Schoolcraft creatively honors graduates

The SHS graduation ceremony followed recommended guidelines.

By Kathy Oswalt-Forsythe

Community members and school leaders paid tribute to Schoolcraft High School’s 82 graduates in many ways throughout this unusual academic year, culminating in a socially distanced-ceremony and a coordinated “Shine the Light” parade.

In June, an anonymous donor contributed a huge boulder, a symbol of the class of 2020 graduates’ strength and solid reputation, now permanently placed at the stadium flagpole. Principal Matthew Dailey directed an event, painting hands and celebrating the 82 seniors who left their handprints on the rock.

The community continued to celebrate these students: In addition to yard signs to decorate seniors’ yards, poster-sized pictures of the SHS graduates line the athletic field fence. The highly visible gesture is another community member’s gift to recognize these students and the unusual circumstances of their senior year.

On July 24 and 25, Dailey visited many graduates’ homes to deliver diplomas and to greet students and families. Dailey appreciated the ability to personalize the moments for his students, saying each stop “was an especially valuable and meaningful experience for me, and one I will most certainly remember as a highlight during the difficulty of a pandemic.”

Following the appropriate guidelines, on Friday, July 24, the district held a graduation ceremony on the athletic field for the 147th graduating class of SHS. Recognizing students, family, and staff, Dailey addressed the students: “The unrelenting support of the Schoolcraft community has been on honoring your achievements, thanking you for your contributions to our school community, and sharing our excitement for all of the future possibilities ahead for you.”

Finally, at 9 p.m., students loaded school buses for an event called “Shine the Light.” Following a planned route throughout the village and outlying neighborhoods, area residents greeted the graduates by flashing lights and sounding horns, helping to close a meaningful and memorable day.

Vicksburg schools: More questions than answers

By Jef Rietsma

Editor’s Note: The Vicksburg school district by press time had published several options for reopening which depend on the trend of COVID-19 infections. They include all-virtual education and, if the trend of infections levels off and declines, giving parents and students a choice of virtual or in-person education. A draft chart of the options can be viewed at 

With more questions than answers, Vicksburg Community Schools Superintendent Keevin O’Neill in a mid-July board meeting said a clearer picture regarding back-to-school details should be available by the end of July.

During the July 13 meeting, O’Neill spent more than 10 minutes recapping the state of VCS. Additional information was provided during more than 20 minutes of audience questions and board responses following O’Neill’s update.

He restated the highest priority: the health and safety of the district’s students and staff.

“We’re not interested in opening up schools unless we know people will be safe,” he said. “No way would we ever want to put anyone in a situation where they didn’t feel safe or healthy.”

O’Neill made a number of references to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s 63-page MI Safe Schools Roadmap and the mandate that districts develop return-to-school plans. The district-created plans must take into account whether the state is in Phases 1 through 3, Phase 4 or Phase 5. A plan for each of those three levels is required.

He said the course of action the district took from April through the end of the academic year, where curriculum was administered online only, was an example of Phase 3.

“One of the big things that’s happening on the county level is what’s known as the Kalamazoo Virtual and Innovative Collaborative, and that is an online option for families that will choose their children to do their work 100 percent online and not come to school,” O’Neill said. “When we look at Phase 4, which we’re currently in, it allows for face-to-face instruction. That’s what we want to do and we want to make our plan robust as far as health and safety are concerned.”

He said Whitmer’s Roadmap includes options from required and strongly recommend, to recommended and considerations. He said the district will have to digest all options and figure out which will be applied under what circumstances.

Still, O’Neill sided with research that shows face-to-face instruction is most effective and anything less is just not as optimal. He remained optimistic that face-to-face instruction will be allowed.

O’Neill, beginning his third year as Vicksburg superintendent, said personal and collective responsibilities will be major components to the district’s back-to-school plan. Engaging all stakeholders, he noted, is paramount. Being flexible will be critical, too.

“We have to be nimble; we have to be able to pivot back and forth from plans,” he said, adding that a critical issue to come out of Whitmer’s Roadmap centers on masks. “I’m not going to lie, I’ve talked to parents who said ‘There’s no way I’m going to send my kid back to school if he has to wear a mask.’ We know that. We understand that. Everybody feels differently about this.”

