• Title: ELPS Construction Bond & Steven Haider’s December 1, 2016 Open Letter
  • Author: Mike Conlin
  • Date: 12/10/2016
  • Additional Categories: Recent Essays, Mike Conlin

ELPS Construction Bond & Steven Haider’s December 1, 2016 Open Letter

Below is an open letter written by Steven Haider –a member of the recent ELPS community bond committee. I think Steven’s letter provides a framework to think about district size, programming at Red Cedar and the construction process that the committee report does not consider (ELPS Elementary School Community Bond Committee, November 28, 2016 Report ). (While my preferences do not align perfectly with what Steven has proposed, his letter is clearly thoughtful.) I think it is important to stress that the committee was constrained to not changing the size of the student body and to not explicitly consider programming. I also think it is important to stress that, as Steven mentions, some of the rule of thumb numbers were provided by the architects and construction firm. As a mechanical engineer who worked in the Chicago construction industry in the mid-1980’s and being fully aware of who funded/promoted the failed 2012 school bond, I naturally worry about having profit maximizing companies (that stand to benefit from the construction) provide cost estimates. This is especially true given that the “bidding process” on school construction projects in Michigan is not transparent.
Mike Conlin

Steven Haider’s December 1, 2016 Open Letter

Dear Community Members:

I served on the Community Bond Committee, and I believe that the report accurately reflects the consensus view of the committee and provides an appropriate analysis that worked within the parameters that were given to us (which were many), in the time frame that we had (which was short), and with the expertise we brought (which was modest given most of us have not been involved with building schools before).

I believe that two of the parameters we were given restricted us from examining the most important issues that exist in building our new elementary schools. Specifically, we did not systematically analyze changing the size of our K-5 population, nor did we systematically consider the number of buildings that should be operated at the K-5 level. Instead, we assumed we would keep our K-5 population constant, and we did not make strong statements about how programming should occur across the buildings.

In this open letter, I provide my personal view on these key issues, which are related. To justify my views, I first provide a few “rule of thumb” numbers that were developed as part of the Community Bond Committee and are consistent with the report itself.


Some Rule of Thumb Numbers

1. To meet our operating costs, we need about 24 students per class on average across all K-5 grades. This number is determined by the foundation grant that the state provides per student (the main source of revenue to educate our students) and the subsequent costs of providing an education. This number is very close to what we have in 2016-17, although this average masks a great deal of variability across schools and grades. [Footnote: According to the September 9, 2016 enrollment report, we have 1,626 students in grades K-5 and 68 classrooms, delivering 23.9 students per classroom. As examples of the variability across grades, Glencairn K has 25.0 students per classroom, whereas Marble K has 21.0 students per classroom; Marble 1st grade has 26.0 students per classroom, whereas Donley 1st grade has 17.5 students per classroom; Whitehills 2nd grade 25.0 students per classroom, where Pinecrest has 23.0 students per classroom; etc.] If we want class sizes that are smaller than 24 per classroom, we need to (a) elect representatives that will increase the foundation grant per student and/or (b) build schools that pay careful attention to reducing operating costs, which is part of the point of my suggestions below.

2. Modern schools are built with about 160 sq. ft. per student. This figure is substantially larger than the 122 sq. ft. per student we currently have in the district. This extra space was one of the biggest pleas of parents and teachers. Please note, built into this number is adequate space for special education needs, art and music needs, etc.

3. Building a modern, brand new school will cost about $300 per sq. ft. This cost estimate is based on discussions the between the CBC and the architect and the construction firms that the District retained. This cost includes the $195 per square for building the school, but also the cost of demolition, site preparation, landscape/hardscape the property, furniture, and technology costs. Large-scale renovations, which would include gutting a building down to its shell, would roughly cost $225 per sq. ft. Less extensive renovations, such as would be necessary to just renovate a gym, would cost less.

4. Our district is currently comprised of 22.8% of students who are School of Choice (SOC). While there is variability across grades in this percent, I apply this percent to the entire district for ease of calculations.

