Farmington Schools bond critics want more oversight

Leaders of a group opposing a $98 million Farmington Public Schools bond request say they’re not opposed to funding for the district, they just oppose this bond.

Farmington Kids 1st representatives laid out their case against the bond during a Farmington Area Republican Club town hall held February 6 at Farmington Hills City Hall. They have issues with the way some of the 2015 bond funds were spent and say the district hasn’t presented a detailed spending plan.

Fritz Beiermeister, who served on a bond oversight committee for a $131.5 million bond approved in 2015, said citizen groups involved in that election thoroughly vetted the amount requested.

“”I’m not here because a bunch of us don’t think Farmington Public Schools need some amount of money to move forward,” he said. “We just don’t see any real evidence that they used a very rigorous process when determining the amount that they’re coming out and asking for.”

Facilities study

FPS Superintendent Dr. Robert Herrera, who started work last July, said the district was invited to the meeting, but he and other key staffers weren’t available on Feb. 6.

In a recent interview, Herrera said the 2014 Capital Planning Advisory Committee formed ahead of the 2015 bond recommended the district look at a sinking fund or bond four or five years down the road. The $131.5 million request was about $90 million less than a bond program that voters had turned down in two previous elections.

“That’s why the district did a facilities study in 2018-2019 to figure out what work was left,” Herrera said. “Our understanding was that we were to follow their recommendation and go through with another campaign.”

This bond, he added, is “just a basic need bond” based on a 10-year assessment of future capital needs. The study by Plante Moran CRESA breaks down a program that addresses critical needs (1-3 years) and needs that are 4-7 years and 8-10 years ahead.

What does the bond include?

Here’s the $98 million breakdown from materials provided by the district:

  • $5.5 million to replace 53 new buses, replacing two-thirds of the district’s fleet over the next six years. Nearly half of the buses are at least 10 years old; the State of Michigan’s replacement standard is six years.
  • $20 million to replace student and staff computers and classroom audio-visual systems, install fiber optic cabling, and improve the district’s wireless network, structured cabling, and server storage.
  • $72.5 million for capital needs at the district’s 22 buildings, including boiler replacement, roofing, heating and cooling systems, electrical and lighting systems, ball fields and playgrounds, additional video surveillance at elementary schools, and theater upgrades at three middle schools.

(View the 2019 10-Year Capital Assessment Plan and school-by-school breakdown of bond projects on the district’s website.)

Beiermeister said during the town hall that a Capital Asset Advisory Committee formed for the 2015 bond “demanded some rigor in the design choices, the technology plan, and so on.” A Building and Site Utilization Committee determined how the district’s footprint would look and recommended closing up to four buildings.

Savings spent

Trustees initially voted to close Harrison High School, convert O.E. Dunckel Middle School to Farmington STEAM Academy, and close Highmeadow Common Campus. While the bond oversight group recommended reducing the bond by the resulting $15 million in savings, the school board took different action – and that also rankles Farmington Kids 1st.

Trustees chose to expand Alameda Early Childhood Center on Power Road and centralize early childhood programs. That project, and moving Farmington Central High School to the Highmeadow building, will empty the Farmington Community School building on Shiawassee.

“The board (instead) spent that money on things that were not in the plan,” Beiermeister said. “That, along with several other issues, caused the citizen oversight team to resign last year.”

Beiermeister disputed amounts requested for bus replacements and technology spending in the current bond and said the district has provided “no detailed spending plan.”

Learning curve

Herrera said that plan is in the 2019 10-year facilities study. “We didn’t add anything in there except for some band and music equipment.”

Herrera said he’s surprised that the Alameda project wasn’t widely known, because the board approved the bid pack at a public meeting. While he wasn’t around at the time, he called the renovation “a great concept”.

“Investing in early childhood education is usually beneficial not only to the school district, but also the community,” he said. “The earlier we capture those kids, the better chance we have to retain them… This is not a poor investment.”

Having worked in other districts, Herrera said his “learning curve” has been “the level of input the community wants on the bond itself. My experience is the community doesn’t get involved in the individual purchases… The community has always understood we’ll be the best stewards of the money that we could.”

Beiermeister said the district still has adequate time to reconvene committees to review the request, and put the bond on the November ballot. He also suggested that the district formalize a process for including citizen committees in all future bond issues.