Board members from Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) and Peninsula Township met last night to hear a proposal regarding a non-profit charitable foundation that might hold the key to saving Old Mission Peninsula School (OMPS).
Peninsula Township residents crowded into the OMPS gym to hear Old Mission PTO President Allison O’Keefe outline the proposal, which includes the creation of the Old Mission Peninsula Education Foundation to provide for the long-term sustainability of the school. A still-unnamed donor offered to infuse $800,000 into the school earlier this year.
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Now in her second year as president of the PTO, O’Keefe joked that she thought she’d signed up to make cookies, then added that she was there to represent the community group that was formed in December of 2015, meeting every Saturday to brainstorm ideas to save the school. “Behind the scenes, we’ve been working very hard on what we’re calling a pathway towards a common goal,” she said.
TCAPS Board President Erik Falconer gave a little background on why the two groups were meeting last night, noting that it stems back to last year when TCAPS did an efficiency evaluation on their buildings. “That was necessitated by the fact that TCAPS has an issue of flat and declining revenues, declining enrollments and aging facilities,” he said, “and being in a position where we cannot afford to have inefficient use of resources when we’re trying to maximize the education experience for kids in our classrooms every day.”
About a year ago, said Falconer, TCAPS began engaging communities of the elementary school buildings with those issues. “We invited input from those communities and creative ideas and ways to challenge our thinking about what we were considering and what we were looking at when we were making our decisions.”
At their March 7, 2016 board meeting, TCAPS voted to close two elementary schools because of budgetary issues – International School at Bertha Vos and Interlochen Community School. Old Mission Peninsula School, however, received a “stay of execution” so that issues surrounding the $800,000 donation could be further explored.
“With the prospect of a very generous donation, we wanted to make sure we vetted and determined whether it met with the goals and objectives and the mission of TCAPS, as well as with the responsibility that we have to our entire school community,” said Falconer at last night’s meeting.
He added that TCAPS was excited to hear more about the proposal. “In the past months, we’ve had preliminary and general discussions about concepts that would provide for sustainable solutions here in the Old Mission Peninsula community, and we’re excited about tonight and the opportunity to hear a more concrete proposal that now we can reflect upon and have deliberations on.”
A SPIRIT OF TRANSPARENCY
In the “spirit of transparency,” Falconer also wanted to bring up a couple of points. “One of those is that in the past few months, we’ve talked about the need and the desire for sustainable solutions, and having something where we can create some certainty about our future, and something that I think we owe to TCAPS families and to the communities that we serve.”
He also stressed the need for a timeline. “The fact that we’ve given extra time and deliberation and consideration for this opportunity is because we could afford to, specifically because we knew TCAPS was not in a position to have to make a decision and close OMPS this fall,” said Falconer. “And that’s because it was instrumental to what would be providing a transition to the reconstruction of Eastern Elementary school. So that’s why we were able to take that extra time.”
TCAPS is looking at the end of November “to be able to move forward under a given assumption,” said Falconer of the OMPS proposal. “So that’s something where I believe we still have time to make a thoughtful decision and gather information, but that’s something we also want to put out on the table.”
DETAILS ON THE CHARITABLE FOUNDATION
In her PowerPoint presentation, O’Keefe outlined the still “very fluid” fundamentals of the Old Mission Peninsula Education Foundation. Funded through private donors, both on the Old Mission Peninsula and the larger community, the Foundation would purchase the OMPS building and land, and cover the high overhead costs that caused TCAPS to consider closing the school.
It would be a non-profit charitable 501c3 organization dedicated to supporting and enhancing quality educational programs on the Old Mission Peninsula, as well as provide additional resources towards programming.
It would also engage the community and other schools in the TCAPS district, said O’Keefe. She offered the example of a teacher last year who was interested in expanding on a topic she was teaching, but needed money, time and training materials. “The Foundation can help provide that opportunity,” said O’Keefe.
“We’ve been showcasing all year that we have, among other things, a frog pond. Well, what if we were able to bring in an ecologist from MSU? That person could educate our children on the details and the value of our pond, as well as our teachers, who could then share their learning all the way across TCAPS. The Foundation could fund buses to allow other elementary school students to experience the frog pond. Our community built the frog pond. Why can’t we show how to create another ecosystem at another local elementary school? The opportunities are endless, not only for our students, but the larger community. The Foundation would help support that.”
