LAS Superintendent Shares Priorities for $104M Proposed Bond Money

Remodeling outdated, oddly-designed elementary classrooms, updating decrepit heating and cooling systems, and replacing worn out playground equipment are three of the many highlighted items that have been pinpointed to receive attention if a May 7 bond proposal passes.

The Lowell community will have the chance to vote on this bond proposal, which will provide $104 million to fund various facility improvements at all eight of the district’s school buildings plus the high school athletic areas. If the bond passes, it will allow the district to make wide-sweeping repairs and renovations, and a property tax rate increase is not expected. Instead, the bond proposal maintains the current debt millage rate.

Lowell Area Schools Superintendent Nate Fowler explained that the per-pupil grant that schools receive from the State of Michigan is enough to cover operational expenses, and about 80% of that money goes toward staffing. It does not cover facilities projects. The bond process is simply the way schools ask for support from their communities in order to pay for the upkeep and renovation of their facilities.

“We have the sinking fund which is a 1 mil levy on residents’ homes,” Fowler says. “We use that like a savings account, and we use that for general maintenance projects. We’ve used it to add secure entrances at each of our buildings; we’ve used it to keep our parking lots and our roofs maintained.

But the bond is for projects that are even beyond that. The example is the aging equipment at the high school. We were pretty proud after the 2019 bond to be able to say that all of our classrooms are air conditioned in Lowell. It’s a benefit to be able to have a comfortable, clean-air environment for kids to be able to learn. But it’s getting harder and harder to do that, especially at the high school where it’s just harder to control the temperature with aging equipment.“

In order to identify areas that need attention, Fowler said he did a walk-through of all LAS buildings with facilities staff and representatives from architecture firm TowerPinkster and construction company Owen Ames Kimball in 2022. The 30 year-old high school’s heating and cooling system stood out as a main priority.

“To just put it into context and put a price tag on it, this is going to be a huge project. We’d have to use 25-30 years of sinking fund dollars just for that,” he says.

Another priority is major renovations to Cherry Creek Elementary School. This building was designed with an “open-floor” concept as a middle school in 1973. Fowler says while this design had “great intentions,” it resulted in very noisy classrooms, many of which are separated by thin, temporary partitions for walls.

Open-ended partition wall separating two classrooms in Cherry Creek Elementary School.

“It’s time to make that building into an elementary school and make it feel like an elementary school,” Fowler says.

Lastly, Fowler says they identified many smaller projects at the other buildings. These include heating and cooling, plumbing, and lighting updates, and replacing elementary playground equipment. Minor finishing touches are planned for the newly-renovated middle school that include security upgrades.

These project ideas were brought to the facilities committee of the Board of Education and then brought to the full board in the summer of 2023. It was then that these plans were shared with the community.

Last fall, community forums were held, and it was recognized that the high school needs a dedicated space for the orchestras. An auxiliary gym addition to support athletic teams is also in the plans for that building.

Fowler says he was very pleased with the positive interaction and useful input received at the forums.

“It was good to hear the level of support we have for the schools overall, and good for the community to say what they wanted their schools to look like and how they would be able to access the schools,” the superintendent says. “We also did get really good feedback to help us prioritize what some of these projects could be. It was also really helpful to be able to explain how school funding works in Michigan. It’s really complicated”

Fowler explains that this proposed bond is not asking for residents to agree to a tax rate increase. He says that the bond is asking for an extension of the time that it will take to pay off district debt. He says the passing of this proposal will benefit the community as a whole.

“We’re still a small town, and a lot of our community events and our community activity revolves around our schools,” according to Fowler. “There are a lot of events at our schools, and we want our schools to be a point of pride in our community.

The middle school (renovation) has really opened a lot of eyes as to what good design can do, the impact it can have on the culture of the school, and the learning opportunities that you have. We want to continue to be a point of pride for our community. This allows us to do that.”

Fowler says Cherry Creek Elementary is “right in the heart of town,” and it needs the most attention. One of the comments from the community forums that stuck out to him was from a person who moved to Lowell because of the district’s good education reputation. However, the aged and run-down buildings were an unpleasant reality.

Cherry Creek Principal Craig Veldman says he is very pleased that his school building will hopefully be receiving the much-needed renovations.

“The 2024 bond proposal consists of many extensive academic focused improvements specifically for Cherry Creek Elementary,” Veldman says. “As the principal at Cherry Creek, I am most excited about the possibility of providing designated grade level wings with right-sized classrooms that provide proper separation for an enhanced learning experience for all of our students.”

Fowler says if the bond proposal passes, design work would begin immediately for Cherry Creek Elementary. Construction, however, would most likely not begin until the summer of 2025 due to the design and bidding processes for contractors.

While Fowler does not know of any organized opposition to the bond proposal, if it does not pass, the district would survey the community to try to get an understanding of the reasons for the failure. He said he’d hope to come up with another proposal that would be more acceptable to the community.

Thinking optimistically, Fowler says the passing of the proposed bond will be very good for LAS students.

“I think we have a great opportunity to continue to provide learning spaces for our kids that are comfortable, safe, and really promote learning,” he says. “It will help with the skills that they’ll need to be successful – being able to collaborate with each other, to use technology, and to use these things to solve problems that matter.”

He says one of the goals is that students will be able to be in a learning environment that will be similar to what they will find if they attend college or in the workplace. He used the high school computer lab, which is getting new equipment and being remodeled, as an example.

“They’re the same spaces that I took typing in when I was a high school student in the 1980s,” he says of the current configuration. “That’s not the space that (students are) going to see in the workplace. We can design those spaces where they’re interacting with technology, they’re interacting with each other, and in ways that are applicable.

“What I learned in the middle school (renovation) is that you can design spaces and ways to help facilitate the type of learning that they’ll see in their careers and that they’ll see in college.”

The bond proposal will be on the ballot next Tuesday: May 7, 2024. Polls will be open from 7am to 8pm. City of Lowell, Lowell Township and Vergennes Township residents who live in the Lowell Area Schools District will vote at their respective city or township hall. School district residents who live outside these jurisdictions should contact their local clerk to ask about their polling place.

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