By Travis Smola
After hearing concerns from the community on Schoolcraft schools’ failed bond proposal, the Board of Education chose to go to the public on a second proposal in March.
The proposal will be unchanged from the $39.9 million project that failed by 61 votes in November. “The proposal is not flawed; we just need the boots on the ground,” Board President Jennifer Gottschalk said. “We need more bodies. If we can get more bodies, we can get this passed.”
Mitchell Watt, senior vice president of Triangle Construction and one of the district’s potential construction managers, acknowledged it was unusual to go after a bond again in March. But he encouraged the district to do so after observing turnout to the community forum held after the election. Watt said it made sense in this case because they could build on the momentum of this meeting. “There’s three months where we can engage a very passionate, hot off the press group that is interested in success,” Watt said.
The discussion continued for about an hour after the community forum as board members weighed questions on many topics relating to the bond such as athletics and how to engage the community better on the costs of the project compared with other districts.
At one point, Lloyd Peterson, who spoke earlier at the community forum, suggested again that the district either try to take the project in smaller chunks or begin saving money for a project further down the line.
Gottschalk responded, saying the district’s use of state funds is restricted; saving money for the future isn’t an option. “We have a fund balance, but the problem is 80 percent of our budget goes to pay our staff,” Gottschalk said. She noted $250,000 is put into maintenance costs and buying a new bus each year. “We don’t have money to put in the bank for a rainy-day fund,” she said. “And that’s a really cruddy thing to say, but that’s just the cold, hard facts of it.”
She said the district also does not have the funds on hand to deal with a major malfunction to a vital piece of hardware.
“We’ve worked for two, long, hard years. And I am at the end of my fraying rope with this,” Gottschalk said. “Because I don’t know what we’re going to do when the boiler dies. We have a steam line that broke last week. It could have been underneath the building. Thank God it wasn’t.”
“We’ve got to do something. We cannot do nothing,” Gottschalk added.
Eduardo Blanc, the senior vice president for TMP Architecture which would be involved in building design, agreed with this sentiment noting that budget constraints by the state are something every district must deal with. He also said conditions in the current buildings will only get worse as time goes on.
“It doesn’t matter if it is today, March, May or 10 years from now,” Blanc said. “The buildings are going to continue to deteriorate.” He added that at some point building and fire codes would no longer support the current buildings.
Gottschalk then asked board members for their opinion on the matter. Secretary Ryan Ledlow wanted to hear more from the community and think about it some more. But he also noted that timing was important. “We’ve got to move forward,” Ledlow said.
Trustee Rachel Phelps agreed she felt community feedback is important. But she also said it made sense to go after the issue immediately. “March makes sense just because we do have the momentum,” Phelps said.
Around this time, Superintendent Rusty Stitt took a moment to inform the board that if they chose to go for March again, a decision had to be made at this meeting because the necessary paperwork would be due in Lansing the next day.
There were some discussions about not enough people being aware of an election in March. Trustee Wade Rutkoskie said that would be a non-factor because this time they’d make sure there were more volunteers spreading the word on it.
The idea of putting the issue on the ballot next August or November was discussed. But Gottschalk worried the issue would be lost in the shuffle with other proposals and the Presidential election. She also said they wouldn’t do an August vote because of low turnouts due to many residents being on vacation at that time of year.
Trustee Kathy Mastenbrook, who also serves on the village council, told the rest of the board the sewer project is moving at a snail’s pace and she doesn’t expect it would interfere with a March election as some citizens suggested in the forum. “We’re not going to have any more information by March,” Mastenbrook said.
She added that even if the issue were to pass in March, the district will still have to put money into current facilities to get them through the three years of new construction. “To think that we will not have to spend any money, I just want to be fully transparent here because I don’t think that’s real,” Mastenbrook said. “I think there’s a very good possibility we’re going to still have to spend money.”
There was some discussion on whether it was too soon to go for a bond issue again and the message it might send. Rutkoskie noted that Mattawan’s third attempt at a bond was successful. The board there chose to re-run the same bond issue after it failed the second time. He said they learned from those trustees that community support made the difference. “Literally the difference is feet on the street,” Rutkoskie said.
“I’m fully in favor of moving forward,” Rutkoskie said. He added he felt strongly about this after speaking more with the community. He also said he was not in favor of splitting off athletic updates as some had suggested in the community forum. “I heard from far more people that feel we’re not doing enough in athletics than I have heard from people who don’t think we’re doing enough,” Rutkoskie said.
The vote to place the issue on the March ballot was unanimous.