Closing a 'mini- United Nations'

By Sam Inglot

A closer look at alleged lack of transparency in closing Red Cedar Elementary School in East Lansing

Former, present and future East Lansing Board of Education members say the decision to close Red Cedar Elementary School was not only a bad idea — it was also underhanded.

The vote to close Red Cedar, located just north of the Trowbridge Plaza, occurred at a Nov. 26 board meeting after three hours of public comment — nearly all of which was in opposition to the plan. The closing was part of a district-wide reconfiguration plan that converts five of the six district elementary schools from K-4 to K-5 buildings, along with changing MacDonald Middle School into a sixth- through eighth-grade facility.

Folks like Liesel Carlson, the parent council president at Red Cedar, said she doesn’t believe the students can be moved without breaking apart the unique and diverse culture that has been built up at Red Cedar.

Carlson compared the school to a “mini-United Nations.” She said there are 294 students at Red Cedar. About 100 of them are from 45 different countries; another 100 are school-of-choice students from other districts; and the rest come from the surrounding neighborhoods. Many of the international students are the children of graduate students and visiting professors at MSU who live in Spartan Village, just down Harrison Road from the school, Carlson said. She added that even though roughly one-third of the students are learning English as a second language, the school is still one of the highest performing in the district.

Closing Red Cedar is part of what many people thought they were voting against in a February bond proposal. On Feb. 23, voters rejected a $54 million bond proposal for the construction of five new elementary schools.

It’s the February bond proposal failing and the fact that Red Cedar is still closing that has opponents screaming about a lack of transparency and honesty. Past, present and incoming board members say it can all be traced back to the passing of a resolution during a Jan. 23 board meeting. They say that the resolution meant that — regardless of the outcome of the bond proposal — Red Cedar would be closed. The writing was on the wall a month before the bond proposal vote, they say.

“The resolution passed by this board on January 23rd, 2012 was a clear violation of the oft-stated commitment of this Board to transparency in the difficult process that culminated in the February 28 bond proposal. We believe the actions of a majority of the board members and the superintendent were neither open nor transparent and misled both of us as well as the public on one of the most critical issues considered by this public body.”

That was the opening statement of a letter co-written by Nell Kuhnmuench, who’s in her third year on the board, and Donna Rich Kaplowitz, a former board member who served from 2006 until June, when she resigned in part because of this issue.

District Superintendent David Chapin put the resolution on the agenda on the same day it was passed. It passed 5-2 with Kuhnmuench and Kaplowitz in opposition. Even with their no votes, Kuhnmuench and Kaplowitz said they didn’t understand what the repercussions of the resolution would be — sealing the fate of Red Cedar — because of the confusing language. They said because it was a late agenda item, the public didn’t have a chance to comment. Chapin said he couldn’t recall if it was a late agenda item, but he doesn’t believe there were any transparency flaws because there was discussion among the board about the resolution language, which was tweaked during the meeting.

The resolution says: “This Board of Education directs the Superintendent of Schools to form a committee to include appropriate interested parties that may include representatives from the Red Cedar neighborhood, City of East Lansing, Michigan State University and others that may be selected by the Board of Education to evaluate options and offer recommendations for consideration by the Board of Education as to potential uses and/or disposition of the Red Cedar Elementary school property at the conclusion of its use as an elementary school, which conclusion will occur no later than 2016.”

Kuhnmuench said the adopted resolution was “totally contrary to what the public believed” the stakes were, which was that the fate of Red Cedar hinged on the bond proposal. The resolution was listed as a “Resolution in Support of February 28 Bond Election,” according to the meeting agenda. Kuhnmuench said all the discussions related to the resolution up until that night were about getting all of the board members behind the bond proposal — not that the resolution would close Red Cedar.

The January resolution situation was part of the reason Kaplowitz decided to resign, she said.

“I resigned because I felt there were better ways to spend my time working for the children of the district,” said Kaplowitz, who is a professor at the Residential College of Arts and Humanities at MSU, where she teaches courses on civic engagement and public education. “I think there were decisions made by the board that were not entirely open, and I didn’t feel as though I could continue my capacity as a board member.”

Board President Rima Addiego, whose term expires at the end of the year, said the purpose of the resolution was to clarify that “defeating the bond did not equate to defeating the plan” to reconfigure the district — which included the Red Cedar closing. Chapin, in an interview, echoed the same comments as Addiego.

Addiego, along with Chapin, supports closing Red Cedar. She said the school won’t close until it’s “repurposed” to house preschool classes and administration by September 2014. The repurposing plan isn’t sticking with opponents who say Red Cedar is an exemplary elementary school that embodies both diversity and academic excellence that can’t be found anywhere else in the district.

The decision to close Red Cedar came despite “overwhelming evidence” that the community didn’t support it, Kaplowitz said. She highlighted the failed bond proposal and the decision to not reelect Addiego as signs of opposition.

Kathleen Edsall, one of two board members-elect, said she ran this year on a campaign to keep all of the schools open. She was part of a K-8 Facilities Committee that was formed in 2011 to bring a data-driven report to the board when talks of reconfiguration came up. She said she found Red Cedar Elementary School consistently was at the top of the charts when it came to potential for reconstruction and school performance. She said the work done by the K-8 Committee, based on recommendations by board-hired architects, was ignored by the board in its decision. As an alternative to closing Red Cedar, Edsall said closing Whitehills Elementary School or Glencairn Middle School would be a better option because both fell to the bottom of the lists of criteria for reconstruction due to the schools’ proximity to roads, the small land parcels and marsh-like land on the properties. Red Cedar is set back from main roads and is one of the larger pieces of elementary school property, which Edsall said made it ideal for expansion.

The only thing the board has fallen back on as its reasoning for closing Red Cedar, says Edsall, is housing stock.

Chapin doesn’t believe the K-8 Committee was ignored but that, even with its report, the committee lacked census data that came out later in the year. That census data is what determined the decision to choose Red Cedar as the school to close, Chapin said.

“Red Cedar was chosen for one reason and one reason only,” Addiego said. “It consistently has the lowest number of neighborhood students. We’re trying to build neighborhood schools.

“When people don’t like the conclusion, they attack the process,” Addiego said of those crying foul over the resolution and the school closing. She believes the board has been open with their decisions and intentions from the beginning.

Chapin said the resident students at Red Cedar — those living in nearby neighborhoods — will be moved about one-and-a-half miles north on Harrison Road to Glencairn Middle School. He said the plan for English language learners, school-of-choice students and permeable boundary students will be determined in the coming months. Permeable boundary students are those who live near and attend Red Cedar but are assigned to a different school because of boundary lines.

Kaplowitz, the former board member, said Red Cedar is a school that should be a model and to move the children from the school would destroy the culture that is there.

“I believe Red Cedar is probably, on a national level, one of most successful examples of how you take a diverse student body, unite them, honor the differences in the students and succeed in educating every student,” she said. “It’s what we need to strive for as a community, as a state and as a country.”