Otsego Public Schools bond would build early childhood center

By: 
Ryan Lewis

When someone in the community approached Otsego Public Schools last summer with a donation of $500,000, school administrators and board members began a process to make the best use of it.
Those efforts have culminated in a project designed to bring preschool education to every child in the district.
Specifically, the district is asking voters to approve a $6,960,000 bond project to build a nature-based early childhood center west of the high school football stadium as well as classroom computers for most students.
Superintendent Jeffery Haase said, “We had already been talking about an early childhood center. Each year, we have a waiting list for our Learn N’ Grow preschool program. We just haven’t had the capacity to provide additional sections.”
He said the district had also refinanced its current debt to not only shave off six years from the payoff date but also approximately $13 million in interest and fees.
Haase said the district could borrow the money for the new project without needing to increase the current debt millage; it would just collect it until 2040, as was planned originally until the recent refinancing. The current debt millage is 7.5 mills.
The ballot language is required to list a millage amount to pay off the new debt, but Haase said the district’s ability to borrow money through the extremely low-interest source of the School Loan Revolving Fund meant the district would not need to increase the millage rate to pay off its debt.

Childhood center
Haase said if the proposal passed, the district would expand its partnership with the Kalamazoo Nature Center to provide a math and science curriculum for the program for 3- and 4-year-olds.
The district works with the center now to bring a “STREAM” curriculum to the middle school, initials that stand for science, technology, reading, engineering, arts and math. Current seventh-grade math and science teacher Nate Alkire started a similar middle school program in Hamilton Community Schools with the Outdoor Discovery Center.
“It’s up and going this year,” Haase said. “They spend half their day up to twice a week at the nature center learning math and science. This first year, students had to apply; 31 are now in the program. We intend to build on that for years to come.”
That kind of integration and nature-based lessons is what is envisioned with the new early childhood center.
The $5.6 million building would have 10 to 12 classrooms.
“One of the things the committee researching this learned when visiting other schools was, for example, seeing a set of little waders hanging outside at the Nature’s Way preschool in Portage,” he said. “It’ll be kids learning outside; that’s what we envision. We’re really excited about this opportunity.”
So, what about that sizable donation? Haase said the school board decided it could be put to use as an endowment to help defray the cost of preschool to those who cannot afford it.
“Currently, we have about 130 to 140 preschoolers,” he said. “With this project, we’re looking at probably doubling that capacity.
“We would also offer daycare to provide that wrap-around experience, as that’s one of the things that helps working parents,” he said. The day care costs would be separate from the preschool costs.

Computers
The other main focus of the bond is purchasing $1.3 million in technology—Chromebooks for at least students in grades three through 12.
The committee that researched this visited a lot of other schools that had gone one-to-one”—one computer or device for each student—“to learn what went well, what to do differently,” Haase said.
He said they decided at making purchases of Chromebooks for each high school student, one they would be able to take home with them. Middle schoolers would leave theirs at school—“the breakage rate at the middle grades was much higher than at high school,” he noted.
For the elementary grades, there would be devices in every classroom; the committee is still looking into how to address kindergarten through second grade.
Chromebooks utilize web-based software, eliminating many of the upgrading and compatibility issues that so often bog down IT departments in keeping everything working, Haase said, adding that the Chromebooks also had better control over how the devices were used.
A pilot training program is ongoing for a dozen teachers across all grades for them to learn how to integrate the devices into classroom activities.
“If the bond is passed by voters, we wanted to make sure our staff is prepared to use the devices in the classroom for instruction,” he said.
Purchases would then be staggered, rolling out the new devices to grades three through eight in fall 2018 and then the high school in fall 2019.
“A major reason is just the management of rollout. We didn’t want to overwhelm our system and it’s also to work out any kinks,” he said.
The district currently has approximately 2,350 students not counting preschoolers.
Haase said the district’s buildings have already been built with this effort in mind.
“We’ve been able to put an access point in every classroom for wireless, and upgraded switches to handle all the devices that would be accessing the server, which is big enough to handle all the traffic,” he said. “We’ve already been putting money aside in the budget each year to save up for the replacement of these devices down the road as they become obsolete.”

Find out more
To help explain all of this and more and answer public questions, the district has planned a series of seven information meetings throughout the next eight weeks.
Haase said there will be a brief PowerPoint presentation and then he and other administrators would field public questions.
The meetings:
• Tuesday, Sept. 26, 6:30 p.m. at Otsego District Library community room
• Wednesday, Oct. 18, 6:30 p.m. at Otsego Middle School auditorium
• Saturday, Oct. 21, 10 a.m. at Otsego District Library community room
• Wednesday, Oct. 25, 6:30 p.m. Otsego High School media center
• Wednesday, Nov. 1, 6:30 p.m. at Alamo Elementary School media center
• Saturday, Nov. 4, 10 a.m. at Otsego Historical Museum community room
• Monday, Nov. 6, 6:30 p.m. at Otsego Historical Museum community room
Contact Ryan Lewis at rmlewis@allegannews.com or (269) 673-5534.
 

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