O’Neill said at Phase 4, the state will require students and teachers in sixth through 12th grades to wear face covering, while elementary students will have to wear a mask in common areas. At Phase 5, masks are optional.

By the end of July, O’Neill expects the district will have on its website a draft of information related to each of the three phases, 1 through 3, Phase 4 and Phase 5. The district is soliciting feedback from all stakeholders in order to compile a final draft due to the state on or before Aug. 15.

“There’s lots and lots of little things that we’re going to look at every possible scenario, what ifs, possibly adding more lunches to every schedule to ensure that our cafeterias are safe, one-way lanes in hallways and walking in single file,” O’Neill said. “And we haven’t even got into athletics and extra-curriculars yet. Learning is number one right now and that’s what we’re going to focus on.”

In response to audience questions, O’Neill provided answers and clarification, noting that the district would provide only online learning if the region is in Phase 3. The Kalamazoo Virtual and Innovative Collaborative will be available only in Phases 4 or 5.

He also said cleaning protocols will be “robust” and could happen hourly, in some cases with student assistance.

“The protocols we’re going to have to look at in elementary rooms, we’re going to have to get rid of the reading carpet, we’ve got to get rid of all the fluff, we can’t have things shared,” he said. “We need to open up every classroom at every level so that we can space the best we can and then once we get all those protocols in place, then we may have to move some kids … there’s so many dominoes that are going to fall in place to make sure safety is number one and those are some of the things we’re going to have to do.”

In other action:

• O’Neill said the district is in a holding pattern as far as hiring or layoffs are concerned. The district is awaiting more information from the state regarding 2020-21 school-year funding.

• He noted that through online registration, the district has 263 students enrolled in kindergarten and pre-kindergarten for 2020-21.

• The board approved the services of Thrun Law Firm and auditor Plante Moran for 2020-21.

• Board members authorized bids for the following construction-related projects: flooring removal and abatement, $8,682; acoustical ceilings, $29,862; resilient floor coverings, $84,450; interior painting, $5,310; interior lighting, $18,022; tennis court resurfacing and repairs, $112,995; and stadium fencing and concrete repairs, $39,295.

• Bids for dairy and bakery were awarded to Country Fresh, $46,590, and Aunt Millie’s, $6,470.

• A request by Ravenna Kahler, Sunset Lake Elementary and Vicksburg High School band teacher, for 12 weeks leave starting Aug. 31 was granted.

VHS graduation ceremony held — at last

Jennifer Brown was the first of Vicksburg High’s class of 2020 to receive her diploma at the district’s graduation ceremony July 23. School board President Skip Knowles presented diplomas to graduates.

By Jef Rietsma

Vicksburg High School’s class of 2020 is now officially part of the district’s history. Finally.

The district-organized graduation ceremony July 23 was anything but traditional. Still, all that really mattered in the end was that a graduation ceremony for the school’s 170 seniors happened.

“I’m very happy for these kids today, but, gosh, I hope it’s the last time we have to hold a graduation this way,” school board President Skip Knowles said. “I do need to say, though, everybody worked hard and we were firmly committed to being able to pull a graduation off. And we did.”

Knowles said it took an extensive amount of coordination and planning in order to stay in compliance with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive orders regarding crowd sizes.

He noted the ceremony – staggered in small groups over the course of more than three hours – actually over-complied, as graduates and their family members gathered 10 yards apart then proceeded forward to the southwest end of the football field for a photo and for the graduate to receive a diploma.

Knowles conceded the 30-foot distance was easy to measure because graduates and their family members stood at every 10-yard interval, clearly marked on the turf.

He said one upside to the unprecedented ceremony was graduates being able to be pictured with family members prior to receiving their diploma. Knowles said family typically is in the stands while the procession takes place on the field.

“We did a virtual graduation too, so they actually have something they can look at for the rest of their life, as long as there’s the internet,” he said. “They can look at all the speeches and all the graduates and everything else. So, if you want to look at that as a positive. Classes before them didn’t have that.”

