I’m sitting here teary-eyed thinking about the Nov. 5 rejection of Wyoming Public School’s two bond proposals to fund security, high school improvements and a fine arts center. I am wondering why this obvious disconnect between the school and the community exists and I want to know if change is possible.
I have covered many school districts as a newspaper reporter, attending Board of Education meetings and following the progress of many a bond issue from conceptual stages to the finishing touches. I’ve seen communities including Byron Center, East Grand Rapids, Holland, Jenison, Northview and Comstock Park embrace proposals as investments into their children’s lives and futures. They stepped up to improve the schools around them, where they live, work and maybe once attended.
I’ve covered the passage of bond requests of upward of $50 million, and witnessed the design process, the spending of funds earmarked for construction, the good stewardship with taxpayer dollars. Anyone who doubts how hard people work to make these things happen and create the best school environments needs to see the process in action.
The excitement is palpable when the votes are tallied on Election Day and bonds pass. The first comment out of the superintendent’s mouth is always, “I am so thankful for a community that supports its schools.” It is a phrase repeated again and again as facilities take shape and as the district becomes prepared to meet the needs of students for decades to come.
I live in Wyoming. Bordering this city where I grew up are districts with top-notch fine arts centers, MacBooks for every student, stadiums that become neighborhood crown jewels, school buildings outfitted for today’s technology with learning hubs and media centers. They have beautiful gyms, air-conditioning and huge swimming pools. These things are sources of pride that entice more people to enroll in the schools.
I went to Rogers High School, left for college, and returned to Wyoming after graduating. My husband and I chose to raise our children here, near my parents and my husband’s parents. I have no complaints about the school they attend, Oriole Park Elementary, where the teachers work so hard to meet the needs of every child – many who are at-risk – and set them on the path for quality education.
But once again Wyoming Public Schools’ bond has failed.
The truth is: there is not enough support; there is a lack of thinking ahead; there is a mentality of “things are good enough” that could push our kids further and further behind.
I know Wyoming. I know this community. We are not “keep up with the Joneses” types. We are working class, West Michiganders who know how to stretch a dollar. The biggest and the best often doesn’t cross our minds. Most of us don’t come from money. I was raised to work hard, save and make things last. I am proud of these traits.
But when it comes to schools there are a lot of factors at play, and it’s no longer about “good enough” or making do with what you have. Setting the bar at “good enough” these days lands district right on the failing schools list.
We are competing with surrounding communities who have made their districts their central focus and we are losing students to them. I’m not sure how many people understand that as enrollment drops we lose money from the state, because it is allocated on a per-pupil basis.
The more we lose the more the district’s budget shrinks, and the downward spiral continues. If we are not an attractive district people won’t stay. Why are residents contributing to the idea that our schools aren’t worth the investment?
School funding in Michigan is no doubt flawed, and fingers can point justifiably in many directions. Districts do not all receive the same per-pupil funding allotment, and the amount they do receive has been cut over the past years, sometimes in the middle of budget years leaving districts scrambling. They must rely on bond issues or other sources to address facility needs.
There is good going on in Wyoming! We have beautiful parks, new business development, affordable housing and a diverse population. But we need to improve the area’s image and that has to start with the schools.
I know some of Wyoming’s troubles stem from the financial struggles many families face, but the only real way to break the cycle of poverty is through education. We need to embrace improvements, hold the hands of the large populations of first-generation families that come from other countries and are still learning how this system works.
That’s another thing that can be turned into a huge positive. If we get our kids on the right path when they are young they will more likely have success in the future. I love that my children’s friends are from different backgrounds and cultures and countries, and that is part of the beauty of the district. Children in Wyoming for the most part don’t see color or class – I truly believe that.
My perspective is a little unique. I have seen how bond issues improve communities and keep momentum going forward. I have learned how school funding works and walked through schools that have few resources and those with more than you can imagine.
The one thing I can conclude from all of it is that if you get past the politics, tax concerns, complicated funding formulas and other gripes with school operations, and you see a kid achieving something because a community has helped make it happen, because someone believed in him enough to invest in his future, there is no way you would ever vote “no.”