Thursday, March 29, 2007

Bond Proposal is Flawed

This opinion piece ran in the March 25 edition of the Birmingham Eccentric, authored by Don Greenwell, Jr.


High school bond proposal is flawed in many aspects

The Bloomfield Hills school district needs a reasonable plan for fixing our schools. We generously support public education and we want to be proud of our schools and students. But I'm troubled with many aspects of the current proposal to build new high schools and the sheer magnitude of the endeavor.

The plan should be reasonable in size and cost, and reasonable in terms of meeting the academic needs of our students. The plan should follow the direction set forth in a well-publicized and accepted Master Plan, not simply a high-level strategic vision, but one that addresses all school district vacant properties and buildings, including the district's desired Administration Office Complex. This Master Plan must include a committed timeline with logic-driven events for the facilities.

Several published metrics are employed by the design/construction industry to evaluate the right-sizing of a facility. One element is the size broken down on a per student basis. Our board proposes 275 square feet per student based on the assumption that we will grow to 1,000 students at each high school. The Midwest average is 170 square feet per student. But we all know Bloomfield Hills is not average. The top 10 percent of all schools built in the nation are 216 square feet per student. Is it reasonable to be 62 percent larger than the average size and 28 percent larger than the top 10th percentile in the country?

Another widely accepted barometer is cost per student. We come in at $72,500 for each student. The Midwest average is $29,000 and the top 10 percent from around the country is $40,000 for each student. How can it be reconciled that we need to pay 2 1/2 times the average and almost double the top 10 percent in the country?

The district has tried to rationalize such excess with cherry-picking certain parts of other schools to make a case for size, and a Florida firm to validate that the building is designed to be this expensive. This selective approach does not address the overall cost or size, but rather becomes public relations sound bites.

How did this happen? Well, renovation was initially estimated to be $31 million per school, but that did not meet the board's agenda. Community input consisted of 211 people not associated with the district, and the design/construction team was awarded the effort on a no-bid basis. Unfortunately there was no incentive or leadership to provide a reasonable solution -- it is known we are a generous community, it's for the kids, it's only a cup of coffee, and the taxpayer won't notice in May elections.

BHSD residents want high-achieving students. The district cannot show any empirical evidence that spending more money on buildings results in higher student achievement. Ironically, most of the money goes to non-academic space -- even a sportsplex for sports where we are unable to field an entire team. And if we are competing, our neighboring districts have over-built and now accept out-of-district students. Under this proposal, we will need to double or triple our out-of-district students, which we subsidize, in order to fill up our "empty airline seats."

The district Web site purports to provide the facts but it is general and qualitative. Based on evaluation of industry accepted metrics, the plan is not reasonable on any count. This is one reason Jenny and I are running for the board -- to bring fiscal responsibility to spending your education tax dollars that truly benefit our students.

Donald Greenwell Jr., P.E., is senior vice president for Walbridge Aldinger, Detroit. He and wife Jenny are candidates for trustees of the Bloomfield Hills school district Board of Education.