A Lake Orion Review Editorial
No one denies that Lake Orion is a great school district.
Dragon pride runs deep in all of us and we all want what’s best for our students. They are, after all, the future of our community, just as children are the future of any family.
So, as the Nov. 6 general election draws near and voters head to the polls to decide the fate of a controversial $160 million bond proposal for Lake Orion Community Schools (LOCS), it’s not surprising that the rhetoric – and tempers – of those for and against the bond is heating up.
Especially from the school district’s side, which doesn’t seem to be able to tolerate any dissent about the proposed amount and financing, or whether some of the proposed projects are really “critical needs.”
The district is marketing this bond with emotional appeal and the tagline, “Safer, Smarter, Stronger” when it should more adequately be described as “Bigger, Better, More.” In a way, that’s understandable. LOCS wants to be able to say, “Look at us, we’re shinier than Clarkston and Rochester” and attract more people to Lake Orion schools.
Except we’re not Rochester or Clarkston. Rochester schools passed a $185 million bond in 2015, but that district has three high schools and, with 15,000 students, is much larger and wealthier. Clarkston passed a $75 million bond in 2016. Lake Orion is much more of a melting pot, with people from varied socio-economic backgrounds.
The bond proposal is for building, technology and security improvements. All of the district’s facilities would see construction improvements or complete rebuilds. If the bond passes, the district would build a new Blanche Sims Elementary ($28 million), a new Early Childhood Center ($18 million) and demolish more than half of the CERC building, where the early childhood programs are currently housed. The CERC campus has $38 million in total projects in the bond.
The elementary buildings would get new STEM labs (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) at $400,000 each.
All of the schools would get technology (new computers, for instance) and security upgrades (cameras, etc.). Many of the schools would also get better parent drop-off loops to ease traffic backups in the morning and when school gets out.
But all of the schools already have locked doors and cameras: visitors must be buzzed in at the main entrances. The high school has double-locked front doors with security personnel who sign in visitors.
The bond also includes a new auxiliary gym/multipurpose facility and STEM space ($4.7 million total) at the high school and new locker rooms for the football team. Not exactly critical or immediate needs, but hey, it’s taxpayer money.
So, does the district need a bond for facilities improvements, technology and security upgrades? No doubt. Just not this one.
The Review would support a reasonable bond proposal that truly addresses the district’s immediate needs. If, after that, the district comes back with another bond for the shiny enhancements, well, voters would have to decide if it was worth it to them.
The district is trying to sell the bond as a “No expected tax rate increase” bond. Which it is. The district would continue to levy the current rate of 7.491 mills.
However, the implication is that because it’s a no tax rate increase bond, homeowners won’t see a big jump in their taxes. The current bond debt, about $87 million, is expected to be paid off around 2028. But if the bond passes, it will extend payments out to about 2040.
If your taxes were going to go down and now they won’t, it’s a tax increase. If the taxable value of your home increases, you’re going to be paying more. When was the last time (the lottery not included) that you’ve heard of anyone, anywhere getting a $160 million for free? With interest, the bond will actually cost closer to $250 million.
Plus, with the current bond debt, the proposed bond, the interest on the proposed bond, the principle and interest borrowed from the School Loan Revolving Fund, the total projected bond debt from now until 2040 is $354 million. That’s a staggering number.
You read that right, the district has to borrow money in order to keep the tax rate at 7.491 mills for the first few years of the bond; if it didn’t, your taxes would really go up. Instead, you’ll just be paying the same tax rate for a longer period of time.
If a school district wants to remain competitive – to attract people to the community and secure schools of choice students – it does need to be a “modern” district with the facilities, teachers and programs that will prepare students for the future.
And, if you want a $160 million bond, the district’s financial gurus did do a good job structuring the debt the way they were asked.
But let’s be honest about what the school board and administration did: they drew a line at $160 million and said, “What can we get to stick under this amount?”
They didn’t say that they only needed $64 million, or $72 million or $80.5 million to address the district’s “critical needs.” Not everything in this bond is anywhere near a critical, or immediate, need.
We might, however, be able to support a bond if the district had handled the whole campaign better.
