East Lansing community suspects closing school movement

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By Tori Zackery
Entirely East Lansing

In 2003, three elementary schools and education centers serviced the East Lansing communities near Michigan State University. By 2016, those schools had long disappeared.

When Red Cedar Elementary School shut its doors in 2014, it cemented what some believed to be a closing school movement in East Lansing. Spartan Village School, Bailey Community Center and Red Cedar Elementary had been community staples, educating the children of graduate students and young families living near Michigan State University. For many, the closings of the schools came to the detriment of the local neighborhoods.

“You perhaps get the sense that when people voted to close a school or supported the closing of a school or opposed the reopening of a school, they did it because they don’t believe in neighborhood schools,” said Fred Jacobs, a resident of Red Cedar neighborhood.

Directly affected by the recent closing of Red Cedar was the Arbor Forest apartment complex. The complex, located off of Harrison Road, is walking distance from the vacant elementary building. According to apartment manager Deb Robinson, more than five families have moved since the closing.

“It has had a big impact on Arbor Forest,” said Robinson. “No families with school age children have moved in since. This had been a location where young families could live and transition into homeowners.”

Without a nearby school, students living in the area have to take an hour bus ride to one of the remaining elementary buildings in the East Lansing Public Schools district. For Robinson, the now vacant Red Cedar School sits as a reminder of wasted time and money.

In 2003, the neighborhood community raised $15,000 to build a new playground for the school. An additional $6,000 was used to purchase the electronic sign that sits outside of the building.

“No consideration was put into how much money was put into the school before it closed,” said Robinson.

The school board voted to close Red Cedar in 2014 after approving a major reconfiguration project aimed at saving the district money. Also considered was the low number of students who walked to school.

According to school board member and former Red Cedar Elementary parent Karen Hoene, the decision to close the building was not an educated one.

“What made this decision so controversial was that the district had formed a committee to study the schools and to make a recommendation to the board, and the committee had concluded that closing only one school would not save the district enough money to justify the closure,” wrote Hoene in an email.

Hoene had served on this committee and when the district decided to close Red Cedar anyway, she ran for the school board. It is her belief that the collateral damage of closing neighborhood schools is not worth the financial savings. Still, budget cuts remained a common theme in the closings.

In 2003, Spartan Village School closed due to district budget cuts. Sixty children from the school were moved to Red Cedar School.

In 2015, Bailey Community Center, formerly Liberty Hyde Bailey School, shut it doors after succumbing to maintenance and repair costs. Over 75 percent of the children benefiting from services at Bailey had at least one parent who is a faculty, staff or a student at Michigan State. Protests erupted when announcements of the closing were made, similar to the frustration felt  with Red Cedar.

Much of the community’s frustration is rooted in there being a lack of elementary education on their side of town. With the district’s remaining five schools being on East Lansing’s north side, MSU Professor Kenneth Harrow believes the school closings were an issue of race and class.

According to Harrow, students that attended the schools, Red Cedar especially, came from a variety of backgrounds. A large majority were children of graduate students and represented 45 different countries. Other students were school-of-choice, meaning they came from different districts. The closings not only broke apart the diverse culture built at the school, but also disregarded its significance.

“Red Cedar was the only school in the district where the majority is minorities,” said Harrow. “It’s the poorer part of the city and a more modest middle class and attracted students from the Greater Lansing Area. The other communities had a refusal to consider and refusal to make any gesture to support.”

When the school board announced plans to reopen Red Cedar in December 2015, they were met with opposition from other schools and communities in the district. Harrow said the complaints against the reopening were ironic.

“They said it was inconvenient to send their kids all the way out to Red Cedar, but wanted us to send our children to them,” said Harrow.

In February 2016, the school board rescinded on plans to reopen the school, further weakening their relationship with the community.

“Once a decision has been made, stand by it,” said Robinson, who once served as the Red Cedar Community Association’s treasurer. “ It is very inefficient to make a decision and then change it when somebody doesn’t like it. Why have that decision-making body if they’re not going to stand by their decisions?”

While she holds on to hope that the neighborhood school will one day reopen, Robinson said she knows it isn’t likely. She joins the host of community members that hope the school buildings will be utilized in some way.