LO school board confronted with ‘Critical Decisions’

By Jim Newell
Review Staff Writer
The Lake Orion school board is considering closing up to two schools, if any, though which ones are yet to be determined. The board also is considering selling some of its property, up to four different parcels, or none.
If it sounds noncommittal, it is. Superintendent Marion Ginopolis and board members stressed that while the district has been talking about closing schools and redistricting for a while, the board is still in the early planning stages of executing these actions.
Representatives from Plante Moran Cresa real estate consulting firm presented their findings of a study, commissioned by LO schools, during a school board workshop on Monday.
Based on the school utilization, real estate and capital assessment study, Paul Wills, a partner with Plante Moran, recommended the district could close two schools and sell vacant land at the Moose Tree property adjacent to Webber Elementary and district-owned property at Clarkston and Adams roads in Oakland Township.
The Oakland Township property would be about 20 acres of wooded land and could be worth as much as $2.1 million. The Moose Tree property could be as much as 28 acres and bring in $2.9 million. This does not include the school building and nature center, and district officials said there could be a 100 foot wooded barrier between the property sold and school lands.
Both properties under consideration are zoned for single-family residential use, and would be the quickest way for the district to monetize its real estate assets, Wills said.
“These are critical decisions the board is going to have to make for our district,” Ginopolis said.
“These are just their suggestions, the board will make any decisions” whether or not to sell properties and close schools, said board President Scott Taylor.
The district has known for some time that the declining student population is based on “ageing out” – graduating seniors than enrolling kids in school. Based on enrollment numbers and births that the district would likely enroll when the kids are of school age, Wills projected that the student population would be stable for the next five years.
Projections included a total student population of about 7,500 for the next several years, with 2,300 – 2,400 students at the high school. The district is also stable with the percentage of students it’s getting into the schools, Wills said.
However, even if the student population levels out, the district is still under utilizing its building space. For example, Blanche Sims is only utilizing 59 percent of its available student classroom space, while Carpenter Elementary is at 94 percent, said Andy Fountain, associate with Plante Moran.
The three middle schools are in the 64-68 percent range, with 1,057 students and a capacity of 2,632 students.
“I guess the question is ‘What’s wrong with us shrinking some? Is it more financially responsible,’” Taylor said.
The board will also have to consider whether to continue letting in school of choice students, and how many. “It will not determine whether or not we close a school, but it is something to consider,” Ginopolis said. “We only take schools of choice if there is space available in the classroom.”
As for possibly closing schools, the board did not take any action or suggest which, if any, schools to close. Plante Moran associates said the district could close two elementary schools to better utilize those schools, or close an elementary and a middle school.
If the district did close elementary schools, and then had an increase in the number of elementary students, the option exists to move fifth graders into a middle school.
“I think every child in Lake Orion schools has the right to excellent schools,” Taylor said. “We have 1,000 less kids than 12 years ago when we built the last school. If you ran a business that way, you’d be out of business.”
“I realize that it sucks, because somebody is going to be upset. It might be my kids (affected by the school closings) but things have to be done,” Taylor said. “We all have an emotional tie to our schools.”
“We can’t close two or even one school until we know what we want to look like,” said vice-president Deb Porter.
“It’s very difficult to maintain a district with 11 schools,” Ginopolis said. “It’s very hard financially.”
The desired tentative timeline for the school board to make its decisions is:
· Sept. 28: should the district sell any assets, which ones and when should they be sold?
· Oct. 12: should the district close a school, how many, at which levels and should the district continue to accept schools of choice (capped at 10 percent)?
· Nov. 16: if the district closes a school(s), which schools should be considered for closure based on the facility needs of that building as well as capacity?
Other critical decisions the school board must contend with include: focus schools, transportation, repurposing a school, redistricting plans for families and the community and intra-district open enrollment.
The school board next meets at the Administration Building on Lapeer Street at 7 p.m. Sept. 28.