Yesenia Bernal spent eight weeks last summer researching the herpes simplex virus at the Van Andel Institute biomedical research firm. The senior at Innovation Central High School wishes more students had the opportunity to experience science from the inside.
Yesenia also wishes her century-old high school didn’t have crumbling walls, peeling paint and boilers that periodically break down. “It’s cold in the winter time, really cold,” she said.
And then there’s the infamous second-floor girls’ bathroom. “It looks like a horror scene,” she said with a laugh. “Some stalls don’t have a door. It’s just, like, scary.”
As she finishes her final year at the Academy of Modern Engineering, one of Central’s four Centers of Innovation, Yesenia hopes Grand Rapids voters will help fix up her school as part of a $175 million bond issue request on Nov. 3.
“We have such great kids here,” she said. “It would be nice to have a school that represents it. I just wish we had a better structure.”
Seeking Funds to ‘Secure, Connect and Transform’
Grand Rapids voters will be asked Nov. 3 to approve a $175 million bond issue for Grand Rapids Public Schools. At about 2.1 mills, it would cost the owner of a $100,000 house about $103.50 per year, or $8.58 per month. The 25-year bond would fund three major categories:
Building repair and construction: $155 million
Security: $10 million
Technology: $10 million
Source: Grand Rapids Public Schools
Providing better structures constitutes a big chunk of the bond request, the first for Grand Rapids Public Schools since 2004. It would pay for building improvements and expansions for all GRPS schools, as well as technology and security upgrades.
That would include $22 million for Central, the oldest continuously used high school in Michigan (it opened in 1849 at another site). Its gargoyles and gothic columns soar above flagstones marked with graduation years back to 1911. But years of leaks have eaten away at the historic school where first lady Betty Ford, astronaut Roger B. Chaffee and U.S. Sen. Arthur Vandenberg once studied.
Building Affects Perceptions
The damage takes its toll not just on the building at 421 Fountain St. NE, but on the outlook of its roughly 900 students, who include those in Grand Rapids Montessori, Principal Mark Frost said.
“If you sit in a classroom with peeling paint and crumbling walls, it affects kids,” Frost said. “It affects their perception of themselves and perception of their school … that the school isn’t what it should be. If you feel like you’re valued and you’re in a great environment, I think you do better.”
Central would receive the most bond funding, along with Union High School, among school improvements totaling about $155 million. Central is part of a redesigned central campus plan that would tear down the former City High Middle School, and calls for more green space, solar roofing and an outdoor classroom.
‘If you sit in a classroom with peeling paint and crumbling walls, it affects kids.’ – Principal Mark Frost
Another $10 million would go to improve technology, including new computers to replace outdated models. An additional $10 million would fund improved security, such as entrances funneling visitors to the main office before entering the school.
In buildings like Ottawa and Union, visitors can’t find the main entrance and “end up lost and confused,” Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal said, pointing out that Union has 70 entry and exit points. At Central on a recent morning, the front door buzzer wasn’t working, forcing visitors to use a side door with no clear directions to the office.
Unfortunately, Neal said, increased safety measures are now a necessity. So are technology upgrades so students aren’t waiting 20 minutes for nearly 10-year-old computers to boot up. Some needs simply must be met whether the bond passes or not, she stressed.
“I want to make sure every parent feels totally comfortable in sending their children to me,” she said. However, she insisted, “If the voters say no, I will respect them. I won’t ask again.”
Broad Support Shows Trust
Board of Education President Tony Baker said he would be “shocked” by a no vote. He pointed to endorsements by more than 175 individuals and organizations, including the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce and the GRPS teachers’ union, as a clear sign of improved trust in recent years. GRPS spokesman John Helmholdt called it the “single most comprehensive list of endorsements of any ballot measure in recent history.”
“That list of endorsements is an endorsement of this public institution,” Baker said. “We restored a community to work together for the good of its children.”
But he took issue with recent robocalls funded by Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group supported by the Koch brothers, urging a no vote. The calls charge “bureaucrats … want to sneak a huge property tax hike past voters” that would cost the average homeowner about $4,000 over 25 years.
School officials disputed that, saying the real cost would be closer to $2,500. Baker also criticized the claim by the Grand Rapids Schools Taxpayers Association, which initiated the robocalls, that a bond passed in 2004 did not improve graduation or reading rates. The district has made “a huge amount of improvement over the last four or five years,” he said.
‘We restored a community to work together for the good of its children.’ – Tony Baker, school board president
He cited Central as an example, calling it a “thriving, 21st-century school” where he plans to send his son next year. But like other schools, it needs better technology to prepare students for the workforce and better facilities to bring it up to par with other districts’ schools, Baker said.
“Those kids can’t walk into that building and get the sense the community cares about them because the building’s falling apart,” he added. “Our kids in Grand Rapids deserve to go to a school where the community respects them.”
Innovation and Deterioration
In his office lined with gadgets from the old science lab, Principal Mark Frost proudly showed Betty Ford’s academic record and her photo in the 1936 yearbook. Presidents Taft, Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt and Booker T. Washington spoke here, he said, adding, “I love the history of this building.”
He also loves what the school is doing now, with its construction and robotics labs, new debate team and numerous clubs, and community partners such as Spectrum Health and Mercantile Bank. Those institutions support the school’s four specialized programs, spanning construction, engineering, business, and health and technology.
But behind all the history and innovation, paint peels above the front doors and on classroom walls. Water stains discolor ceilings and chips of drywall flake from hallways. Aging boilers rust in the basement.
“We really need some updating. Our students deserve it,” Frost said, adding that passing the bond would help make his school “as good as any in the area.”
Deven Buxton would like to see that happen. A senior in the Academy of Health Science and Technology, he’s taking classes in pharmacology and psychology while considering a career in social work. Though he doesn’t dwell on the building’s problems, he said would like to “make the school look better and attract more people.”
As for Yesenia Bernal, she said chilly classrooms and the scary bathroom just make her work harder.
“You show them with your grades and your motivation it doesn’t matter where you come from,” she said. “It just matters what you do with what you have.”