Brandi Llamas had a choice to make for her five children that would have a profound effect on their future.
Communities across Michigan are losing students to School of Choice districts. More than 100,000 K-12 students in Michigan choose to attend schools outside of their home district, according to 2019 Washington Post article.
Llamas, like many parents across Michigan, was looking for the district that would best fit the needs of her five children -- ages 11, 10, 9, 2 and 2.
“We took into consideration the school location in proximity to our resources,” said Llamas, whose children attend West Ottawa despite living out of district.“We also wanted a school that offered a variety of programs and facilities -- schools that offered a variety but also maintained the buildings and stayed up to date on technology.
Similar to how college football programs reel in top recruits, schools that upgrade and maintain facilities have an advantage in attracting students and families.
“Districts are competing for students,” said Matt Miller, Triangle Associates’ K-12 Business Development Director, who spent 17 years as superintendent for districts across Michigan. “Schools have to meet the needs of students and the community and have the facilities that align with those needs.
“Frankly, if you don’t have the facilities or at least somewhat comparable facilities to a neighboring district, you will lose students.”
For Llamas, it was a factor that ruled out a handful of options.
“We found a few schools that advertised facilities that they no longer used or were outdated,” she said. “It was sad, to be honest.”
Parents weigh a variety of factors to determine the best fit for their children. Llamas also was impressed with the programs at West Ottawa High School, such as classes for college credit, art classes, fashion design and shop.
And if the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything about the role our schools play in our children’s lives, it’s how important the social foundation is for students, parents and the community itself.
“For many areas, schools are the epicenter of the community,” Miller said. “People go to the football games on Friday nights and basketball games during the winter. They go to band and theater performances, swim meets. Communities come together and rally around the students.”
So how do schools stay competitive with their facilities? Many use bonds to improve and align facilities and technologies with the community’s interests, needs and goals.
WIN AT THE POLLS
Getting a bond to pass isn’t always easy. Having an experienced construction manager as a partner from the start greatly increases those odds.
A construction manager, such as Triangle, serves as an owners’ representative during the process. First, the construction manager performs an on-site, in-depth facility assessment by carefully reviewing the district’s existing buildings for systems, quality and condition. Using the assessment, along with interviews with stakeholders, the construction manager identifies facility concerns and opportunities to align with the district’s needs, goals and vision.
“An experienced K-12 construction manager and architect are worth their weight in gold, because they understand the process of going through the Application for Preliminary Qualification of Bonds,” said Mitch Watt, Triangle Senior Vice President and Principal.
“There are so many steps with specific messaging, documentation and the application process to get the bond through the state treasury and on a ballot. There is a need for a professional team to support and help along the way.”
Triangle has helped more than 40 districts successfully pass bonds for a total of more than $1 billion.
Watt attributes Triangle's success to its development of community-specific bond campaign strategies.
“Each school is unique, which is why our project team immerses itself in the community, knowing the people and the facilities like the back of our hand,” he said. “As a result, we can validate the solution with facts and figures and be good stewards of the taxpayers' money.
“Plus, after more than 45 years “of campaigns, we know which campaign strategies will bear the largest fruit.”
FINE ARTS CENTER CHANGES DISTRICT’S TRAJECTORY
Former Jenison Superintendent Tom TenBrink partnered with Triangle to change the trajectory of the shrinking district.
“We were a school district that, unfortunately, was losing students, and our base just wasn’t as solid as it should be,” he said. “In the past, families bought homes in Jenison, watched their children graduate from Jenison, go to college and, eventually, would sell their homes to young families with school age children. This changed during the recession.”
To help grow the district, TenBrink opened Jenison to School of Choice and, in 2011, proposed a $25 million bond to build a fine arts center and make other district improvements.
“Our fine arts programing began to really grow when I arrived in 1987. It was something that became very special to our district,” he said. “We had state marching band championships, we got some high-end award-winning directors, but all of our concerts had to be held in area churches, because our school facilities weren’t equipped for the level of quality performances we were now providing.”
He knew the key to keeping families in the district and encouraging others to move into it was proving the community valued the fine arts.
How? By building a beautiful state-of-the-art fine arts center.
“I was certain the Fine Arts Center would put Jenison back on the map,” TenBrink said. “At that time, our community had a lot of empty storefronts. So, as I was talking to business leaders, I told them, ‘Trust me, if you support this bond, I promise this will turn your business around and fill the empty stores. We will be back on the map.’”
The bond passed, and TenBrink kept his promise.
TenBrink believes the Fine Arts Center is directly correlated to a rise in enrollment from 4,800 to 5,500 students.
“People wanted to move to Jenison,” he said. “Even today, good luck finding a home in Jenison.”
He’s right. Jenison is the fourth-ranked community for the sale of homes in the country.
“We had some good facilities before the fine arts center, but it took the fine arts center to say we value the fine arts,” TenBrink said. “It changed our entire district and community.”