond issue would take the school closing debate “off-the-table.” But some opponents speculate that the district, having built a 990-student MacDonald Middle School, will later cite its capacity as a pretext to eliminate one or even two of the planned neighborhood schools.

Addiego said opponents are interpreting the data wrongly and predicted a reduction of capacity by 33 seats if the bond is passed. She added that opponents are “throwing everything they can against the wall, and this one stuck.”

“It’s a pity,” Conlin said of the bond battle. “It’s created so much animosity in our community. You could avoid a lot of it if it was handled better.”

Kaplowitz said the community will regroup, no matter what the outcome Feb. 28.

“Everybody who’s passionate about this is acting out of the belief that they are working for the children,” she said. “I believe we will get past this.”