A clean sweep: seven districts pass funding proposals

Absentee ballots boosted turnouts, officials say

Despite the economic and health crises triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, voters in seven Kent County school districts approved funding requests in the Tuesday, May 5 elections. 

The approvals included major bond proposals in Byron Center, Caledonia, Godwin Heights, Kenowa Hills and Northview, as well as non-homestead operations millage renewals in Caledonia and Comstock Park and a sinking fund request in Kelloggsville. 

Voter turnout was up in most districts even though fewer polling places were open due to the pandemic. Officials attributed the increase largely to absentee ballots being mailed to all voters. 

Following is a rundown of the results by district.   

Byron Center Public Schools

Requested:  $80 million bond proposal

Voters said: YES: 4,805; No: 2,830

The district got the green light from voters for its $80 million bond proposal to fund a new school building for fifth and sixth graders and to renovate Nickels Intermediate School into a fourth elementary school.

“We are very appreciative of the community support we have and how the community has supported the bond,” said Superintendent Kevin Macina, who expressed a “sincere thank you” to parents and community members. “Our proposal really met the needs of our students and what we need for Byron Center.”

Kevin Macina

The district sought the bond because elementary school buildings are reaching capacity. “One of the things we talked about with the voters is this is a long-range plan,” Macina said.

The bond will not require an increase to the current 7-mill levy, but will extend existing debt.

The planning process will continue over the next year for the new $25 million building for fifth and sixth graders (an intermediate school), and renovation of Nickels for kindergarten through fourth graders. Construction on the new intermediate school should start in 12 to 18 months.

Despite the current school closure and the state’s stay-at-home order, about 38 percent of voters cast ballots, which is higher than a typical May election. Macina said that was due to increased use of absentee ballots sent to voters to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Two precincts of the usual eight in the district were open for in-person voting, though Macina did not yet have a breakdown on how many people voted absentee and in-person.

“For the safety of the community, we really emphasized the absentee ballots,” he said, noting that the district sent out how-to information about the option.

Caledonia

Request No. 1: An $88.09 million bond proposal for the construction of a new elementary school and athletic complex, along with addressing safety and security, repairs and upgrades to facilities.

Voters said: YES: 4,246; No: 2,871 

Request No. 2: Five-year renewal of the district’s 18-mill non-homestead operating levy. 

Voters said: YES: 5,137; No: 2,125 

District voters in Kent, Allegan and Barry counties approved a $88 million, zero tax-rate increase bond proposal, as well as a non-homestead operating millage renewal. 

“We want to thank the entire Caledonia community for restoring the operating millage and passing the school bond, especially during these challenging times,” said Superintendent Dedrick Martin.

Voter turnout was 39 percent, including absentee ballot returns. Historically, the district’s May elections draw a range of 15 to 20 percent. The bond proposal earned 59.7% approval, and renewal of the operating millage earned 70.7%.

“Clearly, people took the opportunity to vote absentee and we hope they continue to stay engaged,” Martin said. 

The non-homestead millage renewal extends full funding for day-to-day operations until 2025, and paves the way to begin needed facility repairs and improvements, Martin said. 

The bond funds construction of a new Dutton Elementary School and athletic complex, and will address safety and security, repairs and upgrades to facilities.

The district will begin prioritizing what needs to occur first as early as next week, Martin said. 

Comstock Park

Requested: Restore full funding to the district’s state-authorized, 18-mill tax on non-homestead properties for 10 years. The total annual revenue tied to the renewal is approximately $2.6 million.

Voters said: YES: 1,787; No: 429

Superintendent Dave Washburn was pleased by the results, especially given current uncertainty, and that more than 80 percent of voters approved the request.

“It’s wonderful the community supported us so much to do what’s best for their kids,” he said.

Godwin Heights Public Schools

Requested: $13.9 million for improvements including: roofing assessments and possible repairs; a new boiler; improved heating and cooling controls; new carpeting, doors, and windows; new vans and buses; renovations at the track and baseball field; new band instruments; and student technology upgrades.

Voters said:  YES: 653; No: 457

Through mail-in ballots and a drive-through polling place, voters approved a bond that will extend the current millage rate and allow the district to implement the second phase of a plan that started with a bond proposal approved in 2015.

