Category Archives: Schools

Vicksburg School Board Sets Bond Issue Request

vix new teachersBy Sue Moore

The Vicksburg school district will ask residents to approve a 3.3-mill tax in the May 5 election to finance building improvements estimated at $40-42 million.
If approved, the proposal would cost taxpayers $3.30 per $1,000 taxable valuation for six years.

It will be called an increase on the ballot because an earlier 3.53-mill levy for a bond issue will end this year, before the new levy would begin.

But Asst. Superintendent Steve Goss pointed out that taxpayers will see a slight drop in the tax rate if voters approve the new levy – the difference between the expiring 3.53 mills and the new 3.3-mill levy.

“We want to ensure that every kid gets the most educational benefit they can while in the Vicksburg school system,” said Superintendent Keevin O’Neill. “It should be the best we have to offer and that depends on how we maintain our buildings, keeping them 100 percent up to date with a safe and comfortable learning environment.”

“If we let the facilities deteriorate over time, then the cost to update and repair escalates,” Goss told the school board at its December meeting.

The proposed bond issue was planned in 2014 when a technology bond issue was passed, knowing that the facilities would need a hard look in 2020.

This new issue would be in the neighborhood of $40-42 million, Goss said. The earlier bond issue will be paid off in May.

“We are at 6.85 mills now. If the next request is authorized the total school millage would be a reduction to 6.6 mills. Technically it is an increase because of the way the wording on the ballot needs to be phrased. Our hope is to slightly reduce the millage rate with each future request,” Goss said.

Goss said the plan is to borrow the funds through a state bond loan fund for the first time. That uses the state’s better credit rating and reduces interest payments on a six-year issue. New legislation now allows the construction to be done without paying prevailing wage rates, also reducing the cost of repairs, Goss explained.

“The earlier facilities studies conducted by Tower Pinkster and Frederick Construction looked at what we currently have in place and then what we want the buildings to look like five to 20 years out. We can plan for that and every six years retire the bonds and ask for replacement money to keep up our buildings so students can learn in a good environment.”

Should the millage fail, the rate would fall back to 3.3 mills. And if it passes, the use of the proceeds is limited. “We can’t use bond proceeds to buy school buses or other items as there are very tight restrictions on how this money can be spent. We are very careful about this. If we let the facilities go and don’t have bond proceeds to fix them, then the money will have to be paid out of the general fund, especially for technology upgrades,” Goss said.

“We compare costs to build new or renovate, which we believe is much more cost effective. We have identified priorities with an index of what we want to improve, nice to have but not urgent,” Goss said in a later interview. “We are never done with repairs so we will need to ask for support about every six years with this kind of plan in mind. We keep our projections pretty conservative and plan for flexibility so we can change as we go forward. We want to keep our vibrant schools in vibrant Vicksburg.”

WMU Innovation Expo Winners Named from Vicksburg

first place
Left to right: Kyler Dean, Bryce Chapman and Tyler DeVries.

By Sue Moore

Western Michigan University hosted 54 Vicksburg High students from Greg Mills’ mechatronic classes at an Innovation Expo. Three of the projects proposed by these students won first, second and third place at the event.

Mills teaches 98 mechatronics students in a classroom setting throughout the school year. The knowledge they gain helps students learn to design, build, program and troubleshoot electro-mechanical systems. The goal is to prepare students to be able to step into the workforce out of high school or send them on to a two-year college degree offering. Some of mechatronics jobs in the business world include engineering or technician positions in control system, data logging, instrumentation and software.

WMU also invited students from Sturgis, Schoolcraft and Gull Lake to the Innovation Expo, with Donya Dobbin’s team from Schoolcraft taking the popularity pick from the judges.

The students had to create a product or service that is unique and innovative, with a real need in the marketplace. They had to provide an operational prototype model to demonstrate its utility.

The students could use a current product or service but they were required to create new modifications to that product or service, Mills explained. “It’s a bit like Shark Tank, when the judges have play money to spend as they come through the exhibits. The students have to sell their idea to people passing by. This involves soft skills where they need to interact with people who will give them the play money for the quality of their innovation. The exhibits with the most money at the end of the day are declared the winners.”

The exhibit required a tri-fold table-top display board describing the problem, solution and how to get to that solution. A complete description of the product or service also had to be explained. Then the students had to present their innovation to the judges.

