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February 5, 2013

FPS board to vote on facilities recommendation

By Tiffany Esshaki
C & G Staff Writer

FARMINGTON — After many months of careful research and planning, the vision of what Farmington Public Schools will be in the future is beginning to take shape.

The Farmington Public Schools’ Facilities Forward project officially began last year, though if you ask Associate Superintendent David Ruhland, the process really began about four years ago.

“Back in 2009, when we were looking at our district, we decided to close the four elementaries,” said Ruhland, referring to the closures of Eagle, Flanders, William Grace and Woodland elementary schools. “As part of that work, they did a facilities assessment. They looked at each building’s basic structure. That was one of the factors used to decide which buildings to close. But that study was still out there, and we still had buildings with identified needs.”

Ruhland explained that many of the FPS buildings needed repairs, according to the facilities assessment, though the “bare bones” of the structures were in good shape. Faced with what could be an investment of millions in necessary maintenance, he said, district officials decided to create an overall plan on what they wanted the schools to look like in the years ahead.

“We said, before we do any of these updates, let’s get a vision in our head of where we would prefer our facilities to be.”

With that, a 40-member committee of residents, students and school employees went to work to develop a vision of what they would like FPS classrooms to look like, from furniture setup to technology. After months of brainstorming and research, the committee’s 350-page recommendation was presented to the Board of Education Jan. 29.

“The classrooms right now look exactly the same as when I went to school, with rows of desks. That’s not the learning environment that best suits kids today,” said Ruhland. “These recommendations are for 21st century learning centers.”

The recommendation describes “learning studios” in lieu of traditional classrooms. The studios are organized to encourage small group, large group and individual study opportunities. Many of the rooms have portable technology equipment so students aren’t confined to computer labs for online work, and there are improved entryways to increase security in the buildings. 

“This is a preferred state,” said Rueland. “The committee was specifically coached not to worry at that point about the dollars. We didn’t want to restrain them in their thinking of what would be the preferred state.”

After seeing the finalized presentation, the board will vote whether to endorse the vision at its Feb. 12 meeting, according to Diane Bauman, director of school and community relations for FPS. Rueland said he’d like to get the board’s support as they move into the next phase of the initiative — financial analysis.

“Based on the vision and the buildings as we’ve reviewed them, (the recommendation) totaled up to almost $300 million. That’s the number that was spoken at the board meeting, and that takes you to a conversation of bonds,” he said. “Now that we have the vision, we have to do two things: We have to determine what are our priorities in that vision and we need to go through an exercise of what do you think the tolerance of our community is for financial support.”

To do that, Rueland said, another committee has been formed for financial analysis of the Facilities Forward initiative. They’ll be charged with adjusting the existing recommendation to meet a budget the community would be likely to support. In the coming weeks, he said, there will be a number of surveys and public forums to gauge resident interest. One such survey is available for residents to take now on the district’s website. The survey opportunity will end Feb. 28.

“This really has been a healthy process, and it continues to be a healthy process. This is not a situation where we got a question and came up with an answer to support us; the research behind the recommendation absolutely makes sense.”

Rueland said he wants the community to know that, whichever way the board votes Feb. 12, the move is really just symbolic of their support and nothing will be done in the immediate future. He said much more research needs to be completed from a fiscal angle before the Facilities Forward vision can be executed, especially since the recommendation as it is now calls for the possible relocation of the Alameda Early Childhood Center and the Farmington Central High School Alternative Education Program.

“What we’ve asked the board to do is endorse the vision. That’s really the question being asked. That is not a commitment to do anything. For anyone that thinks, ‘Next week, you’re voting to demolish Alameda’ — no, that’s not what the vote on the 12th is. It’s simply endorsing the vision.”

Rueland said he expects the financial committee to come back with an adjusted recommendation in late March or early April. Until then, Bauman said, residents can do their part by visiting the district’s website and learning more about the vision.

“I would advise people to go online to review the presentation (from the Jan. 17 board meeting). You can watch the whole thing on TV 10 or Video On Demand. And the PowerPoint is pretty comprehensive,” said Bauman, adding that residents should know that while two programs could be relocated, the recommendation does not call for closing any schools.

For Rueland, his hopes are that, the community will support the vision for the future of Farmington Public Schools to become a district worthy of 21st century learning. If not, though, he at least wants residents to know that the bare minimum recommendations in the plan — the structural improvements — are not to be ignored, even if the updates aren’t approved.

“The infrastructure repairs need to be done no matter what,” he said. “If the roof in your kitchen is leaking, you can talk all you want about granite countertops, but the roof needs to be fixed no matter what.”

To learn more about the Facilities Forward plan, including video of Farmington Public Schools Board of Education meetings and a downloadable version of the recommendation, visit www.farmington.k12.mi.us.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Tiffany Esshaki at tesshaki@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1095.