Farmington Schools negotiates Steppingstone purchase

With an agreement approved in principle, Farmington Public Schools officials are negotiating the purchase of Steppingstone School for the Gifted in Farmington Hills.

The deal brings Steppingstone students – about a dozen – into space at a district building. While it’s not officially set, the purchase price will likely exceed $1 million.

Moving the district’s transportation department to the former car dealership on Grand River will allow for sale of “the hill”, where administrative offices and transportation are currently housed. Superintendent George Heitsch said finding a new home for the bus garage has always been a stumbling block.

The district had conversations with Steppingstone’s leadership three years ago, but “the economics didn’t work out,” he said. Founded in 1981 as a private, K-8 school, Steppingstone moved in 2009 to the former Holiday Chevrolet buildings, which were renovated using “green” technology.

While most support the deal, not all elected officials are sold on the Steppingstone purchase. When trustees in August approved the agreement and authorized negotiations, trustee Terri Weems said the deal put the district “at a disadvantage”.

“We have another option, which is to stay here,” she said. “I’m not interested in spending more on a building than it is worth… in spending more on renovations than was budgeted for. I am not interested in borrowing from our general fund to pay for this. I am also not interested in accepting students from an outside district or school into Farmington Public Schools. The balance for me is just not palatable.”

Board vice president Terry Johnson said while the deal wasn’t perfect, “rarely does a perfect deal come along.”

“It is a deal that I believe is in the best interest of Farmington Public Schools that will allow us to grow and expand and eventually get more students into this district,” he said.

Board president Jim Stark called the deal a “win-win for the district and the students we serve, plus it’s a win for the cities and it improves our relationship with them. I think it takes us forward as a district.”

In a more recent interview, Heitsch said officials had “some pretty robust conversations” about leasing public space to a private school. He said the lease would be limited to five years and noted that Steppingstone “expressed a desire to be out of the leased space as soon as possible.”

Heitsch said “some general fund dollars” are being allocated for the purchase, but he doesn’t expect a big impact on the budget, due to funds anticipated from the sale of the Maxfield Training Center and the hill property. Also, he said, “We’ve managed the (2015) bond well enough so that we have the funds to do this.”

Some of the $17 million in bond savings will also be used to remodel Farmington Community School on Shiawassee, the current home of Farmington Central High School and a preschool program. Central office and adult learning programs will be moved into that space.

“We want to make sure that we keep a presence in that part of town,” Heitsch said. “We’re just grateful that the community supported us in the bond and that we have an opportunity to keep working through this.”