Taking first place from Vicksburg were Kyler Dean, Bryce Chapman and Tyler DeVries. They invented the Athletic Cleat Cover which is designed to be used with all types of cleats and spikes. The purpose is to protect the sharpness of the cleats and spikes, all the while preserving the shoe’s aesthetics. The team was collaborating about sports and came up with the idea for the product. They modeled it in CAD so the cover would slide over the top of cleats to give better traction and prevent damage to flooring.

Another team from Vicksburg, Linkoln Kowalski, Brayden Martin, Jacob Weeks, Landyn Buiskool and Adrian Knauer, took second place for their idea to make a heated wheelchair pad. Third place went to Keagan Ellsworth, Kaeden Shubnell and Skylar Johns. Their invention was a platter and glove attached to it underneath to keep from tipping.

Electronics and mechanical components work together to make up complex systems from a car to a robot to automation lines. Students in Mills’ classes learn about electronics, robotics, equipment controls and sensors, programming, hydraulics/pneumatics, CAD/CAM, basic machining and CNC.

Schoolcraft Renews Superintendent’s Contract

By Travis Smola

The Schoolcraft Board of Education gave Superintendent Rusty Stitt his annual evaluation in a closed session at the December meeting. Board President Jennifer Gottschalk said the board gave him a highly effective rating. She also said Stitt’s contract rolled over for another year and that he had already signed it.

Also in this short meeting the board voted to send ballot language for the March 10 bond issue to the county clerk’s office.

The board decided last month to ask voters to approve the bond issue as it was first proposed after it failed by a slim margin during the November election.

Technology at the State Capitol

State Senator Sean McCann (D-Kalamazoo), Oliver Hammond, Breena Mejeur, Paityn Koeman (in back), Ryan Gruber.

By Sue Moore

Fifth grade students from Sunset Lake Elementary School were among the few in the state selected to bring cutting edge and innovative technology demonstrations from their classroom to show lawmakers in Lansing.

They did this as part of the 19th annual Student Technology Showcase in the state Capitol in December. Students from 35 classrooms across the state showcased the brightest and best technology projects that they are using, according to Mark Smith, executive director of the Michigan Association for Computer Users in Learning (MACUL) which organized the showcase. Underwritten by AT&T, it featured demonstrations from students representing more than 35 different schools around the state.

Fifth grade teacher Dawn Phelps is the tech integration leader at Sunset Lake school. This is the second appearance her students have made to exhibit their classroom technology. She applied to the technology Showcase so her students’ project could be considered.

Using Flipgrid software, the students created a video tape using a camera on a Chromebook computer that other students in the class could view and give feedback, Phelps said. This allows a shy student to sit at a desk and take notes on other people’s speeches.

“They learn how to use technology and the internet safely without leaving a digital footprint that the public might see on social media forever. It’s set up a bit like snapchat. They love the technology as their work does not get on any public sites. It stays private so only the ones who see it are those who set it up. They showed state Senator Sean McCann how it all worked, even on their cell phones. He was fabulous with the kids and engaged them in great conversation,” Phelps said.

Only four of her students could attend the Showcase along with Terri Negri, the lead technology person at Sunset school. Although the whole class uses this technology, Phelps had to choose those who wanted to learn more about Flipgrid and be willing to present it to others.

“It allows my students to use their speaking and listening skills in a real-world setting. It was no cost to the kids. They got to tour the Capitol and take turns walking around to see other students’ projects,” Phelps said. “I also think that having a small group work together to plan, create and present technology outside of the classroom enhances their understanding of the technology we are using. Once this ‘expert’ group gets it down, they are incredible at helping other students, even in other grades, learn more about specific technology tools too.”

Students from all over the state displayed a wide variety of technology projects that blended science, mathematics, social studies and language arts with the latest digital tools. Their work featured app development, artificial intelligence demonstrations, coding, robotics, web design, and many other technology demonstrations.

MACUL is an organization dedicated to bringing educators from all levels together to share their knowledge and concerns regarding educational uses of computers and technology.

Schoolcraft Robotics Teacher Ready for a New Contest

Team robotics schoolcraft
Donya Dobbin, second from left in the front row, works with her robotics team from last year.

By Sue Moore

Schoolcraft’s high school robotics team is coached by Donya Dobbin, the school’s 9th grade physics teacher who also teaches algebra and courses in the Middle School. The robotics club finished 10th out of 35 in a fall event at Constantine. It also won a control award, had a great time and learned a lot, she said. The initial robot is built with Lego-like objects and the students program it, then perform with it in competition.

