Failed school bonds may be less about projects, more about public opinion

Elections

HAMILTON, Mich. (WOOD) — Several West Michigan schools are going back to the drawing board after voters rejected a handful of local bond proposals in Tuesday’s vote.

After the final tally, proposals were voted down in six school districts: Hamilton, Coldwater, Marshall, Cedar Springs, Ravenna and Constantine.

“At the end of the day, it’s disappointing,” Hamilton Community Schools Superintendent David Tebo said.

In Hamilton, the big-ticket item on a more than $21 million bond proposal was to demolish and replace a 70-year-old wing of the elementary school.

“The cost of renovation was, at this point, is significantly more than new construction. So we went with the lesser of the costly options there,” Tebo explained. “We’d rather spend a dollar in prevention than three to five dollars in reaction… We may be in that spot where we switch to be more reactionary than proactive without the support.”

The proposal failed, with 53.6% of voters saying no.

In one Facebook group formed by Hamilton parents, some opponents said they thought district leaders were not hearing or listening to them. One went as far as to say his “no” vote has “nothing to do with the proposal itself; it has everything to do with fighting back and taking back the power we actually hold over the school.”

“There are groups that are unhappy with a lot of different things in public schools right now,” Tebo said. “The pandemic has landed on people in ways that I don’t think we expected. I think there is … mistrust with public institutions in general from some people.”

For now, Tebo says the district will use its fund balance and prioritize the most pressing needs.

“The community by a majority said, ‘We don’t believe that you need that.’ That’s the facts we work with,” Tebo said. “We’re going to run school. We’re going to focus on kids. We’re going to fix things that need to get fixed. We’ll go back to the drawing board and see long-term, what does that look like for us.”

Marshall Public Schools asked for a $45.5 million bond for building a new elementary, updating existing buildings, adding technology and updating athletics facilities. Two thirds of voters said no. Marshall Public Schools Interim Superintendent Becky Jones said her district will bring a put forth bond proposal in the future following community input.

“It would be dishonest to say that I’m not disappointed because it is disheartening to see something you believe in not be realized.  This has been a learning experience that has revealed more about our district and communities.  We’ve seen passion for students drive our work, and we have seen passion for clarity and justice that pushes us all to higher standards.

“The district leadership team and I will review the election results, listen to both Albion and Marshall Communities, and will bring back a revised bond proposal in the future.  The issues that our facility needs assessment committee identified aren’t going to go away. With personnel costs being 82% of our current operating budget, it leaves the district with little room to address these needs.

“As we move forward, firm in the belief that kids come first, we will continue to provide the highest quality education through our amazing staff, through high-quality programs offered, and with every advantage we can afford to offer.”

Marshall Public Schools Interim Superintendent Becky Jones

In Coldwater, two bond proposals failed: One for $50 million that would have modernized the high school was rejected by 53.4% of voters and the other to create a new auditorium for $17 million was failed by 60.8%. Superintendent Terry Ann Whelan says the high school is in need of major upgrades that aren’t going away any time soon.

“We are disappointed and sad that the two proposals didn’t pass yesterday.  Our students and staff deserve to teach and learn in a comfortable, safe, secure, and well-lit environment.

“We knew that Proposal 2 with a .39 mill increase ($39.00 a year on a home with a market value of $200.000.00 / taxed at 100,000.00) may be more difficult to pass since we were asking the taxpayers for additional mills.   Our first proposal was developed by staying within the parameters of the dollars that we could raise without asking our taxpayers for any additional millage.  We felt that by asking for a zero mill increase that the community would support that proposal.

“At this time, we do not have another plan so we will need to regroup and find out what, if anything, the community will support.  The High School is in need of major upgrades in electrical, heating,  plumbing, flooring, technology, furnishings etc. and those needs are not going away.  We will start planning and discussing what we do next and how we address the needs of our High School for the future.   The High School is also in need of air conditioning and after next summer will be the only building in the district that does not have air conditioning.”

Coldwater Community Schools Superintendent Terry Ann Whelan

Constantine Public Schools was asking for $45.6 million to consolidate elementary buildings and various security and facility upgrades. The bond was rejected by 57.2% of voters. Superintendent James Wisely said that moving forward, the district will prioritize immediate needs with state funding and no sinking fund.

“We started to process of informing our stakeholders a year ago with regards to the needs of the district,” Wisely said. “We held community meetings, staff/community input meetings, and took surveys. Our next steps are to revisit and communicate with our stakeholders to see what we can do differently.”

“We will continue to do what is best for students,” he also said.

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