APS: New Ella White would ease traffic congestion, fix other issues at aging school
ALPENA — One of the most controversial pieces of Alpena Public Schools’ bond proposal on the May ballot is the plan for a new Ella White Elementary School, with many voters unsure of the need for a new building.
But APS leaders say building new is the best solution for the landlocked traffic nightmare that the elementary has become.
The district is asking voters on May 7 for permission to sell $63 million in bonds for major facilities upgrades, and a big part of the proposal is a new Ella White. The bonds would be repaid over 25 years through higher property taxes. APS taxes are expected to rise by 1.9 mills, or $95 for the owner of a $100,000 house, in the first year if the bonds are approved.
Ella White, located at the corner of Ripley Boulevard and South 3rd Avenue, has been the big talk of the bond proposal since November, when the APS Board of Education voted to build a new Ella White.
The school was built in 1950, with additions completed in the late 1950s, early 1960s, and again in the 1990s, according to the district’s website. It is the district’s biggest elementary school, with 460 students, and is landlocked on 5.2 acres.
A big challenge at Ella White, district Superintendent John VanWagoner said, is the congestion of cars that either block driveways on streets surrounding the school or block oncoming traffic.
“The number-one call that I get in district complaints are people that live in that neighborhood that their driveways are getting blocked and there’s so much car traffic,” VanWagoner said. “The school was just never designed for as many people who drive their kids to school.”
The Ella White issue may not be the deciding factor in the vote next month, as the precinct where the school resides has just 1,599 Alpena County’s 23,298 registered voters.
To voters in the county who may not be directly associated with Ella White, VanWagoner said it’s important to note that all schools are being touched in some way.
“We are putting sizable investments into every elementary school so that every kid has a safe learning environment … and a learning environment that is for 21st century education,” VanWagoner said.
If voters approve the bond proposal on May 7, the district will ask for community feedback regarding what the new Ella White would look like.
The current plan is to build a new structure behind the current Ella White, similar to what happened with Lincoln Elementary School in 1998 through a separate bond sale approved by voters two years before. The district would keep the current Ella White kitchen and cafeteria and incorporate those into the new school, since those parts of the building– built with money from the 1996 bonds — are in good shape, VanWagoner said.
“The new building would be built in the back of that, where the playground is,” VanWagoner said. “The playground would be moved where the ball diamond is, on the corner of Blair (Street) and 4th Street. Once it’s done, you move all the things that are good. Kids can still go to school in this building, parking’s still going to be an issue while you’re building it, but it’s an issue now.”
After the new school is built, students and staff would move in and most of the current Ella White would be torn down. The parking lot and bus drop-off would be relocated to the front of the school, easily accessible off of 3rd Avenue, 4th Avenue, or Ripley Boulevard, depending on how it’s exactly designed.
“It would alleviate all the traffic issues throughout the entire neighborhood,” VanWagoner said.
Current estimates say it would cost about $12.4 million to rebuild the new school, according to documents provided by the district, but the district expects to recoup some of that money over time because the new building would be far more efficient.
Ella White is the second-most expensive school to run every month, VanWagoner said. Thunder Bay Junior High School, twice the size of Ella White, is cheaper to run, he said. The new school would save the district approximately $60,000 a year in energy costs.
“If you compound that over 25, 30 years, that’s real money for us that we can’t get from the state,” VanWagoner said. “That’s money that I can now put into classrooms and into supplies and into bus fuel and bus supplies.”
The new school, like all other schools in the district, would have a secure-entry vestibule, with card access to all exterior doors, and a new security camera inside and outside the school.
COUNTRY SCHOOLS VS. ELLA WHITE
One discussion in the bond proposal is the longstanding debate over how much attention the district’s country schools — Hinks, Sanborn, and Wilson elementaries — receive, versus Ella White, the main elementary in the city proper.
The city school would get about $18.9 million of the bond money, according to current estimates, while the other elementary schools would receive between $847,000 to about $6 million for repairs and upgrades.
Wilson Parent-Teacher Organization President Stephanie LaCross said parents have been updated at their monthly meetings about the bond proposal.
LaCross said nobody in her organization had a “yay” or “nay” opinion about building a new school, but the list of problems with the existing Ella White is so long that they agreed those are big issues.
“Some of those are safety concerns for the students, being that they’re right on Ripley and it’s a busy road,” LaCross said. “Having a new school will solve a lot of the problems.”
