Government and Higher Education

GRPS seeks support for $175M bond proposal

The school district is pursuing a bond proposal to invest in its future growth.

October 9, 2015
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Grand Rapids Public Schools is encouraging community members to vote during election day Nov. 3 in support of its roughly $175 million bond proposal to “Secure, Connect and Transform” the district by investing in security, technology and facilities improvements.

Friends of GRPS, the ballot committee organizing the citywide campaign for the proposal, officially launched its GRPS YES! campaign Sept. 15 to gain support for the $175 million bond that would improve safety and school security by updating entry and exit points in buildings, update technology, and invest in Phase II of the GRPS Transformation Plan to renovate classrooms and school facilities.

Teresa Weatherall Neal, superintendent of GRPS, said the district is pursuing the bond proposal now to create the best educational opportunities for children.

“The time is right, our bond rating is up, and we have proven that we are moving in the right direction,” said Neal.

“I believe I am a strong leader and I believe that now is the time for us to continue with Phase II of our transformation plan. I think this community, as well as these children, deserve for Grand Rapids Public Schools to be the absolute best that it can be.”

The overall $175 million bond proposal includes roughly $10 million allocated toward district-wide security improvements, another roughly $10 million to fund district-wide technology updates, and nearly $155 million for renovating existing educational facilities and new construction. Cost of renovations for specific schools range from approximately $1 million at Coit Elementary to roughly $26 million at Union High School.

New construction projects include approximately $13 million at Buchanan Elementary, $2 million for the new GRPS Zoo School, and nearly $20 million for the Southwest Community Campus High School, according to the GRPS YES! campaign.

If the bond proposal is passed Nov. 3, the total cost of investment for each taxpayer based on an average home value of roughly $100,000 is approximately $8.33 per month or $99.96 each year.

“I am committed to these children. I am committed to this community and to the citizens. I want people to know they have can faith that we are going to educate these children and it will be a great return on investment,” said Neal. “I don’t take it for granted asking members of this community to raise their taxes. This is hard for me, but I don’t have any other option so I am asking people to come along with me.”

Current GRPS bond supporters include a variety of community organizations, individuals, government officials, state representatives and educational associations, such as: Grand Rapids Board of Education, Grand Rapids City Commission, Asociacion de Pastores de Grand Rapids, Creston Neighborhood Association, GRABB, Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, Grand Rapids Urban League, Hispanic Center of Western Michigan, Urban Core Collaborative, Westown Collaborative, and West Grand Neighborhood Organization.

While the level of support is significant and reflects the community coming together as one, Neal said she is encouraging everyone to vote.

“When I took this position, I explained to people that it was going to be left up to all of us to do this. I have shared many times that this is not just my district; this is our district — all of ours,” said Neal. “We will all benefit from a great school system. We need everyone’s voice and that is the only way we are going to get better is with people inside the system and people outside of the system; it’s a social good.”

As a district, GRPS currently levies approximately 2.6 mills for debt service and an additional 1 mill for its five-year sinking fund allocated for building repairs and improvements, which was passed in 2011 and is set to expire in 2016. The GRPS debt-per-student ratio was roughly $7,700 in 2014 and decreased to approximately $7,400 in 2015.

If approved Nov. 3, the additional $175 million in bonds would increase the district’s debt millage to approximately 4.72 mills, while the sinking fund millage would remain unchanged, according to Larry Oberst, chief financial officer for GRPS.

“Our bonded debt balance currently stands at approximately $124.4 million,” Oberst wrote in a statement. “We anticipate using the $175 million in at least two issues, approximately three years apart.”

Since developing the GRPS Transformation Plan, the district has completed a number of proposed Phase I projects, such as reinvesting in theme schools, expanding the Challenge Scholars program to Westwood, growing the Kent Schools Service Network, reducing the number of comprehensive high school and varsity athletic teams from three to two, and expanding the number of K-8 schools.

In a Sept. 3 letter on the successes resulting from the GRPS Transformation Plan, Neal indicated she made a promise to the taxpayers and voters of Grand Rapids to not ask for support until there were proven successes from Phase I of the Transformation Plan.

“Our success story speaks for itself,” indicated Neal. “Phase II of the GRPS Transformation Plan is when we go on the offensive for the first time in 20 years. It’s when we invest for growth. ... We are poised to become a national model for how a large urban public school district can transform for stability, growth and academic success.”

Specific outcomes from the strategic plan include increasing graduate rates by 5 percent during the last three years and by nearly 10 percent among African-American and Hispanic/Latino students, and posting the third-largest increase in ACT composite scores in the country, Neal said in the letter.

Dual enrollment participation has increased by 45 percent since last year, total college credits earned increased by 52 percent, chronic absenteeism has been reduced by 25 percent in the past three years, and the GRPS bond rating increased from negative to stable.

“We are moving in the right direction with academic achievement. Our student growth is showing we are moving in the right direction, and that is really what we are about,” said Neal.

“We have increased the percentage of students that are taking higher education classes and that speaks to jobs, hope and their new phase in their journey. Our stability, our growth — those are all measurable successes that we are moving in the right direction.”

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