Decision time

MARQUETTE – Will elementary students once again walk the halls of the Graveraet building starting next fall?

That’s a question that could finally be answered Monday night as the Marquette Area Public Schools Board of Education is expected to make a decision on a grade realignment proposal they’ve had waiting in the wings since July.

The proposal – offered by the district’s Strategic Planning Facilities Subcommittee – would make all the district’s current elementary schools K-5 buildings, along with Graveraet. It also calls for the Marquette Alternative High School, currently housed within Graveraet, to move to the Vandenboom Early Childhood Development Center, displacing the Marquette County YMCA’s early childhood program.

This has been the biggest bone of contention during board meetings.

Lisa Coombs-Gerou, CEO of the Y, has been at most Marquette school board meetings since the proposal was made public, imploring the board to think long-term and continue its partnership with the Y.

The Y’s early childhood program is certified by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, a certification shared by only a handful of other early childhood program in the state. The accreditation is tied to the facility the program is located in. If the Y were to move, it would have to start from square one.

Coombs-Gerou has told the board partnerships between early childhood programs and public school districts will be looked upon favorably by the state government, which is beginning to make an educational shift from K-12 to P-20, a system built for preschoolers through people 20 years of age.

Financial incentives may be offered by the state to school districts with partnerships that foster a P-20 type of system, Coombs-Gerou said.

However the subcommittee, as well as Interim Superintendent Bill Saunders, believes the proposed alignment makes the most sense for student achievement, utilization of building space and ultimately, the district’s bottom line.

Saunders – who was appointed to the committee that made the proposal prior to taking over as interim superintendent – said the feedback back he’s getting from the public is largely supportive, though the people that disagree typically struggle with one simple problem – why turn an elementary school into a high school and vice versa?

“The division I have seen is between, does it make sense to use Graveraet or does it make more sense to use Vandenboom, and I think the only thing that those folks are harmed with is the fact that Vandenboom just doesn’t provide us enough classroom space,” Saunders said. “And I don’t know that we’ve done a good job, maybe, of putting that out there.”

Saunders said using Vandenboom as an elementary school would not allow the district to free up much needed space at other schools – such as Superior Hills Elementary School, where some instruction is taking place in hallways and closets – because there aren’t enough classrooms in the building.

He said using Vandenboom as the fourth elementary would require a $1.6 million addition onto Superior Hills.

“Would the taxpayers say, ‘Gosh, you’re being fiscally responsible asking us to pay that when you’re renting the same number of classrooms to an outside organization for less money?” Saunders said.

Saunders said should the board vote in favor of the alignment – thus pushing the Y out of Vandenboom – the district would not be looking to end its partnership with the Y.

“We’re not saying we don’t want those collaborative agreements, or to work with our preschool programs or the Y,” Saunders said. “We would love to continue to work with the Y.”

If Graveraet were to open as an elementary school Saunders said it would add 15 currently unused classrooms back into works. Children would be redistricted, Saunders said, evening out the number sent to each elementary school at roughly 280 students.

“(Using Graveraet) brings us back to a neighborhood elementary school that parents are going to have an immediate attachment to, take pride in, be able to walk and have close proximity to,” Saunders said. “That, to me, that’s probably the biggest buy in, is really hitting those kids at their earliest ages. Elementary builds the foundation for everything that happens on up, so by providing the space that these kids need in a variety of different settings .. to me is setting the tone for the rest of their educational career.”

But not all parents and community members agree.

Adrianne Wolf, a mother of two young children that currently attend the Y’s early childhood program in Vandenboom, penned a letter to the school board with two other parents outlining their concerns.

As of one week ago, the letter had garnered 40 other signatures.

In it, Wolf offers a different alignment proposal, which she said was derived by Coombs-Gerou following an analyzation of building space within the MAPS district.

The proposal would make all the district’s current elementary schools K-3, Bothwell Middle School 4-7 and grades 8-12 at Marquette Senior High School, with grades 8-9 attending the school’s Learning Academy. It also includes keeping the Y’s program at Vandenboom or selling the building outright to the Y.

Wolf said she first heard that the Y’s program may be moved following a meeting called by Coombs-Gerou for Y early childhood parents.

“I was very skeptical,” Wolf, an attorney, said “It’s in the nature of my business that I’m skeptical. I thought, well, Lisa’s saying this because she’s in charge of the Y. Of course she doesn’t want to be kicked out.”

So Wolf said she wanted to find out for herself what the best course of action would be.

She sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the school district, asking for all the documents the subcommittee looked at while drafting its realignment proposal.

Wolf said she sees incredibly costly renovations in those documents – which show the cost of a full renovation of Graveraet totaling between $1.5 to $6 million.

“I live two blocks from Graveraet. I would love for Graveraet to be reopened,” Wolf said. “However, my concern there is we don’t know how we’re going to pay for it … What I’m worried about is we’re going to end up with a scenario where we have all of these classrooms available but we have no funding to pay for teachers for those classrooms.”

Saunders has said the cost to get Graveraet ready for younger kids could be as low as $160,000, if only minor projects – such as adding rubber risers to the stairs and adding bathrooms to kindergarten and first grade classrooms – are completed.

Full renovations called for in the most expensive plan analyzed by the subcommittee include 32 total projects, which includes line items for new window treatments and a new addition to the building to provide a new entrance to the kitchen/cafeteria.

Wolf also said the subcommittee was given too much leeway by the board, and that a board member should have had a presence on the committee, an idea school board member Laura Songer has expressed several times during discussions about the realignment proposal.

And though she has two kids currently in the Y’s program, Wolf said her concerns come from a different place.

“I don’t have any agenda here other than to make sure this is an educated decision,” Wolf said. “I don’t have any real stake in this. The Y’s not going to shut down its daycare. It’s mostly just, I feel like … this decision is being pushed through under false pretenses.”

The board of education is scheduled to meet at 5:30 p.m. Monday inside the Marquette Senior High School library.

Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242. Her email address is