VanWagoner said keeping the country schools is important for the district. He said that, if the district wants to maintain the buildings and not bring them all into a mega school in town, there needs to be a way to fix current issues at every building.
“I can honestly say, when this bond’s done, that Wilson school will be vastly brought up to date and will have the same amount of security that a kid will at Ella White, or a kid will at Hinks, or a kid will at the junior high, or a kid will at Lincoln, or a kid will at the high school,” VanWagoner said. “There is equity in the safety and security across every building.”
The Ella White PTO has been updated regularly by the district about a new school. PTO President Kristin Barden said it’s a popular “yes” vote among parents.
The idea of having the current parking issues gone and having an entrance that’s easily accessible is important, Barden said. She said the biggest concern among parents and families is the security and safety of their children.
“The buzzer system right now seems to be working and it’s doing its job, but we can do better,” Barden said. “The windows are the same, the doors are the same, sometimes you just need an update, you just need to get better stuff. And right now, our main focus is making sure that our children are safe and secure in the schools.”
Barden said children need to have a place where they can learn and not worry about whether their classroom is going to be hot or cold, if doors are not shutting properly, or if the school is safe.
“These kids are our future,” Barden said. “These kids need to have the place to come and learn and feel safe and secure because these are the kids that are going to be growing up and may be coming back to work here one day and graduating from here one day and keeping Alpena going.”
Barden understands that the proposal is asking a lot from taxpayers, but she said the new school is for the children.
MOVE ELLA WHITE?
VanWagoner said people have suggested moving Ella White students to Sunset Elementary School on Hobbs Drive, but the superintendent said that would be impossible.
Sunset could only fit 208 students, VanWagoner said, which means fewer than half of Ella White’s 460 students would fit.
Plus, the building is already occupied.
Right now, Sunset is being used for a local partnership with 115 homeschool students. VanWagoner said that, next year, the homeschool partnership is expanding and a couple of preschool classes will be added at Sunset, so the school is being used after being vacant for eight years.
Barden said moving Ella White students to Sunset is not feasible because Sunset is just as old as Ella White and has been vacant.
“Sunset is not a good location, either, because you’re busing and driving almost 500 students there and then, on top of being next to the high school and the junior high, that light (at 3rd Avenue and Hobbs Drive) is already just a crazy mess at those times,” Barden said.
Putting Ella White students in Sunset — or building the new Ella White somewhere new, as has also been suggested — would cause other problems, Van Wagoner said. He said, for example, that 150 students who walk to Ella White would need to be bused, which would mean having to purchase more buses and hire more bus drivers.
“You have another continual cost, and we’ve done very well to maintain our costs, so we’re trying not to increase our overall operational costs year-to-year by building something,” VanWagoner said. “We’re trying to decrease those costs, but I can’t use bond dollars to do certain things.”
Money from bond sales cannot pay salaries, so it couldn’t be used to hire new bus drivers.
VanWagoner said Ella White and Besser, Sanborn, Hinks, and Wilson elementaries are all at capacity. Lincoln Elementary has only one empty room, because preschoolers, kindergarteners, and first-graders can’t go on the second level of the school.
CHURCH PARKING USE
Ella White doesn’t have a parking lot by the school’s main entrance on Fourth Avenue.
There is some staff parking in the back of the school, by Blair Street, but staff also park across the street at Alpena Free Methodist Church, at 3rd Avenue and Ripley Boulevard, because there is not enough parking behind the school.
Buses line up on 4th Avenue to drop off and pick up students, while parents drop off and pick up students on 3rd. Since there is not a parking lot for visitors, they have to park on nearby streets.
Richard George, the pastor at Free Methodist, said Ella White staff have used his parking lot for a while, and “we’re happy to be able to provide that service.”
VanWagoner said it’s a verbal agreement between the church and school and that he’s never seen anything in writing. When the church has a funeral or events taking place, however, the district struggles with where staff can park.
“We want to make sure that we solve the parking issue for that building,” VanWagoner said. “They’ve been such a great partner, but we need to be able to have something that our parents can use and not congest the entire neighborhood around Ella White.”
Julie Goldberg can be reached at 989-358-5688 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @jkgoldberg12.
Check out the Monday edition of The News for a look at how Alpena Public Schools can — and can’t — use money raised through a bond sale.