Education important before heading to the polls

Published 8:15 pm Thursday, February 16, 2006

By By ANDY HAMILTON / Niles Daily Star
NILES - The countdown to an election many think will decide the future of Niles Community Schools is under way.
Niles school district residents are asked to go to the polls on Tuesday, Feb. 28, to vote on a bond proposal to fund the construction of a new high school building and renovate a number of other school buildings in the district.
If approved, the controversial proposal would add seven mills to residents' property tax bills, paid on the taxable value of homes in the district. An owner of a $100,000 home, whose taxable value is a little less than half that amount, would pay an estimated $280 in additional taxes per year for the 32 years of the millage.
School district officials and proponents of the bond proposal have held multiple forums discussing the issue, as well as a rally in support of the proposal.
However, another group of residents opposing the $105 million bond proposal say it's too expensive and the construction of a new high school building is unnecessary.
Some who oppose the bond proposal are working to organize, calling themselves Save Our Schools, or SOS for short. Members of this group agree on one point: Voters in Niles school district need to educate themselves.
Specifically, members of the group recently said they are concerned about the amount of funds set aside in the district's proposal for technology and how that money will be spent, why the new high school is the only building without a detailed floor plan, the total interest cost of the 30-plus year plan and how the school district has advertised the tax breaks to landlords and senior citizens.
Champaign taste?
Michael Waldron is a Niles native who graduated from Niles High School in 1964. He and his family recently moved back to Niles after living elsewhere for 36 years.
Waldron began his involvement with this issue as a member of the school district's steering committee, which created possible building and remodeling scenarios for the Niles board of education. However, Waldron now is a member of the SOS group and is an outspoken opponent of the district's present bond proposal.
As part of the steering committee, Waldron was on hand for a tour of all the district's facilities with Superintendent Doug Law. Waldron agrees some improvements are necessary, but questions the amount of repairs the proposal is asking to make.
One of Waldron's main concerns is the technology budget. He said there has been minimal information about the specifics of what the large sum would be put toward.
The amount budgeted for technology has changed since the proposal was first laid out, Superintendent Doug Law said in a separate interview. The proposal's original amount of $8.2 million was revised and scaled down. Now, Law said, the plan is to use $2 million less than first expected.
If the bond issue is approved by voters, the bulk of the $6.2 million it would generate would be used to install what Law called a “solid fiber optic infrastructure throughout the buildings.”
According to the plan, every teacher would have a new computer. Each classroom throughout the district would also have anywhere from two to five computers, a liquid crystal display (LCD) projector and a document reader. The document readers, Law said, are similar to an overhead projector, except the new device uses a camera to project the material onto a screen through the LCD projector. This makes it possible to project notes, pictures or graphs without making transparent copies of the material.
New computer labs - hardwire and wireless - are also part of the technology budget that Law said will improve the learning process for students.
Kathy Zeider is an SOS member and the mother of three Niles students - seventh, 10 and 12 graders. She also ran unsuccessfully several years ago for a seat on the Niles Community Schools board of education. Zeider said she also has concerns about the technology portion of the district's bond proposal.
Zeider said she understands the buildings may require upgrading, but questions whether too much attention is being directed toward equipment, instead of faculty.
Why a new high school?
The major portion of the $105 million bond proposal would generate would go toward the construction of a new high school. Documents distributed at a rally of supporters of the bond issue put the cost of construction of a new high school at $50 million.
Waldron is concerned the district has no detailed blueprint for a proposed new high school. He said detailed blueprints describing the complete renovation plans for all existing schools involved in the proposal are available and have been on hand for most school events including bond proposal forums and rallies.
The school board has purchased an option for $10,000 on a 68-acre parcel of land located at Lake and Carberry for potential use as a new high school. The district is also seeking a similar option on land where the former Eastgate Shopping Center is located, but owners of that property have told school district officials they are not interested in selling.
Waldron said he expected to hear more about a layout for the building beyond a breakdown of how much square footage was being allotted for each department.
Law said the district hasn't yet hired an architecture firm to design the new high school, a process that could take about six months to complete. He said the school district would seek input from as many people in the community as possible when putting the building plans together, such as the faculty, students and those people living around the construction site.
