Traverse City Record-Eagle

October 13, 2013

Schools on ballot

BY MICHAEL WALTON mwalton@record-eagle.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Todd Vipond needs time, materials and space to teach to curricular standards parents expect at Traverse City Area Public Schools.

The first two items are no problem, said Vipond, a music teacher at Eastern Elementary School. The last — space — is more elusive.

Vipond’s music room isn’t strictly his own. It doubles as an art classroom.

“What I do is all about the space,” Vipond said while standing in the doorway of his shared classroom one morning last week. “Many of our buildings, this is only one of them, the rooms have to pull double duty. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.”

Space shortages, cramped and poorly designed classrooms, and outdated infrastructure are commonplace at Eastern, Glenn Loomis and Interlochen elementary schools. That could change, pending the outcome of a $35.2-million, .2-mill TCAPS millage question slated to appear on the November ballot.

Reconstruction projects at the three elementary buildings are a core component of the tax increase proposal that also would fund school security improvements at Central High School and West Middle School, bus and technology replacements and a few lesser capital projects.

The measure would cost the owner of a home worth $200,000 in market value about $20 per year in additional taxes.

The cost of complete rebuilds at each of the elementary locations will range between $10 million and $11 million, district records show.

It’s an investment needed to bring three of TCAPS’ most rundown schools up to par with the district’s more modern facilities, school officials said. Without it, students, staff and parents of those schools will continue to endure the oddities of three facilities originally built more than a generation ago.

‘Hole-in-the-wall’ setup

Interlochen Community School is the oldest of the three elementary facilities poised to receive a total makeover. The original building dates to 1950, and an addition was built at the school about 25 years ago.

The school is composed of a single hallway and sits on 10 acres along M-137. Paul Mahon, TCAPS director of capital projects and maintenance, acknowledges the school isn’t much to look at from the outside.

“It’s kind of a hole-in-the-wall-type setup,” he said.

Internal infrastructure problems plague the school, Mahon said. Heating, electrical and mechanical systems are outdated, as is the school’s roof. None of those problems are unique to Interlochen — total infrastructure and roof replacements are including in all three reconstruction plans.

Amy Whittaker, mother of two Interlochen students, said the building’s old ventilation system causes problems for her children while they’re in class.

“A lot of times when the heat kicks on my kids get sick from their allergies,” Whittaker said. “It’s going to happen in an old building.”

Another bizarre quirk at Interlochen is a carpeted gymnasium that emits a distinctly mildewy smell.

Gym teacher Wendy Richmond said she’d love to see the gymnasium redone with millage dollars.

Interlochen Principal Angela Camp said the school’s layout and classroom designs limit opportunities for innovative programming.

“Our space is confined to a very traditional setup,” Camp said.

TCAPS officials will pilot an International Baccalaureate program at Interlochen next year. That will happen regardless of the millage outcome, but Camp said district officials ideally will be able to shape rebuilding plans to meet new programming needs, like more wireless Internet access points.

The school’s layout will change, too, with wings that branch off a core area instead of the single long hallway in place now, Mahon said. The front office would be moved to create a direct line of sight with the school’s entrance. That safety change is included in millage plans at the elementary schools, Central High School and West Middle School.

No parking

Space constraints are a big problem at 56-year-old Glenn Loomis Elementary School, the home of TCAPS’ Montessori program.

Roughly 400 students attend the school, and the building is out of classroom space, Montessori Director Lisa VanLoo said.

Some classes like music and art are relegated to carts that teachers push from one available space to the next.

Students sat on floor mats during a music class in the Glenn Loomis cafeteria one day last week while the clatter and clang of pots and pans echoed from the nearby kitchen.

In a different part of the school a small art class gathered on a hallway floor where children colored on paper plates with markers and crayons.

Teacher Megan Hancock has her own classroom at Glenn Loomis, but she said it’s too small. She hopes that will change with a successful millage.

“That would mean I wouldn’t have 29 students crowded into a classroom with no place to go,” she said.

Glenn Loomis also is short on office and storage space, and doesn’t have a parking lot. Every school day the surrounded side streets fill with employees’ cars and the vehicles of parents there to pick up and dropp off students.

Deb Risk lives across the street from the school. She’s not a fan of the arrangement.

“Traffic is really bad, especially when students get out of school,” Risk said from her front porch.

Risk said she supports the millage proposal, and said Glenn Loomis needs a parking lot of its own.

Reconstruction plans at Glenn Loomis call for a new parking lot, more space throughout the school and larger classrooms.

Blown fuses

Many of the problems at Interlochen and Glenn Loomis also are present at Eastern Elementary School. That building doesn’t have a parking lot, either, and it’s employees constantly are confronted with infrastructure concerns.

Don’t, for example, try to plug in one of the school’s laptop carts while the microwave in the teachers lounge is on, school staffers said. The combined electrical strain often blows a fuse.

Eastern, which was built in 1955, also lacks adequate space in nearly every way possible, Principal Angela Sides-McKay said.

The school’s cafeteria is small and poorly designed. Extra office space is non-existent. Sides-McKay shares her office with an assistant principal.

Mahon said TCAPS standards call for classrooms to be roughly 1,000- to 1,100- square feet. Many rooms at Eastern are as small as 700-square feet.

Sarah Marek, a kindergarten teacher at Eastern, said classroom space today isn’t used the way it was 50 years ago. Her classroom last week was partitioned into sections with different activities designated to different areas.

“Kids are not sitting in rows all listening to the teacher anymore.”

“Every inch matters to me,” Marek said.

Many parents whose children attend the three elementary schools said a .2-mill increase is a small price to pay to solve such problems.

“That seems like hardly anything for the benefit of the schools,” said Dani Staff, the parent of a forth grade student at Glenn Loomis. “Personally, I’m for it.”

But whether enough voters will agree to pass the millage remains unclear.

Chris Girrbach, a parent of an Eastern student, said it should help that TCAPS officials pared this year’s proposal from last year’s $100 million millage request following an extensive review of voters’ opinions.

For Vipond, the Eastern music teacher who shares a classroom, the millage is really about community members setting a bench-mark for TCAPS quality. Do they want TCAPS to be a top-10, maybe a top-five, district in the state?

“You’ve got great curriculum, you’ve got highly effective teachers, now you just need the design and the space to meet those goals,” he said.