My View: We Should Reduce our K-5 Elementary Population

Reducing our K-5 elementary population will generate capital cost savings as we rebuild our schools, as well as improve the operations of our district. For sake of discussion, I consider shrinking our K-5 population of 1,630 students, which includes about 370 SOC children, by 120 students — the exact number would depend on various factors I allude to below.

Here are the specific points that motivate this suggestion.

1. The reduction of 120 students would reduce our need for building new schools by almost $5.8 million (120 fewer students multiplied by 160 sq. ft. and multiplied again by $300 per sq. ft.). We have a responsibility to the homeowners in our district, particularly those who are already making financial sacrifices to live here, to build responsibly.

2. This reduction will make it much easier to program our schools. A reduction to 1,510 students would result in 63 teaching stations (1,510 ÷ 24 = 62.9). This number of teaching stations is easily accommodated in five small schools, with each housing two sections of K-5 grades per school (5 x 12 = 60); I will come back to the 3 extra teaching stations below. Thus, by shrinking the number of students, we will obtain a much more stable and workable configuration for our five schools. [Footnote: Some may argue we should instead build 6 schools with 2 classes for each grade. That would result in 72 teaching stations (6 x 12 = 72) or 1,728 students (72 x 24 = 1,728). Such a configuration implies that we would be increasing our K-5 population by 100 additional SOC children (our current K-5 population is 1,630), which in turn would increase the SOC children in the district by about 217 students (the elementary SOC will eventually go to the middle school and high school). Such an increase would necessitate us further adding on to the middle school because it is already at capacity and increase the total fraction of SOC in our district to be over 27%.]

3. This reduction would still retain a substantial presence of School of Choice children. Our current SOC population at the K-5 level is about 370. Thus, a reduction of 120 SOC children would still leave us with 250 SOC. This level of SOC is still substantial enough to smooth over variation in residential population across schools and over time. Please note that this necessarily would be done without eliminating any current SOC from the district, but rather, it would be done by shrinking incoming cohorts to the desired level. [Footnote: This will still leave a substantial SOC population in our district. Specifically, similar to the calculation in the previous footnote, shrinking our elementary SOC population by 120 is equivalent to shrinking the district SOC population by 260 (or 20 per grade). Such a reduction would still leave the district with almost 17% SOC.]

4. This reduction will have small effects on the middle school and high school. Reducing our elementary population by 120 is equivalent to reducing each grade by 20 students (120 ÷ 6 = 20). Thus, this reduction would reduce the number of students at the middle school by 60 total students (because it has grades 6th – 8th) and the high school by 80 total students. This reduction will benefit the middle school because of the frequent claims it is overcrowded. Some have argued that this reduction will adversely affect the high school because it is already at its minimum size to be able to offer the desired mix of courses. Would losing 20 fewer students in each grade really affect our course offerings? I find that hard to believe in a high school that currently has over 1100 students. If that is the case, specific evidence should be provided for this in terms of current enrollments and course offerings. And even if we were to lose, say, 1 AP course, that loss should be weighed against the other benefits that exist.

5. So what happens to Red Cedar? I make three separate points.

· Red Cedar was a school that was in the best physical shape of all of our schools and had a unique, international community. Unfortunately, the school also had the fewest residents nearby. Whether or not the latter attribute is sufficient to offset its positive attributes deeply divided the community, but that decision was made and Red Cedar was closed. Where we stand now is that we have a pretty good building on the Red Cedar site, the previous, unique schooling community is gone, and there are still relatively fewer residents living near Red Cedar as compared to our other properties. Given where things stand today, I believe the other five sites should house our five elementary schools.

