Lowell asks for help in shaping $50 million bond request

Forums invite ideas from staff, parents and community

Teachers Darla Palmer, left, and Katie Wirsch examine the outline for middle school improvements

A middle school built in the 1960s that has seen few renovations, has major bus-vehicle-pedestrian issues, and requires students to eat lunch in a tiered space that also serves as a quasi-auditorium. Two elementaries that are cramped and only half air-conditioned. Sports fields in need of upgrades.

More Chances for Input

Two more community engagement forums aimed at learning what residents think needs improvement in their school buildings will be held on Oct. 17 and Nov. 7, both at 7 p.m. at Lowell Middle School.

District officials say they can address those needs and more without raising taxes. Now they are asking for input from school staff, district families and community members to help come up with detailed plans.

“We’re just starting the process,” said Superintendent Greg Pratt. “We’ve got some good ideas; now we need feedback from the community.”

Groups submitted their suggestions to refine the plan. Two more sessions will be held to get more public input

At its first of three community input meetings, nearly four dozen people worked in small groups to come up with suggestions to help create preliminary concept drawings that have been outlined by Owen-Ames-Kimball construction and TowerPinkster architects and engineers.

Informing the concepts came out of an infrastructure study conducted in 2009, when the economic downturn made a bond request unfeasible, Pratt said.

With a budget of just under $50 million — funding for which could be requested via a bond vote in May 2019 — officials say they can address issues identified without a millage increase. Pratt said it could be the first of a 7- to 10-year strategic plan cycle aimed at putting a funding mechanism in place to pay for necessary improvements.

A middle school teacher sketches traffic flow in front of the school

It is expected that a proposed bond request will be brought before the district’s Board of Education for a vote by Thanksgiving.

“We don’t want a future administration to be handcuffed the way we have been handcuffed when it comes to our building needs,” Pratt said. “This type of planning is hard because it’s not about what you want, it’s about what you need. By taking it in smaller chunks and paying as we go, it allows us to re-evaluate needs every seven to 10 years.”

Items beyond the scope of necessary improvements, he said, would require additional requests for tax increases. One attendee suggested that the district survey voters to see if they would approve a larger request, such as an estimated $12.8-million, 2,400-seat competition gym with concession and lobby space.

More Ideas Needed

The middle school plan proposes a new, two-story seventh-and eighth-grade wing. But that can change with input

Bill Zaske, a TowerPinkster project manager and parent of Alto Elementary students, said he particularly likes improvements that could be made at that school. He pointed to larger classrooms and turning narrow corridors into “learning commons” so students can work in small groups. He called the latter “a game-changer when it comes to the ways our students are being taught.”

Steve Hoekzema, principal and pre-bond specialist at TowerPinkster, said planning “still needs a lot of teacher input.”

“We’ve just included what we know the needs are, what we knew was quantifiable,” Hoekzema said. “The way things are configured (on the concept drawings) is going to change with input.”

Bill Zaske, left, TowerPinkster project manager and parent of Alto Elementary students, writes down others’ suggestions about the plan
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio

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