Law said the new high school would be about 7,000 square feet larger than the current Niles High because classroom size would be larger.
One plan that was considered, though only for a short period of time, Law said, was constructing a new middle school. But, the steering committee did not favor the plan for a pair of reasons.
One reason, he said, was students would attend a new middle school and then go to high school in an old facility. Secondly, many people said they think the high school is the building that most represents the district.
The situation with Eastside Elementary also weighed heavily on the district's steering committee, mostly because the families in the surrounding area wanted to keep a school in their neighborhood within walking distance. Law said those requests could be met if the bond passes and the current high school becomes the new middle school. In that case, an educational building will remain in the Eastside neighborhood and be in a close proximity to many homes.
Law has stated in presentations, the plan is not all about the high school, but has more to do with “elementary equity.” The final product, Law said, would give all buildings, with grades kindergarten through fifth, the same available services, such as gymnasiums, computer labs and cafeterias.
Each elementary school would also see improvements in traffic flow according to the same presentations.
Zeider disputes that. She said the situation at Ring Lardner Middle School, if it is converted to K-5, does not appear to increase safety for young students. Ring Lardner is located on 17th Street across from the high school and its athletic facilities and is adjacent to the grounds that host the Four Flags Chamber of Commerce Apple Festival. The annual festival is held near the end of September and has held events during weekday afternoons.
Law said the situation at Ring Lardner is definitely a concern because, as is, the middle school is not designed to handle the amount of vehicles it attracts. The traffic pattern, Law said, would have to be completely re-done to accommodate younger kids getting dropped off and picked up by parents.
School bus traffic would also have to be accounted for but would be considerably less than the current situation because fewer buses would be required to ship elementary kids than middle school students.
A study of the factory traffic would also have to be conducted, Law said, but the schools would have five years to complete the task if the proposal passes. Overall, the set-up, when complete, would be better than a current traffic issue the school is facing, Law said.
How much in interest?
Another aspect of the bond proposal the opposition group members takes issue with is its total cost. Members specifically question the amount of interest the school district said the bond proposal will cost taxpayers over the course of the millage.
Law said the district's financial advisers, using accurate economic predictions to date, estimate $98 million of interest will have to be paid for the $105 million plan over a period of 32 years.
Law's numbers are based on using the state's School Loan Revolving Fund to assist in the high interest payments that occur in the beginning of the bond. With the state loan fund, Law said the state would loan Niles Community Schools “tens of millions of dollars and not expect any pay back for the first 20 years.”
During the final 10 to 15 years of the proposed 32-year millage, the school would then pay the state back.
SOS member Gina Schimmel has an accounting degree and is a mother of three children, including a kindergartener at Northside and a sophomore at Niles High School. Schimmel said the total cost of interest to taxpayers has not been clearly stated.
Schimmel said claims that say the cost of interest on the $105 million bond issue is equal to $102.6 million mislead the public to the total cost. With the additional $70 million that must be paid back to the state, Schimmel said the proposal should clearly state the final tab for all expenses should be in the range of $277 million.
Law said Schimmel's number are a worst case scenario. The variance in interest costs is due to a state regulation on community growth, Law said. No matter where a community is located in the State of Michigan, school districts are only allowed to project a 3 percent growth rate when estimating the cost of interest for bonds.
Historically, that 3 percent is a low estimate. Law said the disparity is due to the fact that the average growth for Niles in the past five years has been 5.5 percent.
Using the state's numbers over the projected 32-year period, $88 million of interest would be paid to the people who buy the bonds and the state would have to be paid $10 million of interest, making the price of interest equal to $98 million, Law said.
The total cost of the entire proposal over 32 years would then come from adding the interest to $105 million, placing the final tab in the range of $203 million.
School district officials have said in its proposal some home owners can possibly receive a tax break from the state. However, Schimmel said the cost that may eventually land in the laps of renters within the Niles School District has not been fully addressed.
Given that rental properties are not eligible for tax relief, Schimmel said the cost to landlords, such as herself, could be offset by an increase in rent.