Dobbin is gearing up for the high school robotics competition which begins on January 10 with a kickoff “reveal” to be viewed by all robotics club members across the US. It is a totally different design from 2019, with six weeks to build it out before the round of competitions begin.

“The energy is huge at these events although it makes for long days,” Dobbin said. “We build in Greg Sampley’s barn, where he helps with the fabrication. Some students just want to do that part. Others do an animation video while other kids do the programming. I can’t program at all, so a volunteer from Western Michigan University has been helping with that.”

Dobbin loves physics and has her degree from WMU in science education, a master’s degree in physics and a doctorate in math. She began her teaching career in Lakeview schools and was recruited by Superintendent Rusty Stitt to teach in Schoolcraft for the last six years while a resident of Scotts. Her favorite sport is playing pool and she admits she is pretty good at it, because it involves physics. She even joined a league to keep her game going strong.

One of her middle school students wrote, “Robotics is so much fun. It’s nice to have a club at school that involves coding and building.” Dobbin is grateful for all of the support volunteers have provided these children, “especially for people who want to do that stuff for their career.”

John Chapin is one of those who helped to put the $10,000 budget over the top and save the program, she said. He works at Bosch, which donated $5,000 because of his outreach. Denso also donated $1,000 to the middle school robotics program, which had a budget of $2,000 last year.

Samsung National STEM Award for Schoolcraft Students

Schoolcraft girls EEE concoction
Schoolcraft STEM students with their mosquito remedy from left to right: Alayna Meade, Heidi Sheen, Jaden Jager.

By Sue Moore

Alayna Meade, Heidi Sheen and Jaden Jager, all Schoolcraft ninth graders in Donya Dobbin’s freshmen engineering class, are among 300 finalists in Samsung’s “Solve for Tomorrow” contest. Their project was chosen as part of an effort by Samsung to encourage students across the nation to solve real-world issues in their community using classroom skills in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

The classroom was divided into teams and asked to choose one everyday community problem, Dobbin said. This team choose mosquito-borne eastern equine encephalitis, triple E, which was a huge concern for residents of Schoolcraft in the fall of 2019. They came up with an innovative idea to make an insect repellent out of deodorant, lotion, perfume and a little mosquito repellent as their concoction to ward off the mosquito bites that cause EEE. They would then spray it on their bodies to prevent mosquitos from coming near.

The students submitted a paper to the Samsung judges and it was selected as a finalist. As their teacher, Dobbins had to write a lesson plan outlining how students will tackle the local issue using STEM skills to ultimately improve the greater community.

Four other schools’ students beside Schoolcraft were also selected as state finalists: Comstock STEM Academy, Troy High School, Holt Senior High School and Washtenaw International Middle Academy, Ypsilanti.

Schoolcraft Expresses Concerns about School Facilities

facilities3By Travis Smola

Schoolcraft school district residents had an opportunity to address their Board of Education at its regular November meeting in the aftermath of defeat of a $39.9 million bond proposal. Following the forum, board members placed the proposal before voters in a March 10 election.

At the forum, Board President Jennifer Gottschalk said the school trustees wanted to hear the community’s input on what to do next before they made a decision. “I know we had a rough couple of days after the vote. We’re going to move forward and we’re going to figure out a new plan and we’re going to get this thing done,” Gottschalk said before turning the floor over to the approximately 70 residents in attendance.

Dr. Lloyd Peterson, first to speak, said he liked the plan but voted against the bond because he felt the price tag was too high. “Overall, I would say it was a big bite to begin with,” Peterson said.

He felt a better plan that would have gone over better with the community would have been a $10.5 million, one-mill proposal to move seventh and eighth grade to the high school and fix things like the tennis courts and football stadium. “That would have been a smaller bite and would have alleviated the over-crowding that you say we have.”

He also questioned what the board was referring to when it used the term “modern learning” in its promotional materials. “It sounds like you’re trying to baffle us with BS instead of telling us the truth.”

Several speakers agreed with some of Peterson’s thoughts, especially on the costs. Another speaker suggested taking photos of all the deficiencies to share with the community and show the problem areas.