Instead, there’s been a reticence to get public input. Before the bond went to the state Dept. of Treasury for ballot approval the district didn’t hold a single community input meeting,
There’s been little actual explanation about the bond’s finances and projects. (Telling the average citizen, who isn’t an expert in bonds and financial matters, to go to the district’s website and read a 90-page bond document doesn’t count as an explanation.).
The district has held only three community input meetings – one in August and two last week. Better late than never, we guess.
School board members and Superintendent Marion Ginopolis have said that their bond company – GMB Architects + Engineering – had identified $300 million in needed work, but that the board pared it down to $160 million (for the “No tax rate increase” catchphrase).
If the district is facing $300 million in needed improvements and $160 million in critical/immediate needs then who is responsible for allowing the alleged catastrophe that is Lake Orion schools to get this far? The school board should have been on that and done something before now.
And let’s be honest, Lake Orion is a great school district, regularly a top five district in Oakland County in test scores, with good facilities overall. Blanche Sims is old, the hallways are narrower than at the newer schools and it needs some updates, but it’s not falling apart. It is not the Warsaw Ghetto that the administration and school board would lead you to believe.
And then the outright hostility with anyone who disagrees with the district or bond.
School board President Scott Taylor and incoming school board member Jake Singer are frequently online, quickly countering any “no” posts about the bond.
In the Lake Orion Chat Room, Taylor attacked a resident who posted school board Trustee Bill Holt’s letter to the editor, in which Holt said people should vote no on the bond proposal.
“what (sic) will your stand be if the bond does not pass and buildings start to crumble? Is that what you need to see? Bricks falling out of walls and failing foundations? The opposition to this endeavor is embarrassing for our current 8,000 students and the tens of thousands of student (sic) to come in the future,” Taylor wrote.
No Scott, what is embarrassing is for the school board president to consistently lose his temper and degrade a significant portion of the population because they disagree with him. And you don’t have 8,000 students. We might know that if the district would release its fall student count numbers before the election. What transparency.
When The Review published Trustee Bill Holt’s letter about why voters should vote no on the bond and a subsequent article after sitting down with Bill Holt to hear why a sitting board member opposed the bond, Lake Orion officials went ballistic.
Taylor took to social media to tell his followers that, “What I need is for people to flood The Review with letters to the editor.”
And during two school board meetings, the board’s officers (Taylor, Birgit McQuiston, Dana Mermell and Jim Weidman) spouted off about “fake news” and how the district provides the only “reliable information” in the wake of Holt’s letter.
Is their position so fragile that they cannot tolerate dissent? Is the bond so weak that it cannot stand on its own merits?
Is their legacy so important to them that they must demean and destroy any opposing viewpoint?
Singer, at least, tries to counter opposition by inundating people with facts and numbers. We hope he will be a new, refreshing voice on the board when he takes office.
Tell the district on Nov. 6 that you want a real plan for the future, one with open, honest leadership that truly includes actual input from the community and a plan that addresses real “critical needs”, not just window dressing.
It may cost $160 million or more, but if the community has a say and an opportunity to buy into the plan it will be worth it.
And don’t let the district cut programs the first year to pay for building improvements if the bond doesn’t pass. The list of program cuts floating around — so the district could divert those funds to building projects — is a scare tactic. District officials say it isn’t, that it’s the reality of the situation. But why would they put that list of cuts out there before the election for any other reason than getting some parents scared into saying, “Oh no, if we don’t pass the bond, they’re going to cut junior’s school programs.”
That’s not leadership.
The district still has the sinking fund, enough in the general fund and time to rework the bond and bring it back to the public before being forced to make program cuts. Is it ideal? No. Is it doable? Yes.
The district does need a bond and buy in from the community. Just not this bond, nor the way it’s been peddled.
Vote No on this bond and force the school board to come back with a proposal that truly addresses the district’s “critical needs.”
Editor’s Note: In order to be consistent with our election letters policy in the print edition, we will not be allowing any online comments related to the Nov. 6 general election. Per our policy, we did not publish any election-related letters after the Oct. 24 edition. Given this, it would not be fair or ethical to allow people to circumvent this policy by posting election-related comments online. Thank you for understanding.