Sinking fund school money battle continues

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Williamston High School

By Cortney Erndt
Williamston Post staff writer

WILLIAMSTON — Williamston Community Schools still have leaking ceilings and a problematic boiler after the rejected Sinking Fund Proposal on the Nov. 6 ballot.

The proposal included a levy of 1.00 mill ($1 per $1,000 of taxable valuation) which would raise approximately $385,000 when first levied in 2012, beginning as soon as the proposal was passed. The sinking fund would have had a 10-year duration.

Local tax millage is levied on all property located in a local district. Allowable use of the district’s sinking funds would have been repairs on roofing, boilers, flooring and remodeling of existing school buildings.

The high school has been dealing with cracking floors, leaking ceilings and a broken boiler. School Board Member Steve Cook said the district also has eroding parking lots, rusted doors and damaged carpeting.
Before the proposal was rejected, Williamston High School Principal Dr. Jeffrey Thoenes said: “You can’t have a good building if it’s not maintained. You want to have a safe place that’s conducive to learning for students.”

Leaking ceilings in a Williamston High School hallway

 The district’s current debt structure will not allow bonds to be issued to pay for facility improvements. The last bond issue was in 2005.“They kind of patched [the boiler] together hoping to get the millage passed,” Thoenes said.

The sinking fund would not be used for wages and benefits, school vehicles, computers, or textbooks.

School Board Member Gordan Wenk said, “If we need a boiler or new roof, they will be covered by a sinking fund.”

Only basic, necessary repairs would be allowable use of the funds. However, the district’s plans for needed improvements add up to millions of dollars.

Williamston High School Senior Kaitlynn Bauer said she has noticed problems with the high school’s facilities.

“There are leaking ceilings in the cafeteria,” Bauer said, “and the heat does not work thus it

 is always cold.”Although the school board decided at its Nov. 19 meeting to attempt putting the proposal back on the ballot in early 2013, the sinking fund would not begin until February or May.

Sinking funds help schools maintain their buildings, avoid bonds, plan for building’s needs and costly one-time fixes, and maintain optimal learning conditions and adequate safety.Parents are concerned with the building’s strength and structure after Williamston High School Freshman Gabriel Corbett was killed Oct. 26, 2011. Corbett was in one of the locker rooms and attempted pull-ups on a wall that came crashing down. The six-foot wall was made of loose cinder blocks

WILX 10 reported Police Chief Bob Young said, “The preliminary investigation shows this was a tragic accident and we’re working hand-in-glove with Williamston schools,” after the incident.

Students and staff said they never saw the wall as a danger.

WLNS reported police have ended their investigation of the incident, ruling Corbett’s death an accident.

However, parents are still concerned their children are learning in unsafe conditions. They fear the quality of education is at risk.

Parent Tammy Stanley said: “I have kids in Williamston schools. They do a great job and I  want them to continue. If that means raising my taxes a little bit to make my kids more educated – OK, let’s do that.”

School board members agreed there was a lack of knowledge on the proposal.

Board Member Gordan Wenk said that despite putting articles in the local paper and making calls to voters, more work needs to be done if the proposal is going to pass.

“We need community members willing to talk and make presentations,” Wenk said, “The more folks talking about it, the better.”

Robin Roberts is a community member who plans on volunteering. Roberts has a daughter that attends Williamston High School. He said that the sinking fund is important to allow the schools safe and efficient operation.

“I volunteered to go out and talk to whoever I could talk to,” Roberts said, “Not just about the facts and figures, but about what it actually means to a citizen.”

If the Sinking Fund Proposal continues to be rejected, the school district will begin finding funds in other areas, possibly taking away from student learning.

Cook said, “We’re trying to compete in a competitive world. There’s already competition between the districts.”

Unlike Williamston, East Lansing, Owosso, Haslett, Okemos and other school districts in the area have sinking funds.

Williamston Community Schools’ main competitors, Okemos, East Lansing and Haslett, all receive more funding per student than Williamston, yet Williamston spends more money aimed at education than all of its competitors.

“They don’t have to use instructional money to repair their buildings,” Thoenes said.
A sinking fund is one way to meet the district’s maintenance needs without taking money from student learning.

Thoenes said, “We prioritize getting money to classroom instruction.”

However, some problems need be fixed regardless of whether the proposal is passed.

“The more immediate issues would be leaking and cooling,” Thoenes said.

Cook said the state does not provide funding for facility improvements. The more improvements made to facilities, the less money for classroom education without a sinking fund.

If the proposal does not pass in February or May, the district will eliminate or reduce funds from student-learning initiatives. Initiatives currently include service learning projects, integrated arts, the Math Science Academy, Model UN, InvenTeam, robotics classes, Project Lead the Way and Camp PaWaPi among others.

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