Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) about the East Lansing elementary school bond
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The elementary schools were built from 1948 (Red Cedar) to 1963 (Whitehills), and most of them are many years beyond their useful life. They are deteriorating, maintenance costs are increasing, and they are inefficiently heated and cooled. Delay will require expensive repairs. They are also not built to support current best practices for teaching and learning, nor for student safety (secure entrances, separating pedestrian/bike/car/bus traffic, etc.). See pages 10-13 of the community bond committee report for more details on the condition of our elementary school buildings.
The education of East Lansing children would suffer. Maintenance and repair costs would increase. Deteriorating elementary schools could also cause young families to avoid or leave East Lansing and could make it more difficult to hire good teachers, especially since surrounding communities have more up-to-date school facilities. Property values and school revenues in East Lansing would likely decrease as a result. Interest rates, which are currently very low, would likely increase, leading to a more expensive bond later.
After the bond passes, the architectural/engineering firm would hold public meetings to allow our communities to influence the design of the new buildings. In the preliminary qualification application, each of the new buildings is currently allotted 50,000 square feet. This includes roughly 13 classrooms to accommodate 2 sections each of K-5 and one extra classroom for use as needed if enrollment is larger than usual in a particular year. There is also space for: project based learning; a science or STEM room; wider hallways; more storage space; larger/more rooms for special education, ELL, and interventions; spacious libraries; modern bathrooms; and larger art and music rooms. In general, the buildings will have more space per student to support a modern learning environment. Currently, elementary enrollment varies by building from 274 to 400. At completion, Donley, Glencairn, Whitehills, Pinecrest and Marble would each house roughly 280 students. Red Cedar, which is currently vacant, would have about half as many elementary students after all construction is complete, and Red Cedar would also house new early childhood programs. Precise details about the size and configuration of the buildings would be determined by the architects in collaboration with our East Lansing communities. The total number of elementary students in our schools would decrease to approximately 1570 students, from about 1650 currently. This would result in a decrease in schools of choice enrollment. Student population estimates for the new buildings come from the Application for Preliminary Qualification of Bonds.
The school buildings would be designed by skilled architects from GMB Architecture + Engineering. GMB considers the community to be co-designers of schools, and they would include input from several public community forums in the designs. Total design & engineering fees would be roughly 5-10% of the cost of construction, i.e., $4.5 million to $9 million, and the cost of the schematic designs would be about $75,000 to $150,000 per building. Since the design requires community input and is fairly expensive, detailed design work and site plans cannot begin until after the bond has passed. Draft site diagrams are online, although they will change during the design process.
Of the 6 elementary schools, Red Cedar is in the best condition. It would be the only school to be renovated, including updates to the roof, windows, electrical, plumbing, and HVAC; it would also receive new learning technology since Red Cedar was not included in the 2013 technology bond. Red Cedar would also be completed first, because it would educate other students while their schools are being rebuilt. Red Cedar’s role as a newly renovated ‘swing school’ during construction (along with the current Donley Elementary building) would accelerate the rebuilding process since children must temporarily move to different schools while theirs is being rebuilt. Because Red Cedar is currently empty, renovation can start very soon after the bond is passed. After construction is completed on the other schools in fall of 2021, Red Cedar would house a small elementary school population (7 classrooms; about half the size of the other 5 schools). Pinecrest’s current Great Start Readiness Program and Early Childhood Special Education programming would move to Red Cedar (benefiting these young and high risk kids) because the new Pinecrest building would be smaller. Additional early childhood programs are also anticipated at Red Cedar.
The bond will not exceed $94 million, and the actual amount may be less. The actual costs would be determined by detailed plans made with community involvement after the approval of the bond. To pay for it, the district estimates that property taxes would be increased 1.795 mills initially, resulting in an additional $180 paid yearly for a house with a market value of $200,000 (taxable value of $100,000). This would bring the total yearly tax bill for school bonds to 7 mills, and it would remain at that level for approximately 28 years; on average during that period, 4.45 mills would be paid per year for the elementary school bond. Until recently, East Lansing residents were paying 7 mills due to previous bonds for improvement of MacDonald Middle School and educational technology, which have not yet been fully paid off. The 7 mill rate is similar to what other nearby cities are currently paying. The cost to homeowners would likely be offset by increases in property values due to our investments in schools, although it’s impossible to say by how much.
The bond proposal meets all State of Michigan requirements and has been approved by the Michigan Department of Treasury. The East Lansing School District has a bond rating of AA- from Standard and Poors. It’s important to realize that delaying the bond also incurs costs: interest rates are at historic lows and are likely to rise; construction costs have been rising faster than inflation; and expensive repairs would be required to our aging elementary school buildings. A different bond later would likely incur even higher costs than the current proposal.
While the City of East Lansing is exploring the possibility of introducing an income tax, that is completely separate from the bond question. You can learn more about the income tax proposals on the city’s website.
After the bond passes, each building would require 15-18 months to be designed, demolished, and rebuilt. All 6 buildings are scheduled to be finished by fall 2021. Red Cedar would be remodeled and the new Donley building would be built first, since Donley is the only site large enough to build without tearing down the existing building. Red Cedar and the current Donley building would then be used to educate other schools’ students while their schools are being rebuilt. The order in which the other schools would be built has not been decided. A preliminary construction schedule has been posted by ELPS.
