Next Tuesday, voters in the East Lansing School District will be asked to decide whether to borrow $53 million to pay for the reconstruction of five elementary schools and a new wing for the middle school.
School board members approved the plan last fall by a narrow margin. Since then, supporters and opponents have been making their case to residents through websites, school association meetings, mailers and by going door to door.
Matt Phelan, along with his wife Jillian and Vicki Belloli are canvasing the Tamarisk neighborhood. They’re part of a group called “Support East Lansing Public Schools” that’s been advocating for the bond proposal. They’re working from a list of likely voters in this area, many of whom have adult children, but they find almost all the residents are interested and informed about the proposed bond issue.
The process leading up to the bond proposal started about two and half years ago, when the school board began looking at ways to upgrade aging elementary and middle school buildings.
Jeff Williams supports the proposal. He was a volunteer on a committee set up by the school board to study the facilities.
"My general attitude was that the schools were good enough,” says Williams. “Boy, did I learn a lot in that facilities committee that made me change my mind.”
Williams toured all six elementary buildings and found that each had a different set of strengths and weaknesses.
“Some have smaller rooms for children with special needs, other don’t,” says Williams. “Some have separate computer labs, others don’t. Some have a computer for every student when they have a lab lesson some have two kids for every computer. I’m getting concerned that as we look at the new curriculum and the new things that we’re asking our teachers to teach our children, that our buildings are not going to keep up with the demands we’re putting on them.”
Williams says it’s important to keep up with neighboring school districts, such as Okemos, Haslett, Holt and DeWitt, to continue to attract families to East Lansing. He says since this is a continuation of the current bond, most homeowners will not see an increase in their school taxes.
Michael Colaresi says that’s misleading. Colaresi is part of a group called “Support a Better Plan” that opposes the bond proposal. He says the plan would not raise East Lansing’s tax rate of seven mills, but it would extend the seven mill rate for another 12 years.
“Of course, we have to pay that back,” says Colaresi. “And it turns out its going to be very expensive. So, of course we raise taxes. There’s nothing free here. I don’t think that’s a reason for anyone to vote for it or against it. People should just know it. They need to know that we’re voting on debt and debt you have to pay back with interest. That’s just the financial facts of the matter.”
Colaresi says there is a good reason to vote no. Under this proposal, he says, East Lansing would be overbuilding its schools.
“This plan actually adds capacity to the district,” says Colaresi. “Capacity here is classroom space. While we’ve seen since 1995 a relatively large, a third, decline in resident enrollment, this plan actually builds more seats, seats that under the enrollment projections of the school board are likely to be empty.”
Colaresi and others in say they’re in favor of upgrading schools, but they argue that it can be done for much less money. They would rather see the buildings renovated on a smaller scale and on slower schedule. They say the school board is trying to rush this decision to take advantage of a bonding capacity based on inflated and outdated property values.
In East Lansing, voter turnout for presidential primaries is typically light, but the city clerk’s office says with so much interest in the school bond issue, they’re expecting a bigger turnout next Tuesday.