· In the short term, Red Cedar is a very important asset to rebuilding our schools. Indeed, it will greatly simplify rebuilding our elementary schools by using it as a “swing school”—a school to temporarily house students as their new school is built. This is important because only one of our properties, Donley, is large enough to have two schools operating on it simultaneously. By additionally using Red Cedar, we will significantly reduce the time for rebuilding our schools. This would work because we could first renovate Red Cedar sufficiently to serve as a swing school and simultaneously build a new school on Donley—call this Phase 1. [Footnote: The cost of these renovations is far less than the $9m that is in the CBC report. The $9m includes a complete gutting of the building. Renovations sufficient for using it as a swing school for 5 or so years would be much less.] In Phase 2, we would use the old Donley building and Red Cedar to house the next two schools to be rebuilt (Donley students would occupy the new Donley building). In Phase 3, we could then rebuild the two remaining schools, again using Red Cedar and old Donley to house the displaced students. In contrast, if we just had old Donley available to serve as a “swing school,” we could only rebuild one school at a time, and thus requiring two additional phases. No short term plans should be made for Red Cedar because its existence as a swing school will help us rebuild our schools in a much more expeditious fashion and ultimately reduces the costs of rebuilding our elementary schools.

· In the long term, it appears that MSU may be interested in using part of Red Cedar for childcare and pre-K needs its employees have. In addition, the district is in desperate need of expanding our own pre-K offerings to meet guidelines for serving our current special needs pre-K students. Finally, note that I kept open the possibility of having 3 additional teaching stations in my calculations above. Perhaps we could make Red Cedar into an early childhood educational facility, housing MSU’s pre-K needs, the district’s pre-K needs, and perhaps even having K-2 teaching stations that would serve to reduce the class sizes across the district (to the extent that the pre-K students come from throughout the district, so would the K-2 students who enroll there). Such a facility, if properly planned and was determined to be financially sound, could serve our community very well and perhaps even be the envy of other districts in Michigan. The development of such a plan will take time—and we have time because we need to use Red Cedar in the short-term as a swing school. I would advocate that, if all of the appropriate agreements can be struck and it made financial and educational sense for the district, we should consider making Red Cedar into such an early childhood educational facility. This would require putting forth another bond to voters for a well-targeted renovation/rebuilding of Red Cedar to suit the specific purposes that were developed.

6. But what if we grow? Our resident enrollment has been flat for a decade and it is well-known that the school-age population will be shrinking state-wide. Even if one doesn’t believe those state-wide demographic trends will be present in East Lansing, they certainly will affect our largest employer, MSU. Given these factors, I believe it to be very unlikely that East Lansing will substantially grow in the coming decades (small-scale growth is not a problem because we would still have almost 17% SOC district-wide if we implemented the K-5 reduction I describe above). With that said, of course, these predictions could be wrong. The prudent course of action is to design several of our elementary schools to be expandable in the future if additional space is needed. This will be far cheaper than building too big now and paying for the excess space until it is needed.

What My View Implies for How We Proceed

While I firmly believe that there are many benefits to shrinking the size of our elementary population, there are different reasonable ways to do so. Here is one scenario that I believe would work well, recognizing that some opportunities may develop for Red Cedar.

· Step 1. We initially bond to build five new schools at our current sites to house 1,500 students K-5 students (including 2 Developmental Kindergarten classes), one pre-K pod of four classrooms (Early Learner / Special Education, Great Start, Head Start), and to improve Red Cedar sufficiently enough to serve as a swing school. My rough estimate is that this would cost about $72 million. The pre-K pod should tentatively be slated to be at one of the Phase 2 or 3 schools to allow ample opportunity to assess Step 2.

· Step 2. We work with MSU to better identify their goals and how they relate to our district goals. In addition, we further study the pre-K needs of the area and work with other community partners, such as the Ingham ISD, to see what sort of additional cooperation may be useful for the future of Red Cedar. Once such information is gathered, we can then decide on the long-term disposition of Red Cedar. If it makes sense to develop the site as an early childhood learning center, we would need to propose another bond to renovate/rebuild it to suit these specific purposes, perhaps shifting the pre-K pod and Developmental Kindergarten to Red Cedar and perhaps adding 3 or so additional units K-2 classrooms.

I would be happy to receive responses to any of the points I raise above, particularly if I have made any factual errors. Moreover, I am not tied to any particular level of reduction. Rather, I write this letter because I believe the evidence solidly points to a reduction being beneficial to the district, and I hope the School Board carefully explores what level of reduction is appropriate for our community.

Sincerely,

Steven Haider
Father of Glencairn and Pinecrest children
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