School Votes Push Three Districts Forward, One Back

Following Tuesday’s votes on tax requests for four Kent ISD school districts, three superintendents were smiling. The fourth was choking back tears.

Voters approved multi-million-dollar bond issues for Grand Rapids Public Schools and Kentwood Public Schools, as well as a 10-year facility repair and improvement fund for Wyoming Public Schools. But in Kenowa Hills, voters defeated a second request for a major bond issue by a mere 23 votes – a blow somewhat cushioned by an operating millage renewal.

♥While that defeat sent Kenowa Hills’ leaders back to the drawing board, officials in the other three districts got to work on improvements approved by their voters. GRPS Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal summed up their gratitude.

“I would like to saythank you to the entire community,” Neal said. “I just appreciate the support.”

In Kenowa Hills, though, Superintendent Gerald Hopkins struggled emotionally to accept the loss of a $55.24 million bond request by less than two dozen votes.

“To be that close and not get it, you’re always asking yourself, ‘What could I have done more, what could I have done differently?’“ Hopkins said.

Following is a brief breakdown of the results:

School Election Recap
Official results from the Tuesday, Nov. 3 school proposals

Grand Rapids Public Schools
$175 million bond request: APPROVED
Yes: 10,182 No: 9,092

Kenowa Hills Public Schools
$55.24 million bond request: DEFEATED
No: 1,846 Yes: 1,823

18-mill non-homestead property tax renewal: APPROVED
Yes: 2,447 No: 1,170  

Kentwood Public Schools
$64.86 million bond request: APPROVED
Yes: 3,126 No: 2,107

Wyoming Public Schools
10-year building and site sinking fund levy: APPROVED
Yes: 1,445 No: 978

Grand Rapids Public Schools

In the first GRPS bond request since 2004, voters authorized $175 million for district-wide improvements by a 53 to 47 percent margin. It will pay for building repair, new construction, better technology and enhanced security measures that will touch all school buildings. Neal called it a “very important vote” for completing part two of a district Transformation Plan.  

“I think the majority of the voters said the right thing, which is yes to our Transformation Plan and to what we are doing for children in the Grand Rapids Public Schools,” Neal said. “There was no way we could do Phase II without the support of this community. For that I am absolutely grateful, just knowing the majority of the people in this community believe we’re on the right track and give me the green light to move forward.”

However, the fact the yes vote was not higher made her wonder if there was more information voters wanted, she added: “I don’t want to say, ‘Oh well, it’s over.’ I still think if there’s something we can learn, we should.”

Officials met the morning after the election to begin prioritizing needs. High on the list is renovation of the former Covell Elementary School into a high school for C.A. Frost Environmental Science Academy, as well as security upgrades in all buildings, Neal said.  She expected work will begin in January and continue for three to five years, adding, “I will be involved every step of the way.”

As for a campaign urging a no vote, funded by Americans for Prosperity, Neal said, “I’m glad our community did not listen to them. We are going to do the right thing by our children.”

David and Kelly Huhn, whose daughter, Abby, is a Montessori student, were happy to vote yes. “So far everything that the superintendent has put in place has been working,” Kelly said. “It makes sense to continue on with it.”

David and Kelly Huhn voted yes so their daughter, Abby, and other GRPS students could have better facilitiesKenowa Hills Public Schools

Following the defeat of a $78.6 million bond request in May, which 2,004 voters supported, Hopkins figured that many yes votes this time would be enough for a pared-down request of $55.24 million. But by final count, only 1,823 voted yes Tuesday.

Hopkins said he believes there is more support for Kenowa Hills schools than 1,800 votes. Had all those people voted yes, he is convinced the bond would have passed.

“There’s tremendous support in our community for our schools,” Hopkins said. “While people believe that, they didn’t act on it with their vote.”

A profusion of pro-yes yard signs may have led some supporters to assume it would pass, he theorized. The fact the bond request was paired with an 18-mill operating renewal, which passed comfortably, may have encouraged some to vote yes on that but no on the bond, he added.

In any event, Hopkins said he will recommend to the Board of Education Monday that they come back to voters again next May, given urgent needs such as more buses and failing boilers.

“My thinking is at this point we go back with the same proposal,” Hopkins said. “Our needs are going to be exactly the same as they are now.”   

The 23-vote margin of defeat was hard to swallow, Hopkins admitted. That many yes votes, based on an average home value of $150,000, would have cost those homeowners combined less than $2,000, he said.

“I’d gladly give up $2,000 of my salary for this,” he added, choking up. “I know there are many people in the district that would do the same.”

Kentwood Public Schools

The second time proved to be a charm for Kentwood Public Schools, with voters soundly passing a nearly $65 million bond proposal to pay for building improvements, computers and remodeled media centers.

A nearly identical request failed last May by just 48 votes. District representatives decided to ask again after a community survey, paid for by the community group Kentwood Friends of Education, showed strong support. The district also worked to better communicate details of the bond. This time, 60 percent of voters said yes.

“You need to see my smile,” said Jim Swoboda, who chairs the group. “We are excited that our citizens realize the importance of investment in our schools and community and, most importantly, students and future citizens.”

Bond projects will occur over the next 10 years. They include more secure entryways, replacing aging buses, new computers and devices, remodeling media centers and other building renovations.

“It is clear we as a community believe investing locally in our children and in our community is imperative to keeping a strong community in Kentwood,” said Superintendent Michael Zoerhoff. “The district and community have worked hard to create stable and strong schools in the past and this bond decision ensures that together great things will continue into the future.”

Wyoming Public Schools

Wyoming Public Schools will now have an approximately $400,000 annual fund to pay for facility needs, thanks to the approval of a 0.5-mill, 10-year sinking fund levy by 60 percent of voters. The fund will pay for new roofs, doors and windows and parking-lot improvements as needed.

“This will be very helpful to address things that are essential to our environment, without cutting further into the general fund,” said Superintendent Tom Reeder, adding that it will allow repairs the district has been unable to address because of budget limits. “This is a nice shot in the budget-arm.”

Approval of the fund came after two failed attempts to approve a major bond issue in 2013. Projects to address immediately include roof repairs, energy issues, lighting and security updates.

Unlike bond issues, which yield large sums districts must pay back with interest, sinking funds pay as they go, yielding only as much as is raised by yearly tax revenue. They cannot be used for salaries and other operational expenses.

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SNN Stories on District Requests

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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