He said the class of 2020 will go down in history as a unique group that experienced unprecedented circumstances. He is optimistic the obstacles and setbacks will make the young women and men of 2020 stronger and show greater perseverance as they blossom into adults.

Knowles said he is proud how district administrators and staff worked together to make the event special for the graduates. He thanked all the volunteers and said he looks forward to a more traditional ceremony next year.

“Hopefully,” he said. “I’m crossing my fingers.”

Coronavirus Impacts Schoolcraft Schools

By Travis Smola

The effects of coronavirus are hitting districts across the state. At the Schoolcraft Board of Education’s June meeting, Finance Director Kyle Nixon told trustees how decreased revenue from the state will affect the district’s 2019-2020 general fund.

The meeting was once again held virtually due to the pandemic. Nixon said that with the state short on revenue, a cut in funding of $650-$700 per student is expected and will carry over until next year.

“We were expecting to be in the black by $300,000 and now we are expecting to be in the red in a deficit this year of $344,000,” Nixon said.

This would bring the district down to a $1.6 million fund balance, which is 14.2 percent of its final expected expenditures this year of $11.3 million.

Nixon did note that nothing has been finalized yet since the state has not balanced its budget. But he is not expecting any further cuts.

Nixon said administrators are looking at ways to operate “leaner than normal.” They are expecting to operate next year at a $70,000 deficit. That would put them at $1.53 million fund balance next year or 13.9 percent of expected expenditures.

The board also approved a roofing project for the maintenance building. Superintendent Rusty Stitt said the project just affected the flat roof portion which described as being in “dire need’ of being fixed. Stitt and the finance committee recommended South Bend-based Sherriff-Goslin roofing to do the job for $31,850. Trustee Jill Hunt asked about the possibility of adding a five-year warranty for an extra $535. Stitt and Vice President Jason Walther agreed it was worth the extra money and the measure was approved.

Hunt also gave a quick update on the status of the early stages of the bond project. She said early progress on the seventh and eighth grade classroom addition to the high school is already being done.

“We have completed a conceptual design,” Hunt said. “We had five or six options and we narrowed it to one.”

The facility planning committee has been gathering feedback from the community. Hunt said the top three concerns right now are a separation of seventh and eighth grade from the high schoolers, security and getting students into larger classrooms. She said the next step from June until the end of November will be the engineers and architects completing blueprints. These will be turned over to Triangle Construction in December with hopes of starting construction in March of 2021, dependent on the weather.

Hunt said they are still exploring options for the best location of the new gym for the seventh and eighth grades.

“We’re still being really conservative when we think about it,” Hunt said. “That’s why we’ve pushed that gym addition off until later and we’re focusing on educational spaces first. We already know physical education is covered by the high school gym at a minimum, so we’re going to focus on what is critically important to the school system and then we’ll proceed with caution on the pricing aspects.”

Board President Jennifer Gottschalk closed out the meeting with a reminder that four seats will be open on the board this year. Gottschalk said two six-year seats and one four-year seat will be open. Gottschalk said the deadline to register is July 21.

Vicksburg Schools Work with Funding, Bond Issue

By Jef Rietsma

It was a surprise to no one at a Vicksburg school board meeting that the district is looking at a grim financial picture for the 2020-21 academic year.

Assistant Superintendent Steve Goss provided an update on the district’s financial picture during the board’s June 8 meeting. It includes the possibility that the district may receive $700 less per pupil from the state.

There was a ray of sunshine a week later as the district received a lower-than-estimated interest rate on a bond issue to finance improvements which will save more than $4 million in principal and interest payments over the 20-year bond issue.

Per-pupil funding from the state comes from a six-mill statewide school property tax and earmarked portions of income, sales and use taxes and other revenues. Tax revenues have been reduced by an estimated $1.2 billion for the 2019-2020 school year and $1.1 billion for the 2020-2021 year. Michigan schools have been advised to plan for a cut in per-pupil funding by between $650 and $700. “We all hope that there is a federal package to backfill those revenues. But at this point, that doesn’t exist.”

