Marshall Public Schools prioritizing community engagement after failed bond

Marshall Public Schools prioritizing community engagement after failed bond

May 7, 2022 | By Greyson Steele | Battle Creek Enquirer – Gathered inside the Marshall High School media center in early March, Amanda Lankerd asked the question that what was seemingly on every parent, teacher and administrator’s mind.

“How do we move forward?” 

It’s a query Marshall Public Schools is working to answer with the help of community members after its $45.5 million bond package failed by a 2-1 margin in November.

Through a series of input sessions, district officials are seeking feedback to further understand why stakeholders voted the way they did, while also keeping in mind buildings do not fix themselves. 

“Our needs have not gotten better, our needs have not gone away,” said Lankerd, vice president of the district’s board of education. “We wanted to have these community conversations so we can talk to you and hear from you, our community members, our parents, our teachers, our administrators, our business owners on what do we do?” 

The bond proposal included district-wide technology and equipment improvements, a new elementary building in Albion, athletic facility improvements at Marshall High School and infrastructure improvements at Marshall Middle School, Gordon Elementary School and Opportunity High School. 

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It marked the first bond put before voters since Marshall completed its annexation of the Albion School District in 2016. It was also the first time district staff had to communicate the details of a bond during a global pandemic, a time when gatherings were limited and community forums often shifted online. 

Frustration over mask requirements, concerns over the district’s relationship with Albion College and widespread speculation surrounding the location of a future elementary school in Albion complicated things further, Board Treasurer Matt Davis explained. 

“The reason (why), ultimately, (the bond) didn’t pass is because a lot of the parents didn’t trust, after everything that had happened, that the school board was making decisions or pushing this bond issue free of agendas, free of anything other than what’s best for the kids,” Davis said. “I can tell you from my perspective, (what’s best for kids is) all I’ve ever wanted. But people lost their confidence that the board felt that way. 

“We made a lot of mistakes.” 

School officials hope to regain public trust through improved communication with both the Albion and Marshall communities, placing a renewed emphasis on improved transparency while offering stakeholders a seat at the table in crafting a unified vision for the district. 

“We have to be more diligent and listen to our community and really hear what their thoughts are,” Superintendent Becky Jones said. “I’m hoping through the strategic plan process we can get some of that.” 

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Identifying facility needs 

Seeking to better understand the state of its buildings, Marshall commissioned a facility needs assessment in 2019. 

The district identified roughly $75 million in necessary upgrades through the assessment, with one of the most significant being the need for a new elementary school located in Albion. 

The assessment found that, in its current condition, Harrington Elementary needed $10.8 million of critical repair work. A new elementary, meanwhile, would cost about $17 million. 

After a committee pared down the list of needs to the most immediate, the board of education approved placing a $45.5 million bond proposal on the November 2021 ballot. 

Proposed improvements included: 

  • $16,920,000 to build a new K-5 elementary in Albion 
  • $3,233,253 at Gordon Elementary for a four-classroom addition, air conditioning, a new water filtration system, upgraded audio/video devices and technology infrastructure, and new furnishings and equipment. 
  • $46,000 (each) at Hughes Elementary and Walters Elementary to upgrade audio/video devices and technology infrastructure and for new furnishings and equipment. 
  • $5,912,802 at Marshall Middle School to upgrade mechanical and electrical systems to support air conditioning, to upgrade audio/video devices and technology infrastructure and for new furnishings and equipment. 
  • $15,513,945 at Marshall High School to construct a new auxiliary gymnasium, to construct two gateway buildings for soccer/softball and football complexes, for new furnishings and equipment, to replace band equipment, to upgrade audio/video devices and technology infrastructure, a new synthetic all-weather track and a new turf soccer field and football field. 
  • $2,500,000 would be used at Opportunity High School in Albion to replace its roof, for new furnishings and equipment and to upgrade audio/video devices and technology infrastructure. 

The bond proposal was a zero-net millage for Marshall residents, but Albion residents were asked to take on a 3-mill net increase over the previous year’s levy. If the bond had passed, the millage rates in Albion and Marshall wouldn’t have merged until 2041. 

‘Like lighting up a barrel of TNT’ 

As Marshall prepared to roll out its bond campaign in the spring of 2021, a number of other changes began to unfold in the district. 

Superintendent Randy Davis announced his plans to retire, effective June 30. The board subsequently appointed Jones as interim superintendent, where she became responsible for leading the district’s bond effort in conjunction with the board. 

The board unanimously agreed to hire Jones as full-time superintendent on Feb. 28. 

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Jones admits the pandemic at times made it difficult to connect with the community, as traditional face-to-face informational meetings transitioned online. 

“People didn’t feel like they were made aware that we were going through the (bond) process because I think it stretched over such a long period of time with the pandemic that it really kind of put a damper on that,” she said. 

On Aug. 23, the eve of the 2021-22 school year, the board voted 4-3 to require masks for all students and staff inside school buildings, a decision that generated “disgust and anger” toward the schools, according to Davis. 