SOC enrollment would decrease under this bond. Enrollment in East Lansing elementary schools has been near 1500 students since at least 2006, increasing very slowly from 1500 in 2006 to 1650 in 2016 (despite the recession of 2009-2010). From 2009 to present, we’ve had about 21% schools of choice students; for 2015-2016, we had 23%. The bond assumes a decrease in enrollment, planning for 1571 elementary students. For fall 2016 ELPS has 1322 non-SOC students, and if we had similar enrollment after construction is complete, that would leave space for 249 SOC students; 249/1571 is 16%. The current capacity of the middle school and high school prevents further enrollment increases, no expansions to the middle and high schools are planned, and projections are for stable future enrollment. However, if East Lansing grows slowly (which seems likely in the long run), new residents can replace SOC students without building expensive school additions.
- SOC students allow ELPS to gain revenue from classroom spots that might otherwise go empty. For example, when a particular kindergarten cohort is unusually small for a particular school, salaries and benefits for the teachers must remain the same, but revenue would be substantially lower without SOC, because ELPS is paid per student.
- Having some SOC students allows ELPS to easily absorb future growth; if a particular neighborhood (or East Lansing as a whole) gains more children, resident students can replace SOC students without changing school boundaries or building expensive additions to existing schools.
- East Lansing residents value smaller neighborhood schools, and if we drastically cut SOC students, the loss of revenue would force at least one of our five elementary schools to close. No neighborhood would willingly accept the closure of its school.
- The larger student population gained from SOC students facilitates additional opportunities for all of our students, especially at the middle and high school levels. These include advanced placement classes, competitive teams for a variety of sports, band, orchestra, theater, STEM clubs, etc.
“East Lansing is in a strong position to keep enrollment stable”, according to Fred Ignatovich of StanFred consultants, which predicted enrollment for ELPS. Therefore the bond does not assume East Lansing’s elementary population will greatly change. East Lansing elementary enrollment has been increasing slowly from 2006-2007 (1486 students) to 2015-2016 (1663 students) according to MIschoolData.org, despite the recession of 2008. The bond proposal would lead to a decrease in elementary students from 1652 in fall 2016 to about 1571 after the construction/renovation is complete, necessarily decreasing schools of choice (SOC) students. After construction is complete in 2021, about 16% of the elementary students would be SOC, compared to 23% in 2015. If East Lansing were to grow, such as from growth of MSU, construction of new housing, or increased migration to East Lansing (which improved schools might encourage), new resident students would replace SOC students.
There are several reasons: 1) many East Lansing residents greatly value smaller neighborhood schools; 2) it would be difficult to build larger schools on the relatively small sites that we have, except for Donley; 3) the closure of Red Cedar Elementary was controversial and divisive, and if we closed an additional school the bond would lose support from the affected parts of our community, the bond would probably not pass, and the elementary schools would continue to deteriorate.
Adding a 6th building (by reopening Red Cedar) would require an additional $300,000 to $350,000 per year to cover operating costs and administration. This is less than 1% of ELPS’s annual operating budget of $37 million, most of which pays for staff salaries and benefits. Some of this cost would probably be offset by revenues from early childhood programs after elementary school construction has been completed in fall 2021.
Given the poor condition of our existing elementary schools, remodeling them would require completely gutting them. Only walls and roof structure would remain. Savings from renovation compared to building new would be less than 25%, and renovation would limit the ability of the architects and builders to produce spaces supporting current best practices for learning. However, Red Cedar Elementary is in the best condition, so it would be renovated instead of rebuilt, providing space to educate other students while their schools are being rebuilt.
In 2012, property values were lower due to the recession, and construction costs were also lower. The 2012 bond also attempted to repurpose more parts of the existing buildings, which have further deteriorated since then. The 2012 bond also did not include space for early childhood education, did not allow as much space per student, and did not include Red Cedar. The 2017 bond is therefore more expensive than the 2012 bond; ELPS has produced a detailed comparison. However, interest rates are lower now; according to ELPS, 42% of the cost of the 2017 bond would be interest, but 54% of the cost of the 2012 bond would have been interest. Interest rates are likely to rise, which could make a future bond much more expensive if the 2017 bond proposal does not pass. Although a community bond committee was involved with preparation for both bonds, the 2017 bond is more faithful to its committee recommendations than the 2012 bond was.
Email us at YesForExcellentSchools@gmail.com, contact us on our ‘Yes for Excellent Schools’ Facebook page, come to your East Lansing School Board meetings, or attend upcoming school bond informational meetings.
If you email YesForExcellentSchools@gmail.com, we will find a way for you to help. For example, you can share information on social media, or hold a neighborhood party to inform your neighbors about the bond. You can also sign our public list of supporters. We appreciate financial contributions as well, but we are not yet set up to accept them online. Checks should be payable to “Yes for Excellent Schools” and contributions will primarily support publicity (mailings, yard signs, etc.).