Goss said he has made the determination that a budget amendment to the 2019-20 school year and a preliminary budget for 2020-2021 will have to reflect a reduced per-pupil amount of
$700. That amounts to a loss of nearly $1.9 million this school year and carryover to 2020-21. Current per-pupil allocation from the state is $8,111.

“So, when we get more guidance and we figure out what the school year looks like, then there will be adjustments to reflect whatever that reality looks like.”

Goss said the district is assuming enrollment will be flat in 2020-21. Another thorn to the budget is an additional $340,000 in contractual obligations – primarily salary increases and a bump in insurance expenses – set for 2020-21.

Goss said he anticipates about $495,000 in savings through attrition.

“We know we’re going to have to look at all the employee groups and find some way to recoup some savings, and we’ve estimated about $140,000 from other employee groups as well,” he said.

Furthermore, there is about $386,000 in capital outlay in the current budget that will all be deferred, Goss said, adding that the district is hoping to realize about $125,000 in savings through supplies and contracted services as well.

Goss said the 2019-20 fiscal year budget, which concludes June 30, had been projected to have a positive balance of about $45,000.

“When we shut down in mid-March, we quickly tried to capture all the savings we could. We basically went into shut-down mode and that saved some money.” In all, not having school for three months saved the district about $75,000, he estimated.

Finally, he said by potentially reducing the number of full-time-equivalent positions, the district stands to save an additional $400,000.

“If we reduce all of those, we could reduce the projected shortfall to about $225,000,” he said.

“But a lot of it is really going to depend on what guidance we receive on how we have to operate in the fall, what happens if there’s additional funding identified by the state, what is the actual pro-ration that we’re looking at … there’s just too many things up in the air right now to actually implement a lot of these cuts.”

Board members approved amendments to the 2019-20 fiscal year budget and adopted an appropriations resolution for its 2020-21 budget.

Goss reported two bids for partial roofing replacement and the middle school and Tobey Elementary. The total cost of about $280,000 came in less than budgeted, Goss noted.

Nine proposals for two roofing-bid packages were received. Arrow Roofing and Supply of Grand Rapids was the low bidder and approved to do the job at Tobey for $105,570. Quality Roofing Inc. of Livingston County was awarded the middle school contract for its bid of nearly $175,000.

In addition, the board acknowledged the retirements of food service employees Cara Brink (21 years of service) and Leslie Tuttle (13 years), secretary Michelle Fulton (19 years), educator Tammy Lovins (28 years), and teachers Ginny Ruimveld (31 years) and Donna Sink (34 years).

At a later meeting, there was some better financial news as bids for bonds to finance capital improvements came in at an interest rate of just under two percent.

The bond issue was expected to raise $17,215,659 for the construction fund. It raised about $174,000 more than that. Total principal and interest costs over 20 years were expected to be $24.8 million. At the low interest rate, the actual total debt service is $20.65 million, more than $4 million less than original estimates.

VHS Teacher, Students Use 3-D Printer for Face Masks

The COVID-19 pandemic created a new lifestyle for all of us, face masks included. Greg Mills, teacher of computerized manufacturing and mechatronics at Vicksburg High School, created a face mask using a 3-D printer.

He made 25 prototype masks using a printer with PLA filament and non-woven materials.

The response from wearers was that after a while, the strapping material holding the mask to the face, whether rubber bands, shoe laces or ribbon, would irritate the back of the ears. Mills designed a back neck strap that could accommodate different types of strapping material. He shared this idea and the design files with the United States Department of Health and Human Services and was asked to produce several straps for healthcare workers in the Kalamazoo area.

His equipment can produce about three straps per hour. He’s distributed more than 150 of the straps in different colors. He’s also produced more than 25 Bulldog plastic face masks.

Graduating seniors in his classes received a mask for their use. Seniors were asked to make the neck strap using design software and to personalize their strap.

Students taking his course next year will also be able to have one of these masks and a neck strap for their use.

“Keeping students and staff healthy and safe is the priority with our schools,” Mills said. He expects to be working with students during the summer with similar projects and to be ready for students and staff in the fall.