“That was like lighting up a barrel of TNT,” Davis said, adding, “it proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. … Everything started getting looked at and picked apart.” 

Questions surrounding where the new elementary school in Albion would be located came to the surface. At the same time, many began to question the district’s relationship with Albion College.

Proposed sites for the new elementary school included Opportunity High School, Cromwell Campus and Washington Gardner, but the location was not included as part of the bond proposal. 

“Everybody wanted us to make a decision about where the elementary school was going to go and we did not have the votes to do it one way or the other,” Board President Richard Lindsey explained. “We were split 3-3 (with a board vacancy at the time). That was ultimately how we rolled into the election.” 

Potential collaborations with Albion College, particularly with respect to a new elementary building in Albion, also drew criticism, with allegations of conflicts of interest. 

Recall petition language filed by Albion resident Dave Atchison earlier this year cites actions taken by Davis, Lindsey and Board Secretary Shawna Gamble leading up to and following the district’s failed bond measure in November and a closed session of the board in October.

Davis and Gamble are alleged to have violated the Open Meetings Act and school district policy by participating in the Oct. 11 closed session of the Marshall Public Schools Board of Education and by voting to approve inaccurate minutes from that meeting. 

The petition further states Davis and Gamble disregarded voters’ rejection of the proposed school bond by voting to establish a strategic action plan for Harrington Elementary that included Albion College as a partner during the school board’s Dec. 13 meeting. 

Davis and Gamble also are accused of violating the Michigan Code of Educational Ethics by “failing to confront and take reasonable steps to resolve ethical conflicts involving Board President Lindsey.” The petition states that Lindsey violated Marshall Public Schools policy by acting as an attorney for Albion College while presiding over school board discussions and deliberations related to the college. 

The petition also cites a comment Davis made during the Sept. 27 board meeting, stating that it was disrespectful for Davis to tell the public that voting against the proposed bond was the “height of shooting yourself in the foot.” 

The language was reviewed by the county clerk, treasurer and probate judge, who determined on Jan. 24 that the language in the recall petition filed against Davis and Gamble was sufficiently clear and factual to be circulated. The same determination for language against Lindsey was reached on Feb. 14. 

Subsequent appeals by Davis and Gamble were denied by Judge Brian Kirkham in 37th Circuit Court, allowing Atchison to proceed with collecting signatures. Lindsey also allowed the recall process to move forward, withdrawing his appeal in early April. 

Atchison has 60 days to circulate petitions for Davis, Gamble and Lindsey. In order for the petitions to be successful, each must include 2,457 valid signatures, which is 25% of the total of registered voters in the Marshall Public School district who voted in the last gubernatorial election. 

If the signatures are collected and deemed valid, the recall would appear on the November ballot. 

Lindsey maintains there was never any conflict of interest, citing two supporting opinions from the school district’s attorneys, including an Oct. 13 opinion from Thrun Law Firm 

“As soon as I thought there was any issue whatsoever I submitted it to the school attorney, got very specific guidance on what I was supposed to do and I’ve done those things,” Lindsey said. 

Atchison said the legal opinions do little to sway his view of Lindsey’s actions. 

“You can find whatever legal basis to say there’s no conflict of interest,” Atchison said. “It doesn’t rise above the appearance of impropriety and elected officials need to be held accountable for that.” 

‘Taking baby steps’ 

In the wake of the bond failure, district officials are now taking active steps to reconnect with the Marshall and Albion communities. 

A strategic planning process to develop a unified vision for the district is currently underway, according to Jones. An independent consultant has met with board members, administrators and teaching staff, and a community survey is also available for stakeholders to provide input, she said. 

“Both of our communities in Marshall and Albion, they support the school system and they have a history of supporting the school system so it’s really just coming back to the drawing board, putting our heads together and really looking at what our community has to say,” Jones said. 

Community input sessions at Marshall High School and Harrington Elementary in March have been positive, Jones said. 

“It’s obvious that people know that there is a need within the district,” Jones said. “One of the big needs that continues to be talked about is a new elementary building in Albion and what that looks like.” 

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Jones plans to conduct additional meetings in Albion in the near future, specifically to address questions about Harrington Elementary and Opportunity High School. 

“There is, I think, a consensus that something needs to change with Harrington,” Lindsey said. “(But) there’s not consensus on much else. … Do we keep it at that facility? Do we move it into the Opportunity High School? Do we build something new? Those are all things that need to be discussed.” 

Marshall also has approximately $9 million in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds available, which could be used for building improvements, according to Jones. The one-time pandemic funding was disbursed by the federal government as part of the American Rescue Plan stimulus package. 

“We’re looking at how those funds can support the district on some of the needs that we have,” Jones said. No decisions have been made about the funding to this point. 

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Overall, Davis feels positive and optimistic about what’s happening in the district moving forward. 

“I think from a process and an organizational standpoint, we’re taking baby steps forward with things,” Davis said. “There are not huge changes yet that you see and you can take away tangible results from, but there’s small things pointing us in a positive direction to finish up this school year.”