Building Experts Evaluate GR Public Schools

February 13, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — When Grand Rapids voters go to the polls to decide a major bond issue in June, they will be better informed about the condition of their schools than they were for a similar request in 1998.

That’s because of a recently completed survey by 61 representatives of the Western Michigan Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors Inc. The construction professionals evaluated 31 of the district’s buildings in several key areas and submitted facility needs recommendations that ranged from minor repair to major renovation to potential replacement.

“Superintendent (Bert) Bleke gave an overview of the school system, the population, graduation numbers and so forth, and asked what the future was for renovating schools or building new schools,” said John Doherty, executive vice president of ABC. “Several companies offered to help getting the district prepared to reach out to the public for support in the bond campaign.

“But in the last attempt, they hadn’t had anybody in there to take a good look at conditions of the schools. We thought it might be good to have an outside party in there with people who build schools every day of the week.

“They provided an objective evaluation — if the schools in dire need of repair would be worthwhile to fix or if it would just be wasting money.”

The report concluded that major renovations are needed, but also defined the practicality of certain fixes and renovations compared to demolition and new construction.

“There are many questions that have to be addressed,” Doherty said. “Do we need to replace or renovate those schools as best we can to bring them up to standards?

“Do you put the money into fixes, as opposed to redo the stock of schools, or do you spend $20 million fixing up four schools, or take $20 million and build a new elementary that could take the place of three or four schools?

“They have to determine what they are going to do with the money and where it is going to happen.”

In 1998, voters rejected a $396 million bond request from Grand Rapids Public Schools to restore some of the old and outmoded facilities that needed attention. Those buildings have not gotten any younger.

“It’s a tough sell,” Doherty said. “I don’t envy the choices people are going to have to make on this.

“If the school district and people in the district are going to stem the tide of folks leaving the schools to get away from the environment they’re in, they have to put some money in it.

“It probably cannot all come from only the residents and taxpayers in the city of Grand Rapids. It will probably take some private sector involvement, like some of the buildings downtown.

“I just don’t think they can get the job done with millages over time. It’s not like there is a lot of new money coming into the district.”

Performing evaluations were teams headed by a general contractor serving as a captain, plus specialists in mechanical, electrical, interiors, roofing, architecture and masonry.

“It was a wide variety of people with experience in most of the major systems and each group walked through five or six schools apiece,” Doherty said.

The six team captains for the survey included Todd Oosting of C.D. Barnes Associates, Norm Noordeloos of Rockford Construction, Mick Barney of Triangle Associates, Jim Czanko of Pioneer Construction Co., Dan LaMore of the Christman Co. and Bill Schoonveld of Owen-Ames-Kimball Co. Oosting is the president of ABC.

“It was the most comprehensive evaluation of the city’s elementary schools ever completed,” Oosting said. “We were able to mobilize these 61 members in less than a month after Superintendent Bleke and David Smith met with over 100 ABC members this past September to discuss the future of the Grand Rapids Public Schools.”

The teams evaluated the schools from five standpoints: potential replacement; major renovation, moderate renovation, minor renovation and minor repair.

“On the outside perimeter of Grand Rapids, you have Rockford schools, Grandville, Hudsonville, Byron Center, Forest Hills, and all of those districts are definitely building schools that should last 50 years or more,” Doherty said. “Whether they are building much beyond that depends on the growth. They have had the new money to keep pace with it through their bond issues.

“Those people there have gotten accustomed to their quality buildings.”

The infrastructures of the Grand Rapids schools were scored by the contractors, who recorded their thoughts and figures. Each team turned in reports with notes of what they saw — good and bad — in the schools.

“To have this caliber of experts give us their opinion of our facilities is invaluable,” said Smith, executive director of facilities planning for Grand Rapids Public Schools. “They not only are examining our schools — from the roofs to the boiler rooms — with fresh, unbiased eyes, but they are also able to make solid comparisons with schools and facilities in other communities.”

According to the report, most of the buildings surveyed are old and outmoded, and lack the resources for technology and modern comfort.

“They found that the buildings had been well maintained and were clean and presentable, but they are just dealing with old, old buildings,” Doherty said. “In some rooms, there is just one electrical outlet. There are lighting issues in all the schools and some have air circulation issues, which is not good for staff health or student health.

“The voters in Grand Rapids have to decide whether they are just going to put bandages on the facilities or upgrade the buildings to put them on par with suburban schools. That’s the challenge the school board is facing.”

The schools have an aggregate of 4 million square feet and he average age of the 31 buildings is 58 years.

“You just can’t ignore that,” Doherty said. “The fact that it has been ignored this long is coming back to haunt them, so what they do has to be a long-term fix.”

A master plan is currently being developed to identify options to improve the buildings.

A series of public forums have been scheduled to discuss the survey results and possible solutions. Community dialogues are scheduled for March 3-4, with an area work session scheduled for March 17-18. The Board of Education work session is scheduled for March 31.

“Now the school board has to go through the process of how to best spend those dollars,” Doherty said. “Do we put money into a school, or demolish it and build a new one? Do we try to fix a couple of buildings or build one brand new building to replace three or four schools?

“They will look over the data provided and then the school district will determine what it wants to do for the bond issue in the June election.

“It’s an organized attempt of figuring out what best to do with monies from a millage campaign standpoint. They are taking the information we have provided and having four public meetings to provide input of their schools in their area.”

Doherty said that although the bond request is expected to be in the neighborhood of $170 million, it would take three times that amount to upgrade the entire system.

“Many of the buildings are not handicapped accessible and even less are technology based,” Doherty said. “They make do as best they can, but they are 60-year-old buildings. The ones at the bottom of the scale are the ones that need to be replaced, and there is no getting around it.

“You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.”    

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