White, Dean Have Creative City-School Plan

December 20, 2004
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City commissioners James White and Robert Dean offered the city commission a truly innovative idea last week to assist the Grand Rapids Public Schools, a path by which the schools might actually benefit from their urban setting, rather than suffer from the severe disadvantages Superintendent Bert Bleke has discovered. The commissioners have proposed the city use its ability to apply the frequently used Brownfield Act for functionally obsolete school property. Such a move also might create a revenue stream for new and upgraded school facilities.

It was met by a curious caution from the mayor. Curious because Mayor George Heartwell opened the year, and his State of the City address, with a vow to actively pursue a meaningful city/school partnership, reiterating what we all know: When the city’s schools fail, the city fails.

State and federal legislators weekly underscore the need for an educated work force, based on continued problems in the business community to find one. Across the country, and in Grand Rapids Business Journal reader polls, business and industry leaders are becoming increasingly aware of and worried about labor shortages, based on declines in population. Yet these are some of the bleakest days public schools or government have endured, especially in Michigan.

Aside from the city’s exclusion of schools from Downtown Development Authority taxes, there has been more hand wringing than action in regard to such an alliance of strength. If Mayor Heartwell intends what he means, we might see nightly news video of the mayor(s) or governor rushing in to offer whatever aid and comfort is available as school boards throw up the red flag, as is the case across the state. Such action is immediate when industry decides to send manufacturing jobs “overseas.” It may not be an issue of educating our children in India and Japan, but one wonders if one day it might be.

White and Dean must be congratulated for “out of the box” creative thinking. A time of adversity or scarcity is a time for invention and innovation. City and school leaders certainly have laid out the bleakest of short- and long-range forecasts, and Michigan’s long dependence on manufacturing as an economic foundation has eroded, and by all accounts will not be rebuilt.

The city has been as quick as any to offer tax incentives (often called “corporate welfare” by Commissioner James Jendrasiak) for property development and industrial job growth. Mayor Heartwell suggests review by city groups while considering the proposal, but White and Dean have done more than their share of homework and offer the expertise of those from whom they’ve learned. The mayor would defer for a longer learning curve, which is unnecessary, especially given the immediacy of the catastrophic recovery GRPS faces as a result of further state budget cuts.

In good times save for the rainy days. But public schools never see the good times, unless they are suburban where top property values create the resources by which additional taxes are passed and investments are made. Superintendent Bleke and finance captain Ben Emdin know well the differences, having re-upped from retirement stages in the suburban Forest Hills and Lowell school districts to lead the beleaguered urban system.

Given the immediacy of the problem, and the fact that again in 2005 another 24,000 GRPS students will continue to see cuts, not gains, in their education, the mayor would do well to walk his talk and create an immediate city/school panel — and put it on the learning curve with the experts. Such an idea has statewide possibilities, once again with a Grand Rapids dateline.   

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