By Megan Kelley
As you may well know already, on Nov. 6 Lake Orion residents will cast their votes on a $160 million bond proposal for Lake Orion Community Schools.
The proposal has been in the works for some time now and has been a big topic of conversation at past board meetings.
Lake Orion schools administrators and school board members tout the 10-year, 7.49 mills bond proposal as a “No tax rate increase” bond, keeping the current bond rate.
While most board members seem to favor the proposal, there is one sole member that has openly rejected the bond as it stands now – Trustee Bill Holt.
In last week’s issue of The Review, Holt had written a letter to the editor urging voters to vote ‘no’ on the bond come November.
Holt’s comments have already garnered a backlash from district officials, who took exception to his letter. Their responses are on page 6 of this issue.
Holt recently sat down with The Lake Orion Review to explain his opposition to the bond in its current form.
“The issue in my mind is that we have a declining student population, not only in Orion but in the state and country and around the world.”
Holt has had two children graduate from Lake Orion and has been a board member since 2012. He added that “99 percent of the time” he votes with the rest of the board.
“This is a rare occasion to disagree,” he said.
He’s served Lake Orion School’s for six years now and in his final few months as a trustee, has raised some serious concerns about the bond that has seemingly been glossed over, or perhaps ignored, by his fellow board members.
Holt, a chemist and a business owner, is a numbers guy. As he outlined in his letter, statewide, the student population is in decline. In 2010, the student population was 1,604,580 and this year (2018) the student population is just 1,475,962.
The past eight years have shown a steady decrease in enrollment, and Holt cites Rochester Schools (which ignored the decrease and opened a third high school) and Bloomfield Schools (which recognized it and consolidated their students into one high school) when discussing schools that have recently dealt with student enrollment numbers at their facilities.
To be clear, Holt is not opposed to the bond. He is merely opposed to $51.5 million of it. He does not deny that there are capital improvements that need to be made.
“I think that the needs are legitimate for security, technology and improvements to the schools,” Holt said. “There’s still almost $110 million I would vote for, but (not $160 million).”
Holt specifically opposes three proposed projects:
• The $26 million to build a new Blanche Sims elementary instead of renovating the existing facility.
• $17.9 million for a proposed Early Childhood Center on the vacant land north of Orion Oaks Elementary off of Joslyn and Clarkston roads.
• $7.6 million to demolish about half of the CERC (Community Education Resource Center) building between Scripps and Stadium.
Holt also opposed building additional classrooms at the schools.
“At this point, I don’t see there’s any choice but to vote it down,” Holt said. “As I’ve told the board, I don’t want to waste $51.5 million.”
Moreover, the bond calls for the addition of STEM space to the elementary schools and the high school. The budgeted cost of building STEM labs at each of the elementary buildings is $400,000 per school.
“I think STEM is a high priority. That’s where the world is going and there’s been too little advancement in science.”
While he admits he could “nitpick” the proposed details of the bond for every site, he agrees that the district does need upgrades in technology.
As for the early childhood center, Holt is not opposed to having an early childhood center – he agrees that it is probably necessary to stay competitive as a district. He is however, opposed to building one and feels that the district should renovate the CERC building.
He points out that there is already a daycare facility right across Clarkston Road from where the proposed early childhood center would be placed.
“It’s not the role of public schools to be a daycare or babysitting facility,” Holt said. “To the extent that this is a benefit of educating kids, I’m all for it.”
Unlike the campaign for the Sinking Fund, which passed in 2016 with 58 percent of voters supporting it, Holt doesn’t feel the school board did an adequate job of getting input from the community before drafting the projects list.
For the Sinking Fund, the district had put together a committee of community members who discussed the district’s needs before it was proposed. No such committee was created for the bond proposal. The community was told what the district needed.
Only after the school board voted to put the bond before voters did district officials hold a community forum in August to answer questions.
“I highly encouraged our superintendent to go to the community and get input on these issues,” Holt said. “How do we know how the community really feels about it? We needed to get the community involved with this. It certainly is a negative to try to get people to vote ‘yes.’”
Holt explained that the district and its bond engineers, GMB Architects + Engineering, did send out a community survey but added that he didn’t know the questions that were on the survey.
Although he disagrees with them, Holt remains supportive of his fellow board members, emphasizing that he has great respect for them and does not want to criticize their position.
“I’m sure everybody’s intentions are good and honorable. But they went along with the superintendent and decided not to do a community input committee.”
As for his prediction on the election: “It’s going to depend on how informed the public is. If they’re aware of these issues, they’ll vote against it,” he said. “If the voters get the message that we’re wasting $50 million, then they’re going to vote this down.”
Editor Jim Newell contributed to this report.