OLD MISSION SCHOOL IS ‘MORE THAN JUST A BUILDING’
Benefits of the proposal for TCAPS include capitalizing on bond dollars available through Old Mission’s tax base (as well as the money previously spent to renovate OMPS), retaining students, boosting enrollment, and creating a model for funding that supports and frees up money to be used for the entire school district.
TCAPS Board member Scott Hardy noted that this is a plan that could be applied to other schools in the district. “One of the benefits I see is that we’re establishing a model that might work with other schools in other precarious financial situations.”
Benefits for the Old Mission Peninsula include keeping the community together, saving the school, and protecting the land from development, said O’Keefe.
“Alumni have been talking while all this has been going on, saying they feel connected to this school,” she noted. “There is historical significance that this farming community values. Alumni are moving back to the Peninsula in order to provide their children and grandchildren the same community values they grew up with years ago.”
She added, “It’s more than just a building. It’s more than just the land. It’s the value we place on quality education for everyone in our community; highly effective teachers and a small school environment where every teacher knows every students.”
She joked, “My poor kids can’t get away with anything in this school. Everyone knows them.”
OMPS WANTS TO WORK WITH TCAPS
The proposal also calls for restricting the property’s deed for school and library use only, and continuing a relationship with TCAPS. The OMPS property, which was sold to TCAPS for $1 in the 1950s, was originally intended to provide public education for all Old Mission Peninsula residents.
“We want that to continue,” said O’Keefe. “TCAPS is a large district with many resources and options. Public education is valuable and accessible to our entire population, and continuity is key, from elementary school, middle school, high school … excellence in education is what we expect.”
She continued, “People may become frustrated with TCAPS because of difficult financial decisions they make, but they offer high quality education for everyone in our community … and at a time when people say the trend is for people to move downtown, we disagree. People want options. People want to choose where their children go to school. They want the option of having their children stay within our own community.”
O’Keefe suggested that a committee be formed consisting of TCAPS Board members, Peninsula Township Board members (both current and incoming), and community members. Also, that a deadline be set, “so that we can all move on in one way or another.”
The committee will help to negotiate specific terms, including the acquisition, ownership and appraisal of the OMPS building and property, the length of the agreement, and the dollar amount needed to cover the yearly overhead costs, including snowplowing, utilities, office personnel, lunchroom staff, custodial staff and supplies and more.
Falconer said overhead costs represent the difference between funding students at Old Mission compared to funding students at in-town schools like Eastern Elementary. School officials previously estimated overhead costs at $400,000 annually, but that figure can vary from year to year.
O’Keefe stressed the importance of working towards the next eight to ten years, so that Pre-K families at OMPS can commit and current families can rest easy, knowing their kids will be able to stay at the same school until moving to middle school.
“The bottom line is, I see this as a prenuptial agreement,” said O’Keefe. “We’re agreeing to get married; we’re agreeing to stay together. Terms need to be settled: money, length of the agreement, termination of the relationship. These are all details that need to be decided. That is not something that I can decide on my own and work one on one. It needs to be decided together.”
She summarized the plan by noting that this is “a fluid model with lots of moving parts, but I believe we can not just save our school, but by marketing and funding programming, we can make Old Mission Peninsula School THE school of choice in this district. We can model through example how to include the current curriculum, along with expanding the educational opportunities that the land provides. This is truly about TCAPS and the township growing together.”
TCAPS officials will have time to reflect on the proposal before their next Board meeting on Sept. 12. Peninsula Township’s next Board meeting is Sept. 13.
ABOUT THAT $800K DONATION
O’Keefe also shared the story of how the anonymous donor came into the picture. “Somebody asked me if I knew of a particular person who was going to save the school, and I laughed and said, ‘Well, I highly doubt that’s going to happen. Who would do that?”
As the community group became more focused into the first part of 2016, O’Keefe asked TCAPS Superintendent Paul Soma at a meeting what they needed from OMPS. “He said, ‘Allison, show me the money.’ So I left the meeting, and I made a phone call I said I would never make. With my tail between my legs, I called this person and said, ‘I am so sorry to ask, but are you planning on saving the school?'”
After giving him more information, the person said he would think about it. “I had no expectations of anything, and a few days later, I received a phone call back,” said O’Keefe. “This person said, ‘From what you’re telling me, you feel the community values the school, the library, the building and land.’ And I replied, ‘Yes.’ And this person then said, ‘If I gave you $800,000, would that buy your community group enough time to come up with a plan?’ After I dropped the phone and found my voice, I said, ‘Yes.'”
