Baitandswitch plan leaves bad aftertaste

March 3, 2012
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City officials were right to raise a few cocked eyebrows last week when the merry-go-round plan for Oakdale Elementary School was revealed. And the frowns exhibited by Grand Rapids Public Schools officials certainly were merited, too.

This is no way to conduct business in Grand Rapids, even if the “business” in question has an educational component. The public, constituencies of both the public schools and the city, were duped.

The old bait-and-switch tactic apparently will produce a new charter school on the southeast side of town, rather than multi-family housing previously proposed. City and school officials were sold on an “innovative agreement” to put vacant school buildings back into play and onto the tax roll when GR School Lofts LLC, a division of Ojibway Development in Berkley, Mich., unveiled a plan to convert former schools into rental housing. City commissioners even gave the developer a brownfield designation for the Oakdale site in late January, in an attempt to ease some of the costs associated with the project.

The resulting sale of the Oakdale facility by GR School Lofts to Charter Development Co. LLC, which is part of charter school operator National Heritage Academies Inc., blindsided everyone and left more than a few ruffled feathers. The deal is not the deal.

The Business Journal is a staunch supporter of education and has nothing against more schools. The process of securing that site for another school, however, leaves much to be desired.

Gov. Rick Snyder adheres to “transparency,” and this situation is about as murky as it gets.

At the very least, it will ensure that city and public school officials will view similar proposals with a jaded eye — and that’s too bad because more urban housing would have been beneficial to both the city and schools.

Of greater concern, however, is the apparent behind-the-scenes maneuvering that took place to get to this point. School board members are asking some hard questions related to the legality of how those transactions occurred, and a lawsuit is the last thing anyone needs in this situation.

National Heritage has plenty of former public school administrators on board and should have known a deal like this could blow up. Transparency, whether it’s in business or government, is the order of the day. Backroom deals like this one were supposed to be a thing of the past.

“(The developer) was even asked about those intentions up to the day of closing and he maintained that he was planning to use these (former schools) for apartments,” said John Helmholdt, a spokesman for GRPS. “Yet, after he signed, later that same day, he went into another room and sold the property to National Heritage. I think it’s more of a technical question, and we just want to understand what are the (disclosure) rules and what are the rights of Grand Rapids Public Schools, and what should we expect now and in the future.”

Those seem to be fair questions and ones that, in this case, shouldn’t have to be asked.

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