Kenowa Leaders Hope Second Time the Charm for Bond

Craig Taetsch knocked on a lot of doors last spring, hoping to persuade voters to approve a $78.6 million bond request for Kenowa Hills Public Schools. But in the May 5 vote, 62 percent of them said no.

Lately, Taetsch has been putting up yard signs for a smaller bond request, and he’s hearing a lot of people say yes. That gives him hope that this time around voters will approve the request for $55.24 million on the Nov. 3 ballot.  

Another Ask, but Smaller

After Kenowa Hills voters decisively denied a $78.6 million bond request in May, they are being asked to approve a reduced request of $55.24 million on Nov. 3. At approximately 0.99 mills, approval would cost the owner of a $100,000 home about $49.50 a year. Major expenditures over five years would include:

Safety and Security

  • New security vestibules and additional cameras at all six school buildings
  • Gradual replacement of the bus fleet
  • Separation of pedestrian and vehicle traffic at schools

Aging Facilities

  • New boilers and hot water heaters; resurfaced roofs; ceiling, lighting and electrical improvements; heating and temperature control upgrades; restroom renovations
  • An eight-classroom addition to Zinser Elementary
  • New gymnasiums at Alpine and Zinser, and improvements to the high school student commons and cafeteria

Technology

  • Upgrading lab computers in all schools, and expanding the 1-1 laptop computer program to students in kindergarten through fourth grade
  • Expanding wireless capacity, updating infrastructure and replacing audio-visual equipment
  • Updating multimedia equipment in the high school Performing Arts Center

In a separate ballot question, voters will be asked to renew the district’s 18-mill operating tax levy on non-homestead properties, which expires in 2016. It would be renewed for 10 years and generate approximately $9.5 million in 2017.

More information available from Kenowa Hills Public Schools

“Just hearing that ‘yes, yes, yes’ as I go around talking to people, ‘this has to pass, we need this to pass’ is encouraging,” said Taetsch, father of two Kenowa school children and president of the Knights for Education parent group. “I just continue to stay positive.”

District officials also are hopeful voters will approve a scaled-down request to fund security, technology and maintenance needs, as well as an 18-mill, non-homestead property tax renewal for operations.  

After the decisive rejection in May, Superintendent Gerald Hopkins said, “We will certainly take a look at what our voters have said.”

Five months later, district officials have done so with a survey of voters and returned with the more modest request. Hopkins says he believes voters will approve this one, given the reductions that have been made and the needs that remain.

“We’ve listened to the feedback, and I believe the community supports the things we’re doing with students in the classroom,” Hopkins said. “I’m confident there are people who voted no last time who will vote yes this time, based on the feedback we received.”

Millage Renewal ‘Critical’ for District Finances

The revised request would pay for new security entrances at all schools, repairs to aging buildings and enhanced technology. But it drops items from the previous proposal including a new Early Childhood Center, a new varsity baseball field and a high school expansion for athletic equipment storage – areas that received the least support in the parent survey, Hopkins said.

The bond proposal is paired with a request to renew the district’s state-authorized 18-mill tax levy on industrial, commercial and other non-homestead properties. With the current levy expiring next year, the 10-year renewal is “critical” to the district, Hopkins said. “There’s no safety net” if the renewal fails, he said, adding it would cost the district about $10 million in lost revenue.  

That’s a loss the district can ill afford, Hopkins said. The Board of Education in June lopped $1.25 million from the 2015-16 budget, reducing 10.5 staff positions and curtailing sports-event bus service. Another $838,000 had to be covered by the district fund balance.

The non-homestead tax is particularly important to Kenowa, providing nearly one-third of its operating revenue. Non-renewal would slash the district budget and force it to look at non-required costs such as busing and athletics, he said.

“That’s not a conversation I want to have with our community, because I believe in those things – and our community does too,” he added.

Building on Strong Yes Vote

Bond proponents take heart from the fact that more than 2,000 voters cast yes votes in May, in an all-time high turnout of 5,308 voters. Those yes votes provide a strong base for others who may now support the reduced request, Hopkins said.

“Our community said let us know what our most pressing needs are, and that’s what we’ve outlined in this proposal.”

Craig Taetsch hopes the bond passes not just for his children, Conner and Kylah, but for the Kenowa Hills community

School board President Melissa Courtade said many voters have thanked her for adjusting the proposal and expressed support. “Numerous stakeholders have researched the needs to support our students, and felt it is extremely necessary to address the safety, technology and aging facilities,” she said in an email.  

Those include more secure entryways at all schools and gradually replacing 14 buses in an aging fleet – three have been replaced since May – as well as leaking roofs, 17-year-old boilers and outdated desks. The district’s plan to provide laptops to all students, already accomplished in grades 5-12, would cover K-4 students.

As a district resident for 16 years and father to young students Conner and Kylah, Craig Taetsch says those improvements are needed. He notes Kenowa is competing with private and charter schools as well as the demands of a high-tech economy.

“You need money to operate and to innovate,” said Taetsch, a financial adviser with Edward Jones. “Without funds, it’s hard to innovate and sometimes near impossible to operate.”

He sees a need for more security and better upkeep in the schools, and says healthy schools will boost property values and attract residents.

“It really comes down to if we stay stagnant and do nothing, not only will our neighbors pass us, but other global economies will pass us,” Taetsch said. “And that’s just not an option.”

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Detailed bond request information

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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