It's Thursday afternoon and the sounds of laughs and squeals can be heard from the gymnasium. Down the halls students walk with backpacks, while through a classroom window a student can be seen with his hand raised, waiting his turn to participate in the lesson.
Sounds pretty much like any regular school day in the Alpena school system, except this is Word of Life Baptist Church, and the students are members of Northeast Michigan's home school network. Once a week home school parents and students gather together to socialize, exercise and pursue special interests and extracurriculars.
Draw a five mile radius around Word of Life and you could view the same activities at the elementary level pretty much at Immanuel Lutheran School, Bingham Arts Academy and All Saints Catholic School.
In that same radius you would come across Besser and Ella White elementaries in the public school system, Pied Piper in the AMA ESD system and a closed Sunset Elementary, formerly an APS school.
Welcome to the wonderful world of educational competition.
Like it or not, all those smiling faces aren't just the future astronauts, engineers and presidents, they also represent several thousands of dollars in state reimbursement. With school funding what it is today in Michigan, that money certainly isn't "chump change." In Michigan "No Child Left Behind" wasn't a detested federal mandate for public school administrators, but rather standard operating procedure on Count Day as districts scoured the streets to ensure every student was counted.
This week the Alpena Board of Education approved a request of its superintendent to seek enhancement millage early next year. The proposed millage - three mills over 10 years - would result in approximately $1,000 more per student each year for the district.
Few would argue that the millage has merit and because of that, deserves consideration.
But in a region beset by habitual high unemployment and an increased number of home foreclosures and bankruptcy filings in recent years, passing a millage won't be easy.
APS Superintendent Brent Holcomb understands that. Yet, given what every public school in the state has faced these past 10 years with dwindling reimbursement, he believes there is little choice.
"Finances for school districts is not good," he said in a story Tuesday. "The enhancement millage allows the community the choice to self-tax itself at a higher rate for education."
And, he is right.
Unless you ask, how will you know whether residents are willing to pay more or not?
I believe Holcomb is a strong leader who is guided by common sense, compassion and compromise. I wouldn't want anyone else steering APS through these times, and I believe his track record speaks for itself.
If anyone has the capacity to successfully coordinate a millage campaign in these times, I would think it would have to be him.
That doesn't mean he necessarily relishes that role.
Not only does he face the economic realities of the region, he also has to grapple with the educational competition as well. Certainly that is why many yards in the APS District contain signs that read "Alpena Schools: The Best Choice." He understands the need to convince parents the APS system offers their children a strong foundation, with many opportunities to broaden their skills.
Holcomb knows that when he asks Alpena County residents next winter to approve the millage, many of the people who will be voting are parents with children in school programs other than APS.
It's a whole new world out there in education, and it is his job to meet the challenge head-on and get people to work together for the good of the community.
"I'm not sure we have any more options," he said Tuesday of the millage request.
Regarding APS, he's right.
It's the options, however, that he knows he needs to worry about.
He, and public school officials, are just about out of options.
Parents these days, however, have more educational options than ever before.
That, realistically, is what will make this millage a hard one to sell.