Schools demonstrate need, bond proponents say
For those who can't think of a single reason why Lansing school district needs a new elementary school for kindergarten through fifth grade, supporters say there are dozens. Among the key ones, they say, are safety issues, inadequate space and resources.
The district has proposed a bond issue for $23.6 million to build a new elementary building and a high school auditorium, which voters will approve or deny in the general election April 5. The new elementary school would take up $19.2 million of the bond.
Cari Foley is the parent of a first-grader in the district. She wasn't part of the Facilities Planning Committee that investigated the problems with the schools, but she said she knew before the bond issue was proposed that the schools needed work. Foley said she could tell by the age of the buildings, the student-teacher ratio and the number of people moving into Lansing that the current facilities wouldn't last much longer.
"I knew we needed a new school, but I wanted to know the details," she said.
Foley said found more information at PTA meetings and fliers put out by the bond proponents. For others, district officials and bond supporters gave many reasons to justify building the new school.
Lansing Schools Superintendent Randal Bagby puts one safety aspect behind the bond proposal this way:
"If I live south of the high school and I have a heart attack at 3 p.m., I'm cooked."
Bagby was referring to the traffic situation that plagues the area around the elementary and high schools campus.
Each day when school lets out, he said, cars driven by teenagers and parents line the streets surrounding the schools. On those narrow streets, he said, there is no room for drivers to pull over should an ambulance or fire truck need to get through.
The situation was only one concern of Bagby's and members of a Facilities Planning Committee that examined each of the district's schools to see if they were up to today's standards.
Traffic was a primary concern for Bagby and the committee.
In addition to the potential for an emergency situation at the height of school traffic flow, Bagby said the amount of foot and bike traffic combined with parents and high school drivers could make for a dangerous situation, especially because most of the people on foot and on bikes are elementary and intermediate school students.
Bagby said some of these students could be walking from one school to another to pick up siblings on the way home or to a parent's car. If students are trying to walk from the intermediate to the elementary school, they have to walk around the high school, possibly through the parking lot, to get there.
Another safety issue that concerns many, especially Janie Hodam, is the lack of doors on classrooms at the elementary building. Hodam, Lansing Elementary School counselor, said that if there was a fire in the LES building, there would be no way to stop it from spreading into classrooms because there are no doors.
Dale Bohannon, director of buildings and grounds for the district, said there were several reasons the classrooms did not have doors. First, he said, they are odd-sized and would require custom doors, which would be expensive. But the bigger problem, he said, was that codes would require any doors to open out from the classrooms, which would cause a bottleneck in the hallways. In an evacuation, he said, the doors would prevent students from exiting the building quickly.
Bernd Ingram, a member of the steering committee for the bond issue, said that in addition to safety issues, the lack of doors created a privacy concern. Without doors, he said, there is nothing to stop anyone from going into teachers' classrooms and potentially seeing students' grades.
The lack of doors isn't the only problem with the design of the LES building, which houses kindergarten through second grade, bond supporters say. The size and location of classrooms, the number of bathrooms and other problems contribute to their cries for a new building.
One problem bond supporters cite in much of their literature is the fact that some students have to go through other classrooms to get to their own.
Bohannon said there were three classrooms in the K-2 elementary building that have this problem. The affected classrooms are in the corners of the school and do not have direct access to a hallway, so the students have to file through another classroom to go to lunch, the library, the bathroom or any other area of the school, he said.
The same situation is true of the library - it is situated in the center of the building, and most of the hallways connect directly to it. Therefore, classes may have to walk through the library while other classes are working.
The size of each classroom is also an issue, Ingram said. He said that since the schools were built, teaching methods have changed. It's hard to fit desks for 20 students, a reading area, one or several computers and a teacher's desk, plus storage for teaching supplies, all in one classroom.
Ingram said that when he visited his son's classroom for a parent-teacher meeting, he couldn't even walk between the rows of desks because they were so close together.