Vicksburg Staff Delivers School Breakfast and Lunches

By Sue Moore

Planning to feed 1,250 elementary and secondary Vicksburg students each day is all in a day’s work for the school district’s dietitian. What Sarah Dyer didn’t expect to be doing is feeding students with sack breakfast and lunches delivered via bus or picked up at the high school every Wednesday.

She plans for about 17,000 meals per week. The food is laid out and whipped together by her 14-member staff, all considered essential workers for the school district. Others pitch in to help, including the transportation department, administrators and their staff on pickup days. “It’s a team effort,” Dyer explained.

“My staff has always been there with a smile on their faces each week as they put the community’s families first while doing their job. They are lifting cooler bags that are 50-75 pounds all day long while putting together the 14 meals each week for one student. They are moving 100 gallons of milk, and that’s heavy too. It’s heavier work than they are usually doing,” Dyer said. Her staff is paid their regular salary and works 35 hours in the school and at home. When not bagging all the food, they are thoroughly deep cleaning and sanitizing the kitchen.

The team is joined by another 30 people who are going with her staff members on the bus routes. It takes three on each bus, a staff person, a helper and the driver. Each bus is delivering to about 40 to 50 students. There are lots of meals to load on a bus. They have learned a lot and come a long way since their first delivery in March. The drivers report at 3 p.m., load the buses, then get on the road by 3:45. They are back by 5:15 or a bit later, almost like a regular bus run when school is in session.

The menu changes each week. For the week of Wednesday, May 27, breakfast for seven days included cereal and bagels, Rice Krispies bars, nutri-grain bar, sausage biscuit, breakfast pizza. Lunch included mac and cheese, peanut butter sandwich, ham and cheese sandwich, quesadillas, chicken patty sandwich, grilled cheese sandwiches that are already made. Almost all of the food is frozen. They bag it up frozen and put it back in the cooler and freezer. They bought large cooler bags to help the food to stay very cold while waiting to be distributed. She estimates that lunch is about 500 calories and breakfast around 250 to 300 calories.

The challenge is creating a menu and trying to get the items Dyer requests, only to find out that something is out of stock. The school has a contract with Gordon’s Food Service as part of a consortium. She puts in an order on Thursday, then works through the menu again on Friday until she finds everything that’s in stock. It is hard to get the individually wrapped items so she had to move to bagging items like chicken nuggets, which requires extra labor.

“We have doubled from the initial 500-600 meals served each week. It’s so great to see the kids in the cars with windows down and shouting to their principals. They smile when they see a familiar face. They don’t have a clue who I am and I’m perfectly ok with that, as they are getting the nutrition they need,” Dyer said.

Going the Extra Mile

By Sue Moore

Tobey elementary school principal, Mike Barwegen started the “Stay home, stay safe” food delivery like all the other school volunteers back in March. He would ride the bus just to see the kids from his school and help deliver food packages.

At the Portage Terrace Mobile Home Park, he realized the bus couldn’t go back into the area; there was no room to turn around. The families had to come to the bus stop on Portage Road. Only three families showed up. They were Tobey school kids and he knows them.

It takes a lot of responsibility for kids to show up at the exact time the bus would be stopping, he observed.

To solve the problem, he recruited Sawyer Duncan, his physical education teacher, to go with him to take all the food packages in the school van, drive into the park and deliver door to door. Lots of pre-elementary kids live there and can benefit from the program, the three and four years olds who really need additional nutrition. The delivery takes about three hours on Wednesdays for up to 46 families to receive lunches and breakfasts. Add to that the many gallons of milk, with four gallons delivered to one house for six kids and two big boxes of food.

The families are grateful. Some are dependent on the deliveries right now. They do have internet connections and have Chromebooks, with some having discounted rates on internet connections. If that wasn’t available, they gave out wi-fi hot spots to some families as they delivered food along with copies of work for the kids.

Barwegen like to talk to the families. “Some of the young kids follow the van on their bikes. Kids see it and know it’s them. They are usually asking for chocolate milk as that’s a big hit every time. It’s a treat for them. There are up to over 40 kids on the list now. It’s not just an extra thing, they are very dependent on the food. It’s saving these kids’ lives now,” he said.

“Sawyer who is in his twenties, does all the heavy lifting and I do all the talking,” Barwagen reported.

