Traverse City News and Events

TCAPS Eyes Central Grade Reconstruction, 2024 Bond Proposal

By Beth Milligan | Oct. 11, 2022

The long-discussed reconstruction of Central Grade School – the largest elementary school in the Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) district with roughly 540 students – could start as soon as 2026, according to a timeline reviewed by board trustees Monday. The 100-year-old building would likely cost at least $35-$50 million to renovate and would require voter approval of a bond proposal in 2024 that would also include several other TCAPS building projects.

Trustees Monday said they supported a staff recommendation to issue a request-for-proposals (RFP) in the near future to hire an architect and construction management firm to conduct a district-wide facilities assessment. That firm would hold public input sessions to gather public feedback on projects like the Central Grade School reconstruction, develop a master plan outlining needed building repairs and cost estimates across the district, and provide pre-bond planning and communication services for TCAPS.

TCAPS Assistant Superintendent of Finance and Operations Christine Thomas-Hill said TCAPS could pursue a capital bond authorization of upwards of $130 million in 2024, with the final amount depending on “what the taxpayers are interested in and how many projects we have.” With new school builds currently averaging $300-$350 per square foot, Thomas-Hill said Central Grade’s size would equate to at least $35-$50 million for that reconstruction project – with final costs depending on the building’s design, amenities, and materials. Traverse City Central High School also needs major gym and main office renovations, while the locker rooms at TC West Middle School also need to be upgraded, according to staff. TCAPS Superintendent Dr. John VanWagoner said every district school building would likely be “in some way touched” with improvements, especially with increased emphasis on safety and security upgrades.

But Central Grade – with its outdated electrical/heating/water systems, aging roof, shuttered third floor, and lack of ADA-compliant amenities and dedicated drop-off/pick-up areas – is easily the biggest-ticket item on the list and the one that will garner the most community attention, staff and trustees agreed. “Central Grade is a question that has just been asked constantly of the board, of myself, of our administrative team,” said VanWagoner. “It’s the last elementary to really look at and…our largest elementary school, so it's time to begin that conversation.” After Thomas-Hill said TCAPS originally hoped to put a bond proposal on the ballot for Central Grade in 2022 but got derailed by the pandemic, Board President Scott Newman-Bale echoed VanWagoner’s remarks that the district needed to move forward on the project.

“I don't think there's anyone who wants to put it off any longer,” he said. “I think giving it a couple of years of discussion gives full transparency and everyone the opportunity to be part of the process.” VanWagoner said that whatever firm TCAPS hires to create a facilities and bond plan will work with board trustees to fully flesh out a public engagement process, ensuring a variety of methods – from online surveys to community visioning sessions – are used to gather as much input as possible on plans for Central Grade and other buildings. “I have no doubt there will be tons of people who want to be part of this process,” said Board Vice President Flournoy Humphreys.

The project timeline calls for hiring a firm in the near future and then using the next 12-18 months – through early 2024 – to gather public input, develop conceptual renderings, and provide cost estimates on building projects. In spring 2024, TCAPS trustees could vote to approve the official capital bond ballot language and dollar amount. The capital bond could then appear on either the August or November 2024 ballot. With TCAPS separately having to seek the renewal of its 10-year operating millage in 2024, one proposal would likely go on the August ballot and the other on the November ballot that year.

Thomas-Hill said the capital bond proposal would keep the same millage rate as the district’s current capital bond – 3.1 mills – and request a dollar authorization, possibly upwards of $130 million. When TCAPS last asked for voter approval of a capital bond proposal, it failed in 2012 and 2013 when it sought to increase the millage rate by 0.9 mills before earning resounding voter approval in 2018 when TCAPS kept the mill rate at 3.1 mills, instead asking for approval of a $107 million bond plan. Thomas-Hill confirmed that would be the approach again in 2024. “We’re asking voters for an authorization of a dollar amount, not the mills,” she said. Noting that other Michigan districts average a 5.4 millage rate – which can go as high as 15-19 mills in some downstate districts – Thomas-Hill said 3.1 mills was a “good millage rate.”

If a capital bond proposal is approved by voters in 2024, TCAPS could move into detailed visioning sessions and stakeholder meetings to finalize the Central Grade School design in early 2025. VanWagoner explained there’s a balancing act for TCAPS: developing a concept and cost estimate for Central Grade that’s clear enough for bond voters to understand the district’s plans without wasting excess funds on detailed engineering and design work before voters actually approve the reconstruction. Therefore, a general concept and rendering will be available before the bond vote, but voter approval would allow final design work to proceed – similar to how the district’s new Montessori school was designed and constructed.

Design work could be followed by abatement, demolition, and construction work starting at Central Grade in fall 2026 and continuing through summer 2028, with the rebuilt school potentially ready to welcome students back in fall 2028. Many questions still need to be answered between now and then, according to staff, such as whether Glenn Loomis would need any renovations or upgrades to potentially host displaced Central Grade students during the reconstruction. That’s in addition to questions about the cost and design of Central Grade itself: What parts of the building might be saved versus replaced? Does the school still need two gyms? What about Lars Hockstad and all the TCAPS and community groups that use that facility? Those are just some of the numerous issues that will need to be addressed in the reconstruction plans.

Staff stressed Monday that issuing an RFP to hire a firm is just an early first step in a lengthy multi-year process as TCAPS works to “carefully put a plan together,” in VanWagoner’s words. Thomas-Hill added: “The real key is just knowing a 10-year plan takes time, money, and effort to put together.” Still, multiple trustees expressed enthusiasm about finally moving forward with addressing Central Grade.

“Central Grade School is something we've been stumbling around for years,” said Trustee Sue Kelly. “Seeing it in black and white – with deadlines, with projections – is really appreciated.”

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