Godfrey-Lee — Touring new construction at Lee Middle and High School, Rep. John Fitzgerald, D-Wyoming, noticed how few power outlets were in classrooms compared to the number of students working on laptops.
“The legislature would grind to a halt if we couldn’t charge our devices during the day,” Fitzgerald said to a group of Lee High School students.
The students joined the district tour – meeting Fitzgerald and several Kent County superintendents – to share their experiences and answer questions about going to school during major construction. Lee is being rebuilt following a structural failure in June 2019, which caused part of the roof to collapse.
The representative’s visit was the first of several scheduled in coming months in Kent County schools for legislators and district leaders. Education Advocates of West Michigan, a consortium made up of Kent, Ottawa and Muskegon ISDs, is hosting the tours to provide an inside look into local schools. The tours are bringing together state leaders with local educators and students to create conversation and shape student-centered policies. Legislators are invited to the next tour at Cedar Springs Public Schools this month.
Fitzgerald listened and took notes as students spoke, and Godfrey-Lee administrators highlighted the district’s successes and challenges, both academically and structurally.
‘It’s hard for me to look the community in the eyes and see what they’re getting. They’re giving above and beyond, but not receiving what our students deserve.’– Godfrey-Lee Assistant Superintendent Mark Provost
Senior Wendy Jimenez-Lopez said, “It’s distracting to hear constant drilling sometimes. We know they’re working hard, but sometimes we can’t hear our teachers talking.”
Senior and member of the Lee choir Aidan Wind added, “It seems like they plan it sometimes,” he said with a laugh. “We’re about to sing and then the hammers start knocking away, but we get through it.”
Aiden, however, said witnessing new technology, classroom renovations, a band room and cafeteria come to fruition is surreal. “It’s almost like a dream. It’s hard to believe we can have these things.”
The Need for a More Equitable System
The rebuilding of the high school – spurred by structural collapse—is one example of inequity in a low-income district, like Godfrey-Lee, in comparison to an affluent district that can rely on bond issues and high property value that generate millions of dollars for new infrastructure. That’s a message administrators hope legislators hear.
“We’re here to lift up equity and infrastructure to your attention,” said Godfrey-Lee Assistant Superintendent Mark Provost to Fitzgerald and everyone in attendance.
“Equity is very important to us and family and togetherness are our district’s values. When we say ‘all students’ we mean all students,” added Godfrey-Lee Superintendent Michael Burde.
Godfrey-Lee is tiny – one square mile —and has the highest millage rate at 14.05 mills, compared to the average of 6.73 at the other 19 public school districts in Kent County. Having the highest millage rate in the county’s lowest income community isn’t fair to residents, Provost said.
“It’s hard for me to look the community in the eyes and see what they’re getting,” Provost said. “They’re giving above and beyond, but not receiving what our students deserve. At the end of the day, this is an inequitable system.”
A Bright Future Ahead
Chris Glass, Kent ISD’s assistant superintendent of legislative and organizational initiatives, said the visits are a way to give legislators the opportunity to see what’s directly happening inside schools – information they can take back to Lansing.
“We feel this helps show them the great work we do, but also gives them greater perspective when they’re considering changes to laws or passing budgets impacting schools,” Glass said.
Burde said he appreciates Fitzgerald and several Kent County superintendents making time for the tour. “It means a lot to see our legislators and so many of my colleagues here today for us to highlight Godfrey-Lee’s points of pride and needs of students and building structures.”
As for Wendy Jimenez-Lopez, she was glad to have the chance with her peers to share their thoughts. “I’m happy we get the opportunity to show the good and the bad. If it was all good, you wouldn’t think anything needed to be changed.”
Wrapping up, Glass said to Fitzgerald, “When you go back to work in Lansing, there will be people who say Godfrey-Lee shouldn’t exist; that it’s too small of a district and should just be dissolved into Wyoming. Tell them this district is one mighty square mile.”