Construction, Economic Development, and Education

Beyond the student: the effects of school construction programs in your community

August 26, 2019
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Jenison Public Schools’ Center for the Arts
Jenison Public Schools’ Center for the Arts. Courtesy Triangle Associates

In 2011, during the midst of a national recession, property values in the district of Jenison Public Schools were plunging, businesses were moving out of the community and school enrollment was declining.

“Our town was not moving forward,” said Tom TenBrink, superintendent at Jenison Public Schools. “We had to make a determination as a community: are we going to go forward, or are we going to be stagnant and become a place people don’t want to be?”

After months of assessing facilities and gathering community feedback, Jenison Public Schools placed a bond request on the election ballot. The district asked the voting public to approve the funding of a $33 million bond for building repairs, technology upgrades and a new performing arts center. Amid a struggling economy, the bond request passed.

Today, student enrollment is up, businesses have returned and Jenison has become a destination for families, according to TenBrink.

“All of a sudden, businesses in Jenison began to flourish and families started to move here,” TenBrink said. “I will always point to the 2011 bond issue as a crossroads for us that people chose to vote on their district, and because of that, we saw a community revitalized and a school district saved.”

On a state level, Michigan provides schools districts with operating money on a per-pupil basis. These funds are then used toward teachers’ salaries, maintenance costs and transportation needs; however, per-pupil funding has not kept up with inflation. After all operating and maintenance expenses are paid, little is left for capital improvement projects. On a local level, districts are left to determine how to address their needs.

“There are so many buildings in Michigan that were built in the ’50s and ’60s that are nearing their life expectancy,” said Matt Miller, K-12 client manager at Triangle Associates. “In addition, enrollment change, as well as the push for updated learning spaces, science labs, technology requirements, creates a great need for changes in the infrastructure of building spaces.”

Part of Miller’s job is to work with districts and their communities to help develop a facilities plan based on their infrastructure and community needs. Districts rely on design and construction firms to help develop a facility needs assessment, budgeting, and often, the campaign plan to involve and inform the voters.

“Our job is to help educate our superintendents, many of which have never been through a capital campaign and don’t know where to start,” Miller said. “Capital projects serve so many needs to improve a district. It’s one of the reasons I’m here.”

Beyond the schools themselves, capital improvement projects can impact the local workforce. Many districts prioritize keeping taxpayers’ money in the community by hiring local businesses to work on their facility improvements.

“We want to ensure that those who support the community have the best chance to participate in the project’s development,” said Scott Jernberg, senior project manager at Triangle Associates.

Jernberg has been working with Mona Shores Public Schools on its recently passed $93 million bond request. The district plans on updating all six of its buildings, as well as the athletic facilities. During the first phase of construction, 45% of the work will be completed by local contractors.

Many districts hold informational sessions and open forums for constituents to voice thoughts and concerns on their community’s needs during the bond planning process.

“Know your community, understand what’s important to them,” TenBrink said. “Find things within your community people can get excited about.”

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