Schimmel said she is also concerned many senior citizens may not realize they will be required to apply for the tax break and could be denied that tax break.
The extent to which some people are going to convince voters of the proposal's benefits also deserves some attention, Schimmel said.
Who's responsible for
educating voters?
Overall, the members of SOS said all information needs to be available to the public so voters will be able to properly educate themselves before deciding on the issue. And, as parents of Niles Community Schools students, Zeider and Schimmel said the district has not made proper attempts to fully inform everyone.
Both have wondered why parents have not received mail or been called about the details of the proposal. About three months ago, at parent-teacher conferences, Zeider said she was told about the dates and times of the proposal forums.
Since that time, she said she has only seen information about meetings being hosted by Law. Schimmel, on the other hand, is yet to be directly contacted by the school with details about the proposal.
Zeider agreed the majority of what the two have learned has come from their own effort.
The decision to inform the public through meetings was made in October, Law said. The amount of people that turned out for the first meetings in November, December and January was somewhat of a disappointment, he added, and caused the schools to pursue other avenues.
The first involved creating a newsletter that, Law said, is currently en route to every home in the school district. The six-page document gives details of every aspect of the proposal, and, Law said it was reviewed by attorneys prior to publication to ensure it did not, in any way, tell the postal customer how to vote on the issue.
Four question and answer sessions at Law's office was the other step taken. By the day of the election, Law estimates he will have been a part of more than 50 meetings similar to the Tuesday night forums at his Westside office. Some sessions were advertised and others, such as the discussion at the American Association of Retired Persons, were by invitation, Law said.
Zeider was walking out of one of the first gatherings in the late fall when she ran into some parents discussing the proposal. The short conversations turned into phone calls, which eventually resulted in the formation of SOS. Since then, Zeider said, the group has been attending forums and raising any questions pertaining to the proposal.
One member of SOS decided the best way to be a part of the decision is to make a run for a position on the school board. Joel Rogers has filed to run for a school board seat in its May elections. He said his connection to SOS has been a large reason for his recent involvement with the school district.
Rogers said he thinks the Niles Community Schools is missing “a voice of reason.”
Though SOS has heard from many citizens concerned about the proposal, including faculty members in Niles Community Schools, Zeider said, the group has its worries about the upcoming election. She is concerned the board has hired a construction management firm.
Owen-Ames-Kimball from Grand Rapids has been hired by the district to run a campaign and handle budget concerns at each level of the bond proposal process, from architectural plans to final construction. The company's Director of Business Development Terry Blanchard said at a rally for the proposal the goal of the campaign is to secure 2,500 positive votes on Feb. 28. To do so, organizers of the rally distributed about 250 packets to supporters that explained how to attract more voters by discussing the proposal with family, friends and neighbors.
The campaign was designed specifically to be “face-to-face” Law said, so people would hear about the proposal first-hand and not by noticing a sign in someone's front yard.
The campaign was started with a marketing study conducted by Marketing Partners and paid for with private donations. Schimmel said a copy of the results of the survey explains how the 300 phone interviews helped determine what some of the negative responses people may have toward the proposal and how to approach those responses. Schimmel said the survey suggested keeping the opposition quiet and avoid emphasizing any connection to the local economy.
Law said the study was used to “try to get a flavor of what people would support” and said the results showed citizens felt the emphasis should be on technology and early childhood development.
Law said the survey was successful, but the steering committee did not agree with the direction Marketing Partners wanted to take the campaign.
Law said the steering committee's hesitation was based on Marketing Partner's suggestion of running a quiet campaign. That route, Law said, was unacceptable to the committee due to the size of the issue.
The message from the members of SOS is similar. They are not necessarily telling voters to choose against the issue. Rather, the group said they are only asking people to find out for themselves as much as possible about the proposal and how it could affect their home and community.
Voters will decide on the proposal in less than three weeks. For information on Save Our Schools and its upcoming rally, contact Kathy Zeider at 683-0454, or, Gina Schimmel at 684-6964.
Niles Community Schools' Superintendent Doug Law can be reached at 683-0732.