Saugatuck Public Schools Board Provides Details Of $50 Million Bond Proposal
There was a lot of enthusiasm coming from the school board, some staff, steering committee and architect designers about their proposed $50.7 million district-wide improvement project, which includes renovations and some new construction, at Monday’s school board workshop session.
Saugatuck Public Schools district officials say they want to raise the money with a bond issue they will be asking voters to approve in the upcoming May 8 election and pay it off in the next 25 years.
However, school officials’ enthusiasm was neutralized by concerns expressed by some attendees, including parents and some area local government leaders, raising questions about how the school would justify garnering more than $50 million from a tax levy, considering the student population—consisting of Douglas Elementary and Saugatuck Middle and High Schools—only totaled 854 students (of which 291 are students of school of choice).
Critics also questioned how the bond issue would impact the local taxpayers and the stated Tri-Community’s endeavor for affordable housing.
Fresh air, better quality air and natural light—via more and bigger windows, improved heating and cooling systems, outdoor learning spaces, etc.— noted Saugatuck Public Schools Board Trustee Gordon Stannis, would provide a learning environment that would “maximize knowledge retention and maximize inspiration.”
“When you are more comfortable, you are going to be more attentive,” said Stannis, also a member of the District Facility Committee.
The committee studied physical spaces and their uses at other area schools as well universities.
“Seeing students working in these spaces and collaborating with each other was inspiring. Sure, we got some collaboration spaces, but seeing this made me realize how important it was to bring this to our schools,” said Saugatuck High School Teacher Elizabeth TerHaar.
A parent of children that are students in the district, Kara Burd, was critical, noting, “$50 million is going to be a hard sell in this community. Your big sale is going to be us, the parents.”
Burd said she was more than familiar with the concepts of collaborative/shared spaces, as she makes use of these very concepts in her professional role for the Zeeland—based office furniture manufacturer Herman Miller.
Despite her familiarly with collaborative spaces —and how that is related to the central component of the district’s design plan: i.e., extending areas such as hallways, collaborative learning commons, etc.— she told school officials Monday she had a concern with overcrowding in the existing classrooms themselves. “I don’t care if my kids are taught in a dark dungeon, I just do not want them in a crowded room,” said Burd.
Others critics wondered if there was perhaps another version of the proposed improvements that were not so ambitious and expensive.
Another parent warned district representatives of other schools, such as Mona Shores High School, where big glass windows play a central role in the building structure and how the school allegedly faces tough challenges regulating temperature. “trying to make it warmer during winter and make it cooler in the summer.”
If the bond issue is approved by voters, it would raise $50.7 million, say district officials. The district’s current debt tax rate is 4.08 mills; this new levy is projected to increase the tax rate by 1.17 mills for the first year, thereby bringing the total levy to 5.26 mills.
Critics pointed out the school currently has $14 million in debt from previous bond issues and that this new debt would bring the total debt to $64 million.
When asked by an audience member how this higher tax would impact affordable housing since more taxes meant yet another expense, Chris Lamer, director of finance at Ottawa Area Intermediate School District and consultant to SPS, pointed to district’s projections, saying that a home with a market value of $300,000 would have a taxable value of $150,000, thereby costing that homeowner $175.50 per year, $14.62 per month, and $3.37 per week in the millage contribution.
Asked if indeed an increase of 1.17 mills to the existing 4.08 mills would generate more than $50 million, Saugatuck City Treasurer Peter Stanislawski said, “I would be interested to know what their (SPS Board’s) projected taxable value growth is in the next 25 years.”
Stanislawski’s experience includes the 2009 Saugatuck city road bond issue which was passed with a projected a 3% taxable growth factor, but ended up having a zero and 1% percent taxable growth in the first two years of the bond.
According to SPS financial advisor Tom Lagone, via the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District, the taxable value projection related to this new proposed school bond issue is 3.46% growth in the first five years, then 2.25% for the rest of the years in the 25-year bond.
On the May ballot, the electorate will be confronted with one school bond issue question. However, that tax levy, if voters approve it, will come in two parts: series one for the year 2018 ($23,250,00) and series two for the year 2020 when the school issues the second part of the bond ($27,450,00).
This schedule, say school officials, will provide a relief in interest payments for the first two years as well as align with the scheduling of the constructions projects being proposed in a phased approach.
Notions of “fresh air,” “bring the outside in,” “less prison-like aesthetics,” and “collaboration spaces,” were design ideas highlighted by officials during their Monday work session, particularly from members of the District Facility Steering Committee, which also includes teaching staff and at-large members.
The project consists of expanding and improving spaces such as corridors, cafeterias, gymnasiums as well as new and bigger rooms for science labs and art spaces.
At Douglas Elementary School, it entails an outdoor learning area and features for better and safer drop-off and pickup traffic flow.
At the Saugatuck Middle & High School site, the project calls for construction of a second floor atop a portion of the existing structure and moving the central administration from its current location to the high school and other proposed changes.