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A Tale of Two Cities

School construction divides Charlevoix, unites Harbor Springs

February 22, 2004 | By Mac McClelland
and Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Gary Howe
  The Charlevoix School Board’s relatively closed decision-making process produced several lawsuits and many bitter feelings. Its new, out-of-town high school is bringing heavy traffic to a once-rural area.

From the air, the  new $17.4 million Charlevoix High School looks like an appliance warehouse surrounded on one side by miles of rolling farms and woodlots and on the other by an immense parking lot. From the ground the plain brick box resembles a Best Buy store.

How this undistinguished facility was built on 74 acres of pastureland is a story of closed decision making that generated fierce discord, lawsuits, an unsuccessful school board recall, and a court-sanctioned settlement that leaves many in this city of 2,000 bitter.

Thirty-eight miles north, along Little Traverse Bay, workers busily renovate the 88-year-old Harbor Springs High School. The three-story red brick building sits on a nine-acre campus in a residential neighborhood. Many students walk or bike to school. A block away is the new middle  school.

Three years ago this community of nearly 1,600 approved a $31.5 million bond to modernize its high school, build a new middle school, and keep both in town. The vote came after a year of intense community discussion, encouraged by the Harbor Springs School Board. This year the new middle school opened to rave reviews.

Harbor Springs schools actively engaged residents, earned overwhelming support, and received rave reviews for their new in-town school.

Two remarkably similar Lake Michigan coastal communities, two remarkably different outcomes based on very different processes: In Harbor Springs, the decision by the community to keep the schools downtown engendered wide celebration because it strengthens the community.

In Charlevoix, the decision to erect a new building so far from town, arrived at by only a handful of school leaders and just barely approved by voters, is still denounced for encouraging sprawling development that could soon threaten small downtown stores.

“I thought the way they went about it was just plain wrong,” said Ken Staley, a retired business owner and longtime Charlevoix resident who supported one of the lawsuits. “There were a lot of deals being made behind closed doors.”

This tale of two cities offers hard lessons to Michigan communities.

Open Door, Happy Ending
When Harbor Springs Schools Superintendent Dave Larson huddled with school board President Lynne Glahn after yet another public meeting in 2001 about what to do with their worn-down facilities, they both were concerned.

“We didn’t feel like we were leading the community, because we didn’t have a specific proposal for what to do,” Mr. Larson explained. But the two nevertheless continued their open style of civic leadership.

Gradually, a consensus emerged: Keep the schools in town and preserve the historic high school. The board presented two options, one less expensive and in-town, the other more expensive and out-of-town. A survey indicated citizens opposed the remote site not because of cost, but because it was too far away.

The entire process took 18 months. In September 2001 voters approved a $31.5 million bond issue by a 20-point margin that financed construction of a new middle school next to an existing elementary school; the two will share many facilities. It also paid for additions to and renovations of the 1915 high school, including an auditorium and, nearby, new soccer and community recreation facilities.

Closed Door, Sad Ending
MLUI/Gary Howe
  Harbor Springs’ 88-year-old high school is getting a new lease on life.
In contrast, when Charlevoix concluded in 1999 that its schools needed help, the Charlevoix board held just two public forums and discussed the school construction proposal at only one school board meeting — a stark contrast to Harbor Springs, which held 70 public meetings.

The first Charlevoix forum, in March, revealed that most of the approximately 100 people attending wanted their schools in town. The board appointed a building committee to consider options; it met privately for only two months before offering three choices at a second forum, in June: $14.4 million to remodel all the existing Charlevoix public schools, $16.6 million to build a new middle school at a new location and remodel the high school, and $18.5 million to build a new high school on a new site, remodel the old one into a middle school, and abandon the historic middle school in town.

Two weeks later, with only 10 citizens attending, the committee recommended the most expensive option to the school board. It cited a memorandum from an architecture firm that consulted with the board, which said evolving curriculum demands would limit any renovation’s effectiveness to between 10 and 15 years. Some people disagree.

“What will happen with curriculum over the next 20 years is anybody’s guess,” said Jeanette Woodward, an architect for the renovation of 66-year-old Jackson High School. “There are lots of schools built in the 1920s and 1930s that have adapted and continue to serve their districts well.”

The Charlevoix committee also snubbed a survey, saying, “we feel that educating the public to make an informed choice on a survey is almost impossible.” 

The school board approved the committee’s recommendation and a 74-acre site for the new high school three miles outside of town, but the location was not announced until two weeks before the election. Some residents didn’t think that was enough notice.

“I had no idea where they were going to put the school when I voted,” said Joe Sidel, who lives on a farm just south of the new school.

The millage passed 1,440 to 1,340, a margin that magnified the sharp divide the board’s closed process caused.

Aftershocks Rock City
Legal skirmishes followed. When the Marion Township Board of Trustees overruled its planning commission and approved a special land use permit that violated the township’s master plan, citizens sued — and lost. 

They sued again when the City of Charlevoix and the school district proposed a marriage made in public sector heaven: The city wanted to develop an industrial park near the new school but couldn’t afford a sewer line; the school wanted sewer service. They decided to use school millage money to build the sewer and reimburse the school district as new homes and businesses hooked up to the line. Since this was illegal, the plaintiffs won and negotiated a temporary solution with the district: The school now actually owns the sewer but will not allow other connections to it for 10 years, temporarily quelling plaintiffs’ fears of unwise development.

Eventually, however, sprawl will come. Citizens, not the school board, will pay its many costs.

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