Kyle Corlett, superintendent of Delton Kellogg Schools and a Schoolcraft resident, spoke first-hand about the challenges of passing a bond. His school passed a $23 million bond last year, so he said he was aware of the work done by the district and board of education in trying to pass the Schoolcraft bond. His family purchased a home in Schoolcraft before he got the job. He said they moved to Schoolcraft specifically for the schools.

“I thought you went about it all the right way and that’s why it’s so disappointing that it didn’t pass,” Corlett said.

Corlett has a kindergarten and second grade student in the district. “I think their teachers do an amazing job considering the facilities that they have,” Corlett said. “They make their rooms look amazing in a crumbling old building.” He thanked the board for its efforts and said he hoped it would try to pass it again.

Adam Haley voted against the proposal because he didn’t like how it shifted the grades around. “I don’t like 11 and 12-year-olds in with 17- to 18-year old high school kids, Haley said. “I know a lot of people say that’s not a big deal, but I look at my 12-year-old daughter, who I absolutely love to death. She’s an incredibly bright young lady. But she wants to be an older kid.”

He said he felt the current setup was already making some of the fifth graders grow up faster than when they were in the older building. “They see those 13-year-olds and they all want to be like them,” Haley said.

Haley said another reason he voted no was because he still has questions on the proposed schedules around lunch periods. He worried that some students will still end up having lunch too early in the morning and it will affect their studies later in the day. “Kids can’t learn when they’re hungry.”

Haley was one of several residents that also spoke on the issue of athletics being included in the bond. These residents didn’t seem to like the idea of so much emphasis of the failed bond being on new athletic facilities and updates over education. A few speakers suggested splitting it off as a separate ballot issue.

The objections to sports were met with emotional responses from some residents. John Pincumbe noted that the current facilities were paid for by the community through various fund raisers. He suggested that could be an option again. “Go out and get the thing built yourselves like we did in the first place,” Pincumbe said. “Do something as a community.”

Physical education teacher and varsity football head coach Nathan Ferency also spoke up in defense of athletics. “It’s obvious to me working in the high school that school of choice students come here for athletics,” Ferency said.

He said many people may not realize the challenges the athletics programs are facing because the school’s many programs are so successful. “We have failing athletic fields and stadiums,” Ferency said. “We missed probably half our home season on the baseball and softball fields because they were constantly flooded.

“Our weight room is a tin can. We work out in a closet basically. It’s very small and it’s hard to accommodate our kids,” he added. “Our athletic programs deserve better. Our PE programs deserve better.”

Former board of education trustee Skip Fox also defended the place of athletics in Schoolcraft. “Our football team has had the honor of not only winning championships, but also being honored for having the highest grade-point average by the High School Coaches Association which honors football teams with the highest GPA. In 2018, the Eagle football team was awarded First Team All-State for Academic Excellence with a team GPA of 3.91,” he said. “When I was on the board, we looked at athletics as being an extension of the classroom. And I believe that is still the thought of all our teachers.”

He also gave a little history on the construction of the high school, noting the infrastructure was designed for more students and future additions. “It was also built in mind that we could add to the wings and add classrooms which would be the cheapest thing to build,” Fox said.

Several residents spoke about the controversial sewer issue playing a role in the failure of the bond issue. Julie Reisner thanked the board for its efforts, but felt the timing was bad on the vote. “I will say that I don’t think this bond failed because of the work that you did,” Reisner said. “I think there’s more going on in the community and that’s why I believe that it failed.”

She also cited a lack of affordable housing, noting that Schoolcraft homes cost more than Plainwell, Portage and Vicksburg. She said because of the high costs of homes, there are more school of choice children. And the parents of those children can’t vote or pay into the school system.

“I think it’s a community issue,” Reisner said. “And until you get the community making changes, it’s going to be really tough to sway that.”

Other concerns raised at the meeting revolved on what was being done with the old buildings. At least one attendee said he voted no because of confusion dealing with keeping part of the middle school while still building new facilities. Gottschalk clarified that late in the bond process, they decided part of the middle school might be worth keeping for athletics and after-school activity use only.

Some residents suggested they should go to other communities like Mattawan to see what they did to finally pass a bond issue.

At the close of the meeting, Gottschalk asked if there were people willing to volunteer for another bond campaign. There ended up being a lot of raised hands and the board passed around sign-up sheets where people added their contact info.

She also encouraged people to keep reaching out through phone or email on the issue with their thoughts. “I want to hear from you.”