Schoolcraft Students Get a Pizza Treat

A few of the 100 hot pizzas from Little Caesars to Schoolcraft families served by the schools’ food service staff.

By Sue Moore

Schoolcraft serves about 160 to 170 families per week in its pickup and delivery food program, according to Brenda Lynn, head of food services.

A special treat for the Schoolcraft families the last Wednesday in May was 100 hot pizzas donated by Little Caesars in Schoolcraft. It’s all about the company’s “Pay it Forward” effort, Lynn said. “During the school year we pay for at least 250 pizzas each week as a regular part of our meal program. We also have a fruit and vegetable for lunch every day.”

Lynn tries to place her food order three weeks in advance. Besides Gordon Food Service, she also uses Van Eerden Foodservice as a second source. “It’s nice to deal with two companies. Our food service staff of five takes about three hours each week to organize and bag the meals. Then three people start delivering in cars, up to 32 families along with their school work. Our drive-up hours are 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 4-6 p.m. on Wednesdays. “We are doing the assembly in bulk and packing it all in one sack, like a bag of groceries,” Lynn said. School social work staff Michelle Schneider, Shelby Getsinger and Stefanie Dunham help with the distribution.

Besides working from home, Lynn comes into the high school three days a week. Everybody on her staff is employed with some of them tutoring young students via zoom and Google classroom.

The current food program is allowed to operate until June 30. Lynn figures she will continue up to that date. Then summer feeding will take over only for school districts in which at least 50 percent of children are eligible for free and reduced lunch programs. Schoolcraft doesn’t qualify; 26 percent of its students are eligible. Lynn plans to give out get maps to families so they will know where continuing Kalamazoo County summer programs are available.

Schoolcraft Locks in Lower Interest Rate for Bond Project

By Travis Smola

Even though COVID-19 has caused major disruptions for almost every facet of life, some good news was reported at the Schoolcraft school board meeting: lower interest rates for the district’s upcoming bond project.

The meeting was once again held online via Zoom due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Nathaniel Watson of PFM Financial Advisors LLC was on hand to announce the district obtained investors through Stifel, Nicolaus & Company Inc. This is the same company that helped refinance the district’s 2009 bonds last February.

“The municipal bond market really worked in our favor the last two or three weeks,” Watson said.

Through the backing of the state and the district’s excellent credit ratings, they were able to obtain lower financing rates. Watson said the true interest cost came in slightly below 3.3%. When the ballot language was put together, the rate was estimated at four percent. Since it is a 30-year bond, Watson said he expects they could reduce them again in 2030 and 2040. However, even if they are not, he said it was a “wonderful” outcome for the community.

After fees and cost of issuance, the project will have $39,746,000 to work with. Watson said that is $856,000 more than they projected going into their treasury meetings. Superintendent Rusty Stitt and many of the board members said they were thrilled with the good news.

Trustee Jill Hunt gave a short update on the progress of the project, which is already working on plans for the seventh and eighth grade gym and classroom additions. They are also starting to consider exactly where the new kindergarten through sixth grade building will stand on the school property. She said early considerations must account for things like where food services vehicles will travel onto the property. Hunt said they would already be looking at early conceptual plans for the seventh and eighth grade classroom additions the following week.

“We expect to narrow that (the conceptual plans) to a couple of options and then take it to a larger committee for some community feedback,” she said. “All in all, things are going pretty well.”

There were also some discussions about how classes would look in the fall. More specifically, Board President Jennifer Gottschalk wanted to know what the determining factor would be about a decision on face-to-face learning vs a hybrid online schedule when classes resume.

Superintendent Rusty Stitt said the decision would hinge mostly upon the Governor’s executive orders. If social distancing is still needed in the fall, major schedule changes are being considered. The three biggest possibilities are a Monday, Wednesday, Friday schedule, alternating days of instruction or an a.m.-p.m. schedule that may come into play. Stitt said there will be a committee with staff involvement to look at the possibilities in the coming months.

“There are a lot of options that we need to look at related to our programming for next school year,” Stitt said. “We don’t know what we are going to get from Lansing.”