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$245M bond proposed for upgrades in Dearborn schools

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News
Dearborn High is among the schools in the district facing renovations if voters pass the proposed bond.

LED lighting and furniture. Revamped media centers. More security cameras.

Starting as early as next year, Dearborn Public Schools could begin adding these and other upgrades to its buildings if voters approve a $245 million bond issue for the state’s third largest school district.

Board members recently discussed placing the measure on the November ballot to kick-start efforts aimed at boosting security and other features in the district’s 30-plus structures — some of which are approaching 100 years old. It would keep taxes at the same rate while also cutting what officials estimate is a $563 million price tag for total improvements over the next decade or longer.

The district is sending the bond proposal to state officials this month for approval before the school board moves forward.

“We really have to consider our best opportunities, since we do believe that this is necessary in order for us to continue to support our public schools here,” Board of Education President Mary Petlichkoff said during a meeting last week.

The idea emerged from community forums in the last two years on boundary realignments for the three major high schools, said David Mustonen, the district’s communications director. “Out of that came discussion about the actual infrastructure and capacity needs for the district.”

As a result, the school board created a task force that included residents and district staffers, who after months of study recommended seeking a bond to support projects that would update district facilities, meet current and future space needs as well as enhance campus safety.

The district then worked with Plante Moran commercial real estate advisors to assess all 3.2 million square feet and field input from principals and engineers on the most pressing issues to address, Mustonen said. 

Tim Gruszczynski, the district’s director of trades, labor and contracted services, oversees routine maintenance and was involved in the site visits. He notes some boilers are nearly 40 years old and “we have 1.4 million square feet built in the 1920s.”

A report presented to the board found the district buildings had nearly $234 million in “critical” needs — or issues requiring action in the next one to six years.

Meanwhile, a district committee also developed recommendations for what projects the bond could cover in two series: the first issuing $86 million in 2020, followed by $159 million in 2022.

The proposals include:

•Major renovations at Dearborn and Edsel Ford high schools, and Lindbergh and McDonald elementaries

•Expanding the Fordson High gym lobby

•Buying two buildings at Henry Ford College, allowing some early college and adult education programs to relocate there

•Expanding special education classrooms/support areas at Nowlin Elementary and O.L. Smith Middle schools

•Cafeteria renovations and classroom additions at some schools

•Adding more security cameras and secured entryways/vestibules

•Installing air conditioning in select gathering spaces, such as auditoriums, at some schools

•Acquiring more buses district-wide

The work would have to be completed within six years, Mustonen said.

Splitting the bond issuance in two series allows flexibility in planning if fluctuating enrollment affects the scope of some projects, Thomas Wall, the district’s executive director of business and operations, told the board on Monday.

District data shows its enrollment has climbed from under 17,000 in the early 2000s to about 20,700 today, with several years in between where the count dipped slightly then rebounded.

Citing birth rates and other factors, the district has drafted a budget for the 2019-20 academic year that expects a drop of about 140 students in that span, but “we don’t know if it’s going to raise back up or it’s going to flatten,” Wall said Monday.

The bond covers more than $76 million voters approved in 2013 and the district floated to help offset state funding cuts. 

Board members and district officials noted DPS lacks the revenue for the latest proposed moves, and state aid, even if increased, would not be enough to fund them.

“It’s an unfortunate thing that we have to continue to do it this way, but we don’t have many other options and we continue to put forward a good product, I feel, for our students and for the community,” Petlichkoff said.

News of the plans encouraged Summer Homayed, a parent of three children in the district. Two attend 91-year-old Lindbergh, which she believes needs more modernizing.

“There are many things that are outdated,” she said. “I definitely agree with renovations.”