• Title: Wise Capital Investment in East Lansing's Elementary Schools
  • Author: Mike Conlin
  • Date: 10/31/2016
  • Additional Categories: Recent Essays, Mike Conlin

Wise Capital Investment in East Lansing's Elementary Schools

Thanks to Charles Hoogstraten’s Public Response (Read Here) post a few weeks ago that articulated the candidates’ positions so well and describes many of the tradeoffs we face as a school district designing a bond proposal. I agree with Charles Hoogstraten that a wise capital investment is essential for ELPS. I’d like to provide my thoughts on the process for and characteristics of this investment.

There is no question ELPS desperately requires a capital investment in the elementary schools. The existing elementary school are not well designed for current needs. At Glencairn, for example, where my 4th grader attends, the music room shares the library and there are no spaces for group work outside the classrooms. In addition, the plumbing, and possibly other infrastructure, are outdated in very troubling ways. All of this is true AND class sizes are increasing. ELPS needs a bond that meets the long term building needs of East Lansing and contributes to increasing classroom resources. A wise capital investment that achieves both of these goals would pass easily in a community like East Lansing that highly values education.

To achieve this wise investment, I believe the following three criteria must be met.

1. Design capacity and space must meet our resident student body size and learning needs. The bond plan should determine the appropriate school sizes and classroom configurations for educating our approximately 2700 resident students. This design must address questions such as how big class sizes should be and how many classes of each grade in a school are best. The design should also consider how school of choice students will help maintain continuity in the classroom sizes for years into the future.
· Building too large would leave empty classrooms and other space. Empty space requires spending on utilities, maintenance and janitorial resources from the same pool of money that the district uses to pay teachers, paraprofessionals and other staff. The failed 2012 bond proposed buildings designed for 4200 students, 600 more than our 2012 student enrollment and 1500 more than our 2012 resident student enrollment. If we build excessively large school, utilities/maintenance/janitorial costs will force the district to reduce the number of teachers and raise class sizes in the short run. Ultimately, those brand new schools will face closure once the financial strain of upkeep becomes too great. Many Michigan school districts are struggling to find uses for new buildings that are too large to house their student bodies, which distracts from the educational experience of their students.
2. The design of the capacity and space must be generated from objective experts on issues like renovating versus rebuilding, predicting future student population, and building configuration. Once proposed, the bond proposal should be carefully reviewed by the school board and an additional set of objective, outside experts. A bond that is well understood and backed by experts who do not stand to gain from the renovations/new construction will rebuild confidence in the process/school board and ensure an easy bond passage.
· The 2012 bond was proposed and heavily promoted by the architects, construction firm, bond underwriter, school district lawyers and others who stood to gain most from bond passage. Instead, a wise bond places the long term needs of the students, teachers, staff and taxpayers at the center.
3. Our tax expenditure on the bond must be efficient/well-targeted and avoid raising more money than is necessary to achieve the optimal elementary school buildings. Beyond undermining the ability to keep all the new school buildings open in the long run, committing to an excessively large, long term bond will make East Lansing voters hesitant to raise money to pay teacher salaries through tax tools like a recreational millage. It will also limit our ability to approve taxes for future capital or technological needs.

We must pass a bond that will contribute to reducing class sizes and putting more teachers and paraprofessionals in the classrooms. I would urge all East Lansing residents to educate themselves on the details of any new bond proposal and not advocate until they have a thorough understanding of the bond’s implication on class room resources. We can have beautiful new buildings and more classroom resources, if the plan addresses the needs of the district.

Mike Conlin
MSU Professor of Economics

[The information in this post is based on my research and represent my views. They do not necessarily represent the views of MSU.]

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