Superintendent William Fetterhoff said he is grateful voters saw the necessity for the proposed improvements, which cover a range of projects. While the improvements aren’t as visible as previous projects, Fetterhoff said they are crucial for facility integrity, safety, energy efficiency and quality education.

“There is a factor of trust in the community: We’ve proven ourselves in the past in terms of presenting needs and then following through when we’ve received the financial support,” he said. “I think there’s some confidence with our constituents about that, and I’m appreciative of that.”

Fetterhoff said that when planning began, the construction climate was going full-tilt. He said staff will sit down with the general contractor and see if the project’s timetable might be affected given the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Kenowa Hills Public Schools

Requested: A $67 million bond issue over 10 years highlighted by modernized classrooms, a new STEM room in the high school, a renovated Performing Arts Center, new band and orchestra instruments and upgraded technology.

Voters said: YES: 2,603; No: 2,119

The bond proposal focuses on the Early Childhood Center, middle school and high school. While these buildings have undergone additions and renovations over the years, district officials say they are in need of upgrades. A recent facilities assessment identified specific systems that have exceeded their expected life spans, such as lighting, roofing, and heating and cooling systems.

The district’s debt tax rate would increase by approximately 0.26 mills. For a $100,000 home, that means an estimated increase of $1.08 per month, or $13 per year. Construction is slated to begin in 2021.

Gerald Hopkins

“We are thrilled for our students, staff and community,” said Superintendent Gerald Hopkins. “The community’s continued support affirms the extensive analysis that was done by our Facility Study Committee and will pick up where the work from the last bond proposal ends.

“The sacrifices our families will make as a result of the tax increase is not lost on the fact that many of our families have been negatively impacted by the pandemic. We are extremely grateful for the continued support.” 

Hopkins said turnout was higher than for their last bond vote in May 2016, and thinks absentee ballots were a factor.

“Over a 14-year period, as a result of two successful bond proposals, all of our schools will have been modernized with optimal teaching and learning environments,” he said. “The support allows for general fund resources to be used for the classrooms, instruction and other operational expenses. The funds will be especially important as our economy recovers from the pandemic and will allow our district to make a significant investment in our local economy, as most of the contractors will be from West Michigan.”

Kelloggsville Public Schools

Requested: A 1-mill sinking fund request totaling approximately $4.2 million over a 10-year span, including some $370,000 annually at the beginning, and growing to around $450,000 annually by the tenth year.

Voters said: YES: 710; No: 576

The approved request will cost the owner of a $100,000 home about 96 cents a week, but will allow the district to fund a long list of already-identified projects without borrowing or paying long-term interest debt. 

Projects include new carpeting, playground upgrades, parking lot resurfacing and new roofs, with the first year slated to see West Kelloggsville Elementary get new carpet, lockers, playground upgrades and parking lot repaving.

Though cosmetic, such upgrades are important, said Eric Alcorn, auxiliary services director. He noted the improvements will bring equity to all the district’s buildings and help minimize substantial costs associated with larger repairs if left unaddressed.

“We’re really excited by the support we have been given (by the voters),” Alcorn said. “We were wondering, of course, with everything going on what might happen. COVID-19 is something we have never had to deal with before, so this approval is a blessing. We have an opportunity to provide the best possible learning we can for our students. We’re grateful.”

Northview Public Schools

Requested: A $36.7 million, no-mill increase bond request for building and systems improvements throughout the district.

Voters said: YES: 2,798; No: 1,179

Voters overwhelmingly approved the funding of improvements including the addition of multi-purpose spaces and upgrades to major systems and classrooms at elementary and middle schools, as well as to parking and security. Improvements to the Performing Arts Center and system upgrades also are planned at the high school.

No tax increase is expected based on current interest and 3% taxable value growth. The bond millage rate is estimated to remain at 6.308 mills through 2026, then to decline.

Deputy Superintendent Liz Cotter said overall turnout among the three townships included in the district was nearly 29%. 

“We’re told in May elections it’s typically 20 to 25%, so this is really wonderful,” Cotter said. “And that it was approved by over 70%, we’re very grateful to the community, always, but especially given the current state of affairs.”

Cotter said her hunch is that absentee ballots helped the outcome, “but the overwhelming support is just a testament to the community,” she said. “They put a lot of trust in our staff and leaders that we are going to make responsible decisions with this money.”

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