Old Mission Peninsula resident Leslie Young asked whether TCAPS has an obligation to entertain the sale of the OMPS building to help offset the deficits they’re experiencing. Falconer said yes, but it’s all tied into the decisions regarding the proposal. “As far as the plan that’s proposed, that’s wrapped into that. But those decisions are never mutually exclusive. We do have a responsibility as a board to utilize prudently and efficiently all the resources that we have at our disposal.”
Old Mission Peninsula resident Roger Myers, who lives close enough to OMPS to hear their loudspeaker announcements, said he knows the financial difficulties of running a school, having spent 12 years on a school board downstate, eight of those as president, but he feels that TCAPS has already decided on a path forward.
“I attended the very first meeting that the school superintendent held here, and I was struck by the fact that the Board and superintendent had already made up their minds. When they came here, it was a formality, in my mind. They came here because, ‘we’ve gotta do step 1, step 2, step 3, close the school and leave.”
He said he hasn’t seen anything from TCAPS since then that’s changed his mind. “This community built this school,” said Myers. “They actually paid for this school. You put money into it as TCAPS, but the land was free, from people living on the Peninsula. It’s not really yours. It’s ours, the community of Old Mission Peninsula, and we need to find some way this works. I don’t know why we need the school or TCAPS if we’ve gotta buy the building and pay for all the education.”
Myers added, “It seems to me it would be better if you kept the building, if you contributed your normal part that you normally would pay to educate the number of students that are here, and if there’s excess costs to that, then the Foundation could certainly be a means of correcting that deficit. But I’m with her (pointing to O’Keefe). We need to really look at ways to maintain the quality of education that’s been taking place here.”
While he doesn’t have kids in the school, Myers said he’s had grandkids there. “As a senior citizen, I’m very concerned about the loss of school in our community.”
Jill Hammer, who has three boys enrolled at OMPS, suggested looking at the incremental cost of each student. “I’m a CPA, and the question that comes to my mind is, we say that per pupil, Old Mission is more expensive. Let’s just say that Old Mission is $180 per pupil and Eastern or any other elementary school is $130 per pupil. So there’s a $50 incremental cost per pupil at Old Mission. It seems to me that it’d be more reasonable to expect that the Foundation cover that incremental cost per pupil, rather than the entire $400,000 of overhead.”
She added, “I’ve looked at the slides. I’ve seen the $400,000 of overhead of custodial staff and busing and snowplows and various things, but to make it more ‘apples to apples,’ in my mind, coming from a financial perspective, it seems that it would be up for discussion that the Foundation cover the $50 per pupil incremental cost. Then it brings Old Mission in line with the rest of the elementary schools in the district.”
Hammer said that while the community could generate $400,000 per year, especially if donations could be solicited from anywhere, “it seems like that’s a very tall order … I acknowledge that it depends on the ownership of the school and other variables and details, but it’s worth discussing to bring it more in line with other elementary schools.”
Someone brought up the Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) program, which was established on the Old Mission Peninsula in 1994. “This community and Peninsula Township undertook an impossible task,” he said. “It was new, it got national and international attention, and it was a pragmatic answer to an emotional problem, which was property development.”
He said that Peninsula residents didn’t want development, but farmers needed to sell their land in order to survive. “So the answer was a mathematical, pragmatic solution to that problem. We have an emotional problem here, but we also have an offer for a pragmatic solution. I would ask the TCAPS Board and the Township Board to – either by deferring a decision or by a motion and approving that motion – explore this possibility without a short timeline. Give it a timeline it deserves, six months or a year. I implore upon you both as boards to take a pragmatic approach to finding a solution to this problem.”
Carol Butcher, a member of the Peninsula Community Library Board, expressed concern over the library’s future if the school closes. “We’d lose more than the school,” she said. “This library is a community center. It’s very important to the community, and I hope you keep that in mind when making your decision.”
A NOTE FROM JANE: I started Old Mission Gazette in 2015 because I felt a calling to provide the Old Mission Peninsula community with local news. After decades of writing for newspapers like the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, and magazines like Family Circle and Ladies' Home Journal, I really just wanted to write about my own community where I grew up on a cherry farm and raised my own family. So of course, I started my own newspaper. Because the Gazette is mainly reader-supported, I hope you'll consider tossing a few bucks my way if I mention your event, your business, your organization or your news item, or if you simply love reading about what's happening on the Old Mission Peninsula. Check out the donation page here. Thank you so much for your support. -jb