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School building shakedown

Recommendation:Belle Ann becomes alternative high school, Burt closes; forum 7 p.m., Monday

November 21, 2012 - Brandon Twp.- If the school board follows the recommendation of Steve Gaynor, next year Oakwood and Harvey Swanson elementary schools will house all kindergarten through third grades as well as all preschool and latchkey programs, Brandon Fletcher Intermediate School will house all fourth, fifth and sixth grade classes, and Belle Ann Elementary will be repurposed as the alternative high school.

Gaynor made the recommendation during the school board's Nov. 19 meeting and the public is invited to share their thoughts and have questions answered during a facilities review public forum planned for 7 p.m., Nov. 26, at the Brandon High School Performing Arts Center, 1025 S. Ortonville Road.

"I think he has done an excellent job of analyzing the data and putting together proposals and a recommendation that he believes fits with our school district," said Superintendent Lorrie McMahon. "I think it has great possibilities for financial savings while maintaining a quality education."

The district hired the Michigan Association of School Boards at a cost of $14,000 to provide an unbiased, professional analysis of data, as well as lead focus groups to give recommendations on an appropriate course of action regarding use of buildings. Gaynor and the MASB team gathered data and took input from the focus groups in September and October.

School boardmembers and administrators first began publicly discussing the possible restructuring of buildings in April, but proposed plans to designate specific classes to each elementary building met with resistance from many parents in the community.

During Monday night's board meeting, Gaynor said 11 various reconfiguration options had been developed and analyzed, with six of those options discarded because they did not leave sufficient classrooms to house students. Another two options were deemed inadequate to meeting needs of students (one of which would have put 8th grade at the high school).

That left three options for deeper analysis, one of which would have put kindergarten and first grade at Oakwood, second and third grades at Harvey Swanson, fourth through sixth grades at BFIS, repurposed Belle Ann as the alternative high school, put preschools at Harvey Swanson and BFIS and closed Burt. That option was eliminated after focus groups rated it as having a negative impact in multiple areas.

Another option (known as option #1) would put K-6, preschool, and latchkey in three elementary schools (Harvey Swanson, Oakwood, and the current BFIS building), leave seventh and eighth in Brandon Middle School, repurpose Belle Ann for the alternative high school.

That option, however, did not have as consistent of ratings from focus groups as the recommended option (option #2) nor did it have as high of projected savings. Option #2 (recommended) is projected to save the district $200,000 annually, while option #1 would save the district about $87,000 annually.

The district would save equally on capital improvements to buildings over five years under both plans-- $111,415 savings at Belle Ann, and $643,494 from not having to make expected improvements to Burt.

Option 2 is believed to strengthen the instructional program. Belle Ann was selected as the elementary to repurpose as it has lower enrollment, Harvey Swanson has more classrooms and Oakwood is the newer school.

Other considerations in analysis of the restructuring is recently proposed state legislation that would force school districts to sell their unused schools to charter or other schools. Gaynor said the proposed legislation suggests the district should take a conservative approach, one that allows Brandon to preserve physical assets while pursuing cost-saving efficiencies. While potential savings aren't as great, these may be pursued further in the future should conditions allow, he added.

Gaynor also noted that Brandon's elementary enrollment is projected to decline by 10.3 percent during the next five years. The enrollment projection was done by Information Management Systems of Rockford, Mich.

"The projected decrease is frightening and we have to be prepared, which is what we're doing here," said McMahon. "There is definitely a lower birth rate trend going on for the past 10 years in Michigan and I don't know if we've seen the last of people moving away. Economics has played a big factor in the last few years as far as student decline and I don't know when that will stop."

Whether the district would reopen or reconfigure buildings again in the future will depend entirely on enrollment. McMahon notes the district has lost more than 400 students over the last six years, so "a lot" would need to be gained in order to consider opening another building if one is closed, and the gained students would have to be at the right grade level. An increase or decrease in students across all grade levels will not necessarily impact the need for teachers or administrators. McMahon doesn't anticipate much of a reduction in staff if the recommendation from MASB is followed. The savings are realized through lower utility and maintenance costs for buildings.

Following the Nov. 26 forum, McMahon expects the board to make a decision at a special board meeting planned for 6:30 p.m., Dec. 3.

Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville
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