$175 Million Bond Request a Long Time Coming

Needed to Complete GRPS Transformation, Leaders Say

Teacher Linda Bowman reads to first-graders at C.A. Frost Environmental Science Academy, including Parker Regan (pointing in foreground) and Nora Milanowski

When it came time to enroll their first child, Bodie, in kindergarten, Nancy Haynes and her husband, Bryan Bickford, checked out all the choices: public and parochial, charter and Christian, neighborhood school and neighboring district.
When they walked into C.A. Frost Environmental Science Academy, they knew they’d found it.

“Just the feel, the kids, the smiles, the bulletin boards: It just felt like the right place,” Haynes recalled. After seeing the school’s “magical” environmental lab, she thought, “Wow, this would be an incredible place.”

Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal says the bond request is “important for all of us in Kent County”
Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal says the bond request is “important for all of us in Kent County”

She was right. Bodie is now a seventh-grader, and twins Tuck and Tybee are fifth-graders at the Grand Rapids Public School on the city’s West Side. They enjoy learning about nature in the outdoor “E-lab,” growing plants in the greenhouse and rain garden and exploring the ecology of nearby Blandford Nature Center.

In fact, C.A. Frost has become so popular as a “theme” school that a ninth grade was added this fall, with the aim of eventually expanding it into a pre-K through 12th-grade school.

That is a major reason Haynes is campaigning to pass a $175 million bond issue in the Nov. 3 election. Voter approval would yield $7 million to convert the closed Covell Elementary School into a C.A. Frost high school, as well as $1.5 million in technology and building improvements.

But Haynes’ interest goes beyond her own kids’ school. As executive director of the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan, she sees an election-day win for the schools as a win for the entire community.

“It just seems like such a great investment in our future,” she said. “Great, thriving, sustainable, vibrant cities have great public schools.”

The Making of a Bond Request

2004: Phase I of the Building Improvement Plan is approved after dozens of community meetings, to fix dilapidated buildings and outdated technology,  expand the number of K-8 and theme schools, and reduce the number of comprehensive high schools

  • The plan lays the groundwork for a $165 million bond request, which is approved by district voters and funds improvements to 10 elementary and middle school buildings, plus reconstruction of Cesar E. Chavez Elementary and renovation of Houseman Field

2008: District develops Phase II of the Building Improvement Plan, but delays asking for another bond due to the recession

  • University Prep Academy and Blandford School subsequently built with private donations

2011: Voters approve a 1-mill, five-year millage for “warm, safe and dry” maintenance work such as roofs, boilers, windows and pipes

2012: Teresa Weatherall Neal is hired as superintendent and goes on a community listening tour that helps form a district-wide Transformation Plan

  • The plan includes expanding Zoo School and C.A. Frost, opening the Museum School, developing a master plan for Central Campus, and beginning an International Baccalaureate program at Coit Creative Arts Academy

2015:  The district requests a $175 million bond in the Nov. 3 election for security, technology and facility improvements in all school buildings

A Return on Investment

Haynes is among the school and community leaders working to pass the city schools’ first bond request since voters approved $165 million in 2004 to fix up dilapidated buildings and outdated technology. The new request, for about 2.1 mills, would build on the improvements begun then as part of a comprehensive Transformation Plan for the 17,000-student district, officials say.

The owner of a $100,000 house would pay about $103.50 a year to fund security, technology and building improvements in all GRPS schools. Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal said she doesn’t underestimate the impact of that outlay on many voters.

“It’s a huge decision for people to increase their own taxes, and I know it’s difficult,” Neal said. “People are on fixed incomes, people are struggling. I want them to know I don’t take this lightly at all.”

But Neal says she also wants people to know they will get a return on their investment by helping to turn around 20-plus years of “churn and decline,” when the district lost more than 8,000 students, cut 1,000 jobs and slashed $100 million in expenditures.

Last year, the district had its best enrollment count day in two decades, and this month recorded its second-best with a loss of 50 students – far less than the 928 lost in 2007-08. Graduation rates and test scores are rising and chronic absenteeism is down by 30 percent, officials say. The bond will keep that trajectory moving upward and prepare thousands of students for the workforce, Neal said.

“These are the kids who are going to lead this community. We need to build great citizens (and) opportunities for these children, because they’re going to take jobs right here in our community.”

Like Haynes, she sees more at stake than just the schools.

“It’s important for all of us in Kent County for these children to get this bond,” she said firmly. “These children belong to us.”

Will Make House Calls

Neal has put her feet to the task, knocking on doors and calling on businesses in recent weeks as part of the campaign. She said she has put in six or seven miles on four Saturdays, “any and everywhere people will listen,” surprising many who come to the door.

“It’s important for people to see me. I am the face of the district,” said Neal, superintendent since 2012. Nobody has told her they’ll vote no, she added, while others have said, “Bring your signs!”

Neal’s personal presence and deep roots in the district lend credence to the need for the bond, said David Doyle, chairman of the Friends of GRPS campaign effort.

“She’s got as much credibility as any superintendent I’ve known, and more than most,” said Doyle, who’s worked for and with GRPS superintendents since the mid-1970s. “It’s because of her leadership style. There are high expectations, and she is a strong leader” with backing from a unified school board, he added.

A lifelong Grand Rapids resident and Creston High graduate, Doyle has helped lead dozens of campaigns for school and city tax hikes as well as political candidates. At a campaign kickoff on Sept. 15, Doyle said more than 200 volunteers already had knocked on more than 5,000 doors.

He cited broad backing for the bond, from the City Commission and state legislators to the Grand Rapids Education Association and the Rental Property Owners Association, as evidence GRPS is on the upswing. The schools and a revived downtown are attracting new residents, he said.

“We’re back bustling again, and good schools are a great part of that bustling.”

Nancy Haynes is an active parent at C.A. Frost Environmental Science Academy, where sons Tuck, left, and Tybee are fifth-graders
Nancy Haynes is an active parent at C.A. Frost Environmental Science Academy, where sons Tuck, left, and Tybee are fifth-graders

Waiting for the Right Time

Neal said the roots of this request go back to 1998, when voters resoundingly rejected a $396 million bond proposal — the district’s largest ask ever. As an assistant to the next superintendent, Bert Bleke, she helped fashion the 2004 request for $165 million as being more aligned to what voters would approve. About 60 percent of them did.

“We were very open and honest and said, ‘This is only half of what we need,'” Neal said. “We said we were going to come back when the timing was right.”

The timing was not right in 2008, when the district developed phase II of its Building Improvement Plan, because of the recession. So the school board put the plan on hold but found private money to fund two new schools, University Prep Academic and Blandford.

Now the timing is right, with an improving economy and having delivered on the promises of 2004, Neal said.

“We’ve done all of those things, and I feel now is the time to come back and say, ‘this is what we said we would do and this is what we did.'” If this bond passes, she added, “I will promise we will do everything we said we will do.”

Nancy Haynes says she believes it. Having closely watched the district since her boys enrolled at C.A. Frost, she said it “totally turned around when Teresa took over.” Neal listened to parents in hearings and tweaked the bond plans accordingly, she said, adding, “I couldn’t be more confident in her leadership.”

She is also confident approving the bond would benefit her children’s school with better technology and more room to grow. It would also increase property values, give parents more choice and boost the upward arc of Grand Rapids Public Schools, she believes.

“It’s like a rocket ship shooting up,” Haynes said of the schools. “There’s just so much momentum building.”

CONNECT

GRPS Bond Proposal

School News Network Interview with Teresa Weatherall Neal

Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio.

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