Talk Over; City Acts For Schools

April 26, 2004
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What a difference a mayor makes. Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell made the quality of public schools his No. 1 agenda item even before his election last year. True to his word, his latest initiative is one which Grand Rapids Business Journal has hammered for nearly a decade: Downtown Development Authority’s capture of property tax dedicated to schools.

State law requires city DDAs to capture that tax, but law also has provided that DDAs can return all or a portion of that tax to the school district. Until now, the Grand Rapids DDA has refused such consideration. The city’s mayor has always held a seat on the DDA, and the request to return the tax captures dates back to the beginning of Pat Newby’s term as Grand Rapids Public Schools superintendent, and her request for consideration from former Mayor John Logie.

The timing of this initiative is especially important. Kent County voters in March approved a millage for special education classes in public schools throughout the Kent Intermediate School District. The city also intends to rebate those dollars back to GRPS and to KISD. Further, GRPS plans to ask city voters to approve two bond proposals on June 14. The first proposes a 1.82 mill increase to provide $150 million to renovate or rebuild 11 GRPS schools and restore playgrounds and athletic fields. The second proposal requests a 0.45-mill increase to raise $15 million for replacement buses and computer and technology upgrades. If both proposals pass, the average homeowner would pay less than $10 a month in additional taxes. The city DDA intends to rebate its portion of the dollars collected in both bond proposals.

The immensity of those issues and dire need is excruciating to view in the city of Grand Rapids’ Office of Children and Families report issued as the mayor took office. Full-page color photographs show children practicing music lessons in boiler rooms, the truth of congestion in classrooms (and closet classrooms), and the generally appalling condition of walls, ceilings, countertops, floors and eating areas. “Resource” shelves are bare of books and “technology” includes broken television sets used for educational videos.

The entire community should be ashamed.

The Wege Foundation, Universal Forest Products, Currie Foundation, Fifth Third Bank, Nicholas Plastics, Crowe Chizek & Co., Gilmore Partnership, Pioneer Inc., Wolverine World Wide, Progressive A&E, Terryberry Co., Irwin Seating, Crystal Flash and American Seating funded the report, as did several other foundations. It should be made available to every voter in the district, which extends in boundaries past city limits, including Kentwood and Walker.

Grand Rapids Business Journal underscored the issue of education in this community in this space on April 5 and the bleak assessment of a community without an educated, skilled labor force now and in the near future.

It would serve metropolitan school districts well (Kentwood, Wyoming and others) if other cities also looked at the ability of each DDA to follow Grand Rapids’ lead, especially as the state funding cuts further erode local ability to provide an education for “our most precious resource.”    

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