As we move forward, we will be very mindful and sensitive to all of our children and families in the district most of whom will be reassigned to new schools next fall so that the transition will be as smooth as possible. Of course, we will need the help of our parents to do so. As you talk with your children, you can encourage them to see this as a positive change and assure them that wherever they attend, they will be welcomed by a warm, caring and supportive principal, teachers and support staff. – Superintendent Marion Ginopolis
By Jim Newell
Review Staff Writer
The Lake Orion school district has known for some time it would need to take steps to cut costs and realign the district to fit declining student enrollment. On Nov. 16, the Board of Education voted unanimously to close Pine Tree Elementary.
The board also voted unanimously to eliminate the focus school structure, redistrict the six remaining elementary schools and all the middle school boundaries and suspend intra-district open enrollment for the 2017-18 school year.
The decision to close a school comes after months of discussion, in which Webber Elementary had first been proposed on Sept. 28 as the school to close as part of the district’s restructuring plans.
Pine Tree had initially been proposed as a second option should the board choose not to close Webber. Many in the community were left wondering why the board seemed to suddenly switch their position this month from closing Webber to closing Pine Tree.
More than a hundred residents packed the board room and hallways, with dozens – many of them Pine Tree parents – pleading with the board to reconsider during the public comments portion of the meeting.
“It’s not been the situation that at the last meeting we turned (the decision to close a school) to Pine Tree. We narrowed it down to Pine Tree or Webber,” said Trustee Connie Meech. “It just makes sense, geographically, for it to be Pine Tree.”
Board members said the decisions were a necessity to cut costs. Administrators and board members have said that the declining enrollment due to “ageing out” – graduating more students than those being enrolled – and reductions in state aid have led to the current financial crisis.
Closing Pine Tree will save the district about $500,000 annually in operating costs, said Superintendent Marion Ginopolis.
The board has also put on hold any decision to sell its properties. Ginopolis said the board will explore land sale options at a future date.
The remaining elementary buildings – Blanche Sims, Carpenter, Paint Creek, Stadium, Orion Oaks and Webber – will become “neighborhood” schools, with students attending the elementary in their area.
The focus schools – multiage at Orion Oaks, balanced calendar (year-round) at Carpenter and arts focus at Stadium – have been eliminated.
The intra-district enrollment option – meaning a student who would have attended Blanche Sims, for instance, could have applied to attend Webber Elementary – is also eliminated.
The board did vote to continue accepting students from outside the district as part of the schools of choice program, and capped the number of out-of-district students who could attend Lake Orion schools at ten percent of the student population in any school.
“Our main goal will continue to be to maintain and enhance education for our students. That is our main priority,” Ginopolis said.
If the district did not make any changes, the projected 2017 fiscal year operating deficit is $3.9 million: this includes the 2016 fiscal year operating deficit, revenue loss from declining student population and expected expense increases, according to an administrative presentation at the board meeting.
During phase 1 of the restructuring process, the district has managed to cut costs and save $2.75 million.
During phase 2 – the current phase of restructuring – the district could erase its projected $4 million deficit by closing one elementary school, eliminating some staff at Stadium Drive Elementary, revenue from schools of choice and savings from transportation costs.
District administrators initially recommended closing Webber because the district could see as much as $4 million for the sale of the 38-acre complex, which includes the Moose Tree Nature Center.
That area is zoned single-family residential and could also bring the district as many as 40 students once the land is developed.
Ginopolis added that it costs about $500,000 annually to operate Webber Elementary, and that Moose Tree’s operating costs are $50,000 each year. Webber also has the highest critical needs for repairs, about $2.6 million.
Pine Tree Elementary, which has land for new housing development and could yield a return if sold. However, Ginopolis said the board has not made any decision on selling Pine Tree or repurposing it at this time.
Pine Tree also has a high repair cost, estimated at more than $2.1 million over the next six years.
By eliminating focus schools, the district could save $230,000 – $306,000 per year on reduced busing, and more on decreased program costs.
The administration also previously recommended continuing the balanced calendar year (year-round) program but moving it to Orion Oaks.
“I have a fiduciary responsibility to all students of this district,” said Trustee Steve Drakos. “I want the whole community to know that we are taking this seriously. It’s not easy and now is the time when we need to stay united.”
“From the beginning of this process, identification of both Webber and Pine Tree were considered for closure.
This was based on the location of these two schools in relation to where the other elementary schools are located in the district, as well as where the population of students reside and revenue that could be generated from the sale of district assets,” Ginopolis said.
“At the November 2 Board workshop, a great deal of data was presented to the Board regarding school capacity and possible elementary attendance boundaries.
At this workshop the Board unanimously agreed (not a formal vote) that they would eliminate the focus school structure and that they did not want to sell the Webber complex or any other school facility at this time.”
“The administration then presented the Board with extensive details on the capacity for each elementary school based on current and projected enrollment.
Looking at location of Webber and Pine Tree in relation to student population in the district and building capacity for future growth, the Board again conducted an informal poll determining that Pine Tree was identified as the school to be closed.
While I know that this decision/explanation may not be accepted by the families whose children attend Pine Tree Elementary, I hope it clarifies how the decision was made.”
— Supt. Marion Ginopolis on the Board of Education decision to close Pine Tree Elementary