The Intermediate School has the same problem, LIS principal Jan Jorgensen said. Because the building originally was designed for high school, each room was designed for one subject, and sometimes the original subject doesn't match up with the current one taught in the room. This is the case in the art room, which was originally a science lab. The high tables have sinks and gas lines for Bunsen burners in the middle of the work area.
Another challenge at the intermediate school, also stemming from its original use as a high school, is that space is tight in each classroom.
"Elementary school kids take up a lot more room than high-schoolers," Jorgensen said.
She explained that the younger students had larger desks and kept all their supplies with them because they don't change classrooms as would high school students.
LES Principal Tim Newton said the rooms were too small, but he couldn't do anything to ease the crunch - space in his school is maxed out.
"People say, 'Use an open classroom,'" he said. "Well, there aren't any."
In the case of the intermediate school, staff has found other nooks and crannies to use to maximize storage space - one example is the locker rooms, which are used to store extra chairs, tables, chalkboards and other items. The items stayed in the locker rooms even when high school teams used the rooms this winter when a water main pipe broke and flooded the gym.
"They just had to use around them," Jorgensen said.
Spreading kindergartners through fifth-graders into three buildings has other downsides, Ingram said. Instruction time is lost when students have to go between Sallie Zoll, which houses the third-grade classrooms, and the elementary building because the students have to suit up to face the elements. Students go back and forth to go to lunch, gym or the library in the elementary building and art class or the computer lab in Sallie Zoll.
Having three buildings also drains resources, Ingram said. Among them, the schools have two libraries and two gyms, requiring double the upkeep.
In addition to the other problems, bond supporters say none of the schools used for elementary-aged kids have enough bathrooms. In the K-2 building, there are two bathrooms each for boys and girls to serve 394 students; in the Sallie Zoll building, there is one set of bathrooms for 132 students.
Bagby said this caused long lines because in elementary schools, teachers take whole classes at the same time to the restroom.
Jorgensen said she had an additional problem at the intermediate school, where there is only one set of bathrooms for 280 students: the girls' bathroom is down the hallway from the boys', which causes a problem for teachers who are trying to keep an eye on all of their students.
The bathrooms aren't the only overloaded areas at the schools. The Sallie Zoll and K-2 buildings, built in 1964 and 1977, respectively, are not equipped to handle the amount of electricity the schools now use. The wiring is old, Bohannon said, and the schools trip circuits every day.
In Sallie Zoll, Bohannon said his crews had switched all of the available circuits in the building - two - to serve the computer lab. Still, computer aide Mary Jane York said she had to remove a printer and scanner from the room because the circuits could not handle the load of those and the 24 computers.
In addition to the computer lab, Newton said all classrooms in the K-2 building have, on average, three or four computers.
Bagby said that teaching with computers was part of the evolution of teaching styles. Not only are students learning in a new way, but they also are learning new techniques, he said. Bagby said researching methods and how to avoid plagiarism were just two lessons that could be incorporated with computer learning.
Ali Zeck, another member of the steering committee for the bond issue campaign, said it was crucial for students today to learn how to use computers.
"Computer and technical skills are part of life skills," she said.
Just fix it
Ingram said he knew that people would oppose building a new school. But, he said, a cursory glance doesn't show many of the problems.
"People walk in there and say, 'OK, they're old, but they look like they're in pretty good shape,'" he said. "You're not going to see something that's decrepit."
But some of the problems, like the electrical wiring, are under the surface, he said. And he said that it wasn't that those problems couldn't be fixed, necessarily, but that fixing mechanical problems in the old buildings would still require a bond issue, and it would not fix other problems identified in the schools.
"Could you rewire and replumb those buildings? Sure you could," he said. But that would require tearing down cinderblock walls to get to the problems, he said, in addition to the cost of fixing them.
"If you did do it, you'd spend almost as much" as building a new school, he said.
Ingram and Zeck agreed that if the bond doesn't pass next month, the same issues would come up again and again until a bond is passed, just as the current bond was proposed a little more than a year after the last bond issue was voted down in January 2003.
"The bottom line is this has to happen sometime," Zeck said. "If we expect our kids to be able to compete, we have to give them adequate resources."