Crystal balls are no way to run a school district

Who would want to be a school superintendent in Northeast Michigan these days?

Take Alpena Public Schools Superintendent John VanWagoner, for instance. First, he had to spend all summer moving on from a defeated bond-sale request in May. At the same time, he keeps his fingers and toes crossed, hoping nothing serious occurs with building equipment anywhere in the district.

He and other superintendents across the region have spent a lot of time in recent weeks gazing into crystal balls. It’s not that they really like to, or have taken side jobs as fortune tellers. Rather, they all are trying to figure out just what will be their final share of state funding.

For the last eight years under the Rick Snyder administration, all of that was known by summer.

Not so, this year, as the Legislature and the governor’s office have yet to reach a consensus on state spending. It makes trying to run a school district all the harder, as “a wing and a prayer” isn’t accepted as good currency in most areas of the community.

But all is not doom and gloom in VanWagoner’s world, these days.

Unlike previous superintendents who have been faced with too many buildings and not enough students, that is not the case with him. In fact, VanWagoner and his staff have been very creative in their use of the former Sunset Elementary School, the last remaining building in their ownership that had lost its identity.

Once a thriving elementary, it was a beautiful school within blocks of the high school. It was closed in 2010 because of a declining student population and, while at various points it was considered for different uses — including housing district offices — none of those materialized.

Having a vacant building is a superintendent’s curse. On one hand, you hate paying the utilities and keeping the maintenance up on such a structure when no one is using it. On the other hand, you hate selling it, risking someone else coming in to purchase it to use is as an alternative learning center, such as a charter school (can you say Bingham School?).

Last year, district officials came up with the ingenious concept of offering homeschoolers a number of niche class options as part of the Alpena Family Partnership Program. One hundred fifteen students took advantage of the program, which allowed APS officials to reopen a portion of Sunset for the classes and secure state funding for each student who participated.

This year, Northeast Michigan Community Service Agency officials are leasing five classrooms at Sunset for its preschool program. Construction this summer addressed the need for the preschool program to be separated from the homeschoolers.

“It’s a real win-win,” VanWagoner told education reporter Julie Goldberg for a story this week. “That building is at full capacity and ready to rock for the school year. It’s exciting to really see. They see that as a home that they want to continue to grow and expand.”

For this new school year, at least, the sun has risen over the school, rather than set.

And that is a good thing, indeed, for both VanWagoner and many students who will use the school this year.

Bill Speer can be reached at 989-354-3111, ext. 311, or bspeer@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @billspeer13.