March 21 2012 12:00 AM

Twenty percent of East Lansing Public Schools students live in the Lansing School District. Could a casino’s funding the Lansing Promise Scholarship change that?

In what was called a “disconcerting note” in a recent Allen Neighborhood Center newsletter, 20 percent of East Lansing Public Schools enrollment is made up of kids who live in the Lansing School District.

The pupil drain has left Lansing’s three high schools — Sexton, Eastern and Everett — with less than solid enrollment among eligible Lansing students. And one of these schools may be closed due to a struggling financial situation within the district. A decision is expected before April, when the schools go on spring break.

The 20 percent statistic is “pretty accurate,” said Lansing school board member Peter Spadafore, who said roughly 4,700 kids who live in the district attend other schools.

There are reasons parents would want to place their kids in other districts, he said, but “lack of quality” in Lansing’s schools is definitely not one of them.

Moving kids is “not an uncommon thing in this age of school of choice,” Lansing school board President Myra Ford said.

A common reason parents pull their kids from Lansing schools is a notion that the district buildings are not as safe as those in, say, neighboring Holt and East Lansing, she said. This, however, is “based on speculation, not fact.”

“People move based on their perceptions and what they’ve heard — not always on reality,” Ford said.

Parents plugged into the rumor mill may hear a horror story about Lansing schools from a neighbor or friend and decide to move their child before they’ve even had a chance to experience the school for themselves, Ford said. Being an urban district, some negative events at Lansing schools are highlighted by the media and many suburban problems go overlooked, she said.

“We’ve got to change that image,” Ford said. “We need to let people know about the great things going on in our schools.”

In terms of putting a stop to the student flight, along with creating a more positive image, Ford and Spadafore said there are a number of options the district can take. A possibility that neither the district nor the Board has taken an official position on is the proposed casino in downtown Lansing, which would inject millions of dollars into the Lansing Promise Scholarship, providing free college tuition at Michigan public colleges and universities if a student graduated from Lansing schools. A similar program, the Kalamazoo Promise, has created a boom in population and enrollment in the schools, a factor that has some Lansing City Council members noting strong possibilities for Lansing and its K-12 educational institutions.

“If you look at the Promise in Kalamazoo, their population is up nearly 20 percent,” said Tina Houghton, Lansing City Council member and mother of children in Lansing schools. “There’s the schools and then the city. … I understand they’re two governmental bodies, but we need to work together because without good schools you’re not going to get people coming here, and without people you’re not going to have students in your schools.”

Speaking strictly on a personal level, Spadafore said he thinks there’s great potential for Lansing schools if the casino idea takes off, calling the proposition a “big win” for the area. On Monday, the Lansing City Council approved 7-1 moving forward with the plan. It awaits a referendum vote by Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians members, federal approval from the U.S. Department of the Interior and possible lawsuits from opponents.

“The hope of a scholarship like that is a phenomenal asset for this school district and the kids,” he said. “It would increase enrollment numbers and get people to move back into the district.”

One Lansing School District teacher and teacher union presidents — past and present — endorsed the casino idea to the City Council at a March 12 public hearing on the issue. The bottom line, they said, could be the $5 million to $6 million projected to fund Lansing Promise from gaming revenues shared by the Sault Tribe.

“We have a moral obligation. We have a chance to fund college for our students,” said Kristen Small, a teacher at Wexford Montessori Magnet Elementary School in south Lansing. “We have a sister school in Kalamazoo. You go there and they are hiring staff, drawing families. We are laying off and shuffling people around. Please pass this.”

Former Lansing Police Chief Mark Alley, at the same meeting, was “here to support the casino, specifically for the Lansing Promise a Lansing casino will fund. … I cannot tell you how important it is for us to get behind our kids.”

And Mayor Virg Bernero, at the same March 12 meeting, said: “Lansing Promise, we think, is just about an independent reason to support this project,” referring to other positives projected by his administration: 700 temporary jobs and 1,500 permanent jobs; a boon to downtown’s entertainment scene; and about $400 million in spinoff economic activity. “It will have a transformational impact on our schools. … Healthy schools and growing schools means a healthy and growing city.”