Voters Firms Come To Schools Aid

January 14, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Stories of financial hardship at area public schools is no longer truly “news.”

Tales of failing schools, shrinking budgets and union strife have dotted the press with such regularity that the plight of the region’s largest school district might easily have been overlooked.

But approving a $150 million construction millage and a $15 million millage for district-wide technology upgrades and school buses, the community this year came to the aid of the Grand Rapids Public Schools.

“We had to go through some pain before we asked them to support us,” GRPS superintendent Bert Bleke said. “We knew we had to close some facilities, and I think that people appreciated that we are trying to do the right things here.”

Several of Bleke’s predecessors had presented similar requests to the community, but voters denied them.

“I think that we came to the community with a number that they felt was fair and that they could support and afford. And maybe a third element was one of timing, where I think that members of the community were beginning to understand that this is really a high need, that it was time to step forward and support the schools and support the kids.” 

While there were many issues to address, the most fundamental was the buildings. At GRPS’ request, 61 representatives of Associated Builders and Contractors Inc. Western Michigan Chapter independently evaluated the condition of 31 schools.

“Just about the entire district had some need, because it’s been so long since they’ve been able to do anything,” said Dan Lamore of The Christman Co., an ABC evaluation team captain. “Of the six buildings that I went through, it was very evident that every building has needs. All of the staff were very eager to have us in there and see what we could do to help.”

“There hasn’t been any real capital expenditures put into the city schools in over 30 years,” said Mike VanGessel, president of Rockford Construction, who also led an evaluation team. “Even common maintenance was under budgeted. There is a great need to adjust the facilities to today’s learning experiences — for safety of the kids, ADA, hazardous materials — and just for better forms to educate kids.

“We looked at real-life comfort issues right on through to greater improvements.”

Since that time, GRPA was denied access to the O-K Conference thanks to athletic facilities’ disrepair. Meanwhile, schools of choice whittled away the student body. GRPS lost 822 students last fall, 275 more than projected.

The long overdue construction effort is the first of what GRPS hopes will be many positive changes in a turnaround effort. Eleven buildings will be renovated or rebuilt through nine major projects over three years, at an estimated cost of $120 million.

Along with that, $9 million worth of additional building improvements will be made district-wide, with an $3 million more earmarked to upgrade playgrounds and athletic facilities.

“There is going to be a significant change to those nine schools,” explained GRPS Chief Operating Officer Ben Emdin. “We’ll also be able to add a number of pieces to our infrastructure. We hope to have all the playgrounds back in shape, upgrade athletic facilities, and some of the buildings that aren’t getting major work — we’ll be able to make improvements to those buildings as well.”

“It’s going to provide excellent learning facilities,” Bleke said. “It’s going to create better learning spaces for kids and teachers and that is a huge issue.”

The construction will likely have wider implications for the community, as well.

“This is going to place brand new facilities in mostly poorer neighborhoods,” Bleke explained. “That is an important psychological message to be sending to the neighborhood communities: That the community respects their children, respects their neighborhoods and is investing in them.

“That’s a real incentive for this whole community and if you look at it over time, that will speak volumes of the commitment to the community.”   

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