A reader, Tommy Times, disagreed with our "If You Got It, Spend It!" article in which we opined that the Grand Rapids Public School District should return to the taxpayers the excess funds from an infrastructure bond rather than spend it on a new elementary school building. The inestimable Mr. Times commented:
Oh, come on. GRPS has many more infrastructure needs than their last bond issue could cover. They spent less money on the first round of projects, so they are going to the next priority on the list. Doesn't that make more sense than giving the money back, then going back to the voters to fund the additional needs, with the cost of an election, selling new bonds, and paying a higher interest rate?
It may be true that Hall St. school is only 50 years old, and I certainly appreciate mid century modern schools, having attended them (boy, I loved walking outside in michigan winters to change classes on our six building campus), but there are some things they are likely to be missing, having been designed for a culture with different expectations from schools. Smaller schools in walkable neighborhoods are wonderful, but the baby boom is over, and neighborhoods do not have the density of kids to support pure neighborhood schools that are efficient to operate.
The school district cannot operate with the philosophy that 'this is what we can afford, if the suburbs can afford more, good for them.' They have to compete for students with the suburbs, because they lose dollars with every student. Education quality should be the number one point of competition, but the reality of keeping and attracting people to the district is that you have to have buildings that are competitive with the burbs. EGR and Forest Hills have plenty of 50 year old buildings, but they have also had much higher building millages to maintain and enhance their buildings.
Although I have already responded to Mr. Times in the comments section of that article, I'd like to post a more complete response here ...
Your argument is based upon a contradiction.
You say: "Smaller schools in walkable neighborhoods are wonderful, but the baby boom is over, and neighborhoods do not have the density of kids to support pure neighborhood schools that are efficient to operate."
If that were true, then fewer students means less infrastructure needed. For example, on the northeast side of town where I lived as a kid 30-40 years ago, there were six elementary schools (Huff, Aberdeen, Riverside, Crestview, Wellerwood, and North Park). Now there will be only one servicing the same area. That should translate into a considerable reduction in infrastructure expense, both capital and operational. Indeed, the sale of those unneeded facilities would provide more than enough capital to renovate and maintain the remaining school. So fewer students is hardly a rationale for dunning the taxpayers to cover more infrastructure spending.
However, what you say isn't true. They're about as many kids living within the Grand Rapids Public School District as there were when I was kid. The reason the GRPS student body has shrunk is because it now faces competition from suburban and charter schools. A large fraction of families living within the GRPS district have jumped at the chance to send their kids somewhere other than the neighborhood schools. Why? Do you seriously think it is because the school buildings aren't brand spanking new? Are parents these days that superficial? No. The problem is the lousy education provided and even worse, the undisciplined environment, even in elementary schools, that has been tolerated in the city schools. I know this from personal experience. It is a wretched situation that is INEXCUSABLE, period.
The discipline that produces the civility and decency needed for a good learning environment doesn't require another dime from the taxpayers. What is does require is the WILL of the GRPS superintendent and the board of education to lay down clear policies on discipline, back up the principals and teachers who enforce discipline in the classroom, take no crap from rabble-rousing parents who claim their little darlings do no wrong, and ultimately expel those students who will not get with the program. What is does not require is multicultural sensitivity training of administrators, teachers, and students that operates on the premise that a kid's skin color makes him or her any more or less capable of decent behavior. Black, brown, yellow, or white, kids are kids, and it is a nasty brand of crypto-racism that the educrats are pushing to avoid dealing with their lack of will to make every student behave properly while at school.
Absent that will to make city schools decent places for kids to learn, throwing taxpayer dollars at new infrastructure is like putting lipstick on the pig. Pretty new buildings won't fool the parents who have made the decision to send their children to a charter or suburban school. Indeed, that lesson should've already been learn last fall when the brand new schools the GRPS opened did not add any new students to the district's roster. In fact, I think Superintendent Taylor has learned that lesson, but in the wrong way, which is why it is now his policy to hold hostage as many kids as possible who live in within the district by restricting their release to suburban districts.
The bottom line for me, Tommy, is that the GRPS has to address its fundamental failures to retain students before hitting up the taxpayers for new capital expenditures.
Regards, Bill Tingley, Executive Director L.A.W.