Oakland County Commissioner Bob Hoffman spoke at a rally to save Roosevelt Elementary School from demolition at the Santia Banquet Center in Keego Harbor Jan. 15.

Oakland County Commissioner Bob Hoffman spoke at a rally to save Roosevelt Elementary School from demolition at the Santia Banquet Center in Keego Harbor Jan. 15.

Photo by Erin Sanchez

Roosevelt demolition discussed at WB school board meeting

By: Mark Vest | West Bloomfield Beacon | Published February 1, 2024


WEST BLOOMFIELD — The Roosevelt Elementary School building in Keego Harbor has been a source of contention between the West Bloomfield School District and some residents for years.

The issue took center stage again at a Board of Education meeting Jan. 22, when nearly every seat was filled inside a room at West Bloomfield High School.

During the public comments section of the meeting, more than 30 residents spoke, with Roosevelt being one of the primary topics.

The issue goes back at least as far as 2017, when, according to Keego resident Kirsten Sonneville-Douglass, in order to get support from Keego residents to help get a bond passed, the district “promised to put renovations and monies” into Roosevelt, which is over 100 years old.

After the bond passed, Sonneville-Douglass said, Keego residents felt “duped” when the district did not follow through with what was promised.

In a previous story for the Beacon, former West Bloomfield School District Superintendent Gerald Hill stated in an email that scheduled improvements at Roosevelt were “placed on hold.”

Late in the school term in 2022, a ceiling collapsed in a room that wasn’t being used at the school. Following that, students at the school were moved to Abbott, which is a building that had previously operated as a middle school in the district.

Roosevelt students currently remain in that building.

Among eight recommendations that were passed in a 5-2 vote at a Board of Education meeting last September was a recommendation to demolish the Roosevelt building.

It was previously reported that without an accepted redevelopment proposal, the building was expected to be demolished sometime this summer.

Keego resident and Planning Commission member David Emerling previously advocated for Roosevelt to continue to operate as a school. However, he has come to the conclusion that that’s not a realistic scenario and has shifted his focus.

“This has nothing to do with closing the school. It has to do with, ‘Why do you have to demolish the school?’” He said residents want the district to let Roosevelt have a new purpose in the community. “That’s all we want them to do — sell the building and let other people repurpose it,” Emerling said. “We know that we’re not saving Roosevelt as a school. It’s save (the) Roosevelt building.”

At the Board of Education meeting last September, Deborah Evans and Carol Finkelstein were the members who voted against the recommendations, with Julie Beaty, Stacy Brickman, Nelson Hersh, Ashleigh Davis and Wm. Art Holdsworth voting in favor of the recommendations.

It is Emerling’s hope that two other Board of Education members will align with Evans and Finkelstein.

“We need two people to decide that they need to reconsider the motion,” Emerling said. “The protocol that needs to happen is those two (Evans and Finkelstein) cannot make the motion to basically revisit that motion. Somebody has to second it, and anybody can second it, but it can’t be Carol or Debbie to make the motion, so it has to be one of the other five.”

The Board of Education meeting that took place Jan. 22 followed a public rally to save the Roosevelt building that was held at the Santia Banquet Center in Keego Harbor a week prior.

According to Emerling, over 100 people attended that rally.

“It was insanely popular,” Emerling said. “I think the takeaway from the people I’ve talked to is people are outraged at what’s happening at the district level.”

West Bloomfield resident John Calvin is not one of those people. He and his wife have three children in the West Bloomfield School District, including one who has attended Roosevelt.

He supports the district’s decision to demolish Roosevelt.

“I think what’s being said to the media and what’s being said internally — parents discussing with each other and lashing out at the district — they’re saying misleading things,” Calvin said in an interview with the Beacon. “It’s resentment, but it’s not accurate, and that’s my biggest problem. … The district is making difficult decisions, and that, necessarily, means what it sounds like — it’s difficult for them to make the decision.”

One of the points that has been brought up by those who oppose demolishing Roosevelt is that the district is concerned that if the building isn’t demolished, it could be turned into a charter school that could attract students and their per-pupil dollars away from the district.

It has been argued that the remedy for that would be to put deed restrictions into a contract that would prevent the building from being turned into a charter school.

From Calvin’s perspective, that is one of the inaccuracies that has been reported.

“You can’t put deed restrictions on this building and keep it from being turned into a charter school,” said Calvin, who is a real estate attorney. “The district and their attorneys have looked at the issue. … We can’t keep it from becoming a charter school. They don’t understand that.”

One of the speakers at the Board of Education meeting was Keego resident Marilyn Svaluto. She said that she has met with current WBSD Superintendent Dania Bazzi and does not support the district’s position.

“When meeting with Dr. Bazzi, I learned the overriding concern is that Roosevelt could become a charter school,” Svaluto said during the public comments portion of the Board of Education meeting. “Developers and people who have done some extensive research can assure you that cannot happen. It doesn’t have to be a foregone conclusion if you were to sell or lease the building. If Roosevelt is saved, there’s an immediate savings of a million dollars; you don’t have to tear down the school,” she said, referring to a possible $1 million demolition price tag.

The 2017 bond that was supported by some Keego residents was part of the concern expressed at the meeting.

“In 2017, Keego Harbor supported a bond with promise the funds would be used to maintain Roosevelt; they were not,” Keego resident Susan Emerling said at the meeting. “A portion of these funds could now be used to demolish the building instead, against the will of the people who voted for the bond.”

None of the speakers at the meeting spoke in favor of the district’s decision to demolish Roosevelt. However, at a Keego Harbor City Council meeting in November, Councilman Michael Karson shared his support for the district.

“Political advocacy is about meeting with people that are elected, educating them, and attempt to get buy-in. It is not to gather an army to try to bully or intimidate a body of government,” Karson said at the City Council meeting. “I am passionate with everybody in this city about the feelings about Roosevelt, but there is a respected body of government with the school board. I respect their function. I respect the difficulty in their decisions and the difficulty of their choices. … While I understand and respect the passion of our citizens, I also respect the school board, and I will support the school board in their decisions.”

The ideas that have been discussed for Roosevelt have included having it turned into a community center or a base for various nonprofits, and preserving it for mixed-use opportunities.

According to David Emerling, “lots of people” have expressed interest in purchasing the building.

In what was perhaps the most dramatic moment of the evening at the Board of Education meeting, Oakland County Commissioner Bob Hoffman was one such person.

“The demolition abatement is estimated to cost a million dollars, and I know there have been at least two offers on this property,” Hoffman said during public comments. “I’m prepared tonight to offer you a $500,000 cash offer for this property with no contingencies, and guarantees that this will never be a charter school.”

Hoffman received a standing ovation from some of the attendees.

The protocol at Board of Education meetings is for members to not address specific points made during public comments, and none of the board members responded to Hoffman’s offer.

The board members, along with Bazzi, declined an interview with the Beacon.

Hoffman also shared other comments at the meeting.

“This is our legacy, and I think it’s wrong to destroy something when there’s another choice,” he said. “To have a vision that destroys a valuable asset of the taxpayers, in my opinion, is outrageous, wrong and criminal. There’s nobody in this room who wants to make that into a charter school, and there are plenty of ways to prevent that from happening. … We should be working together to find a solution to preserve this historic school.”

Waterford resident Lindsay Steinbrecher is the parent of a fourth grade student who is currently in the Abbott building as a Roosevelt student.

“To be fiscally responsible, as they claim in all their meetings, it makes more sense, even if you were to give the building away for free … than to spend hundreds of thousands, maybe up to a million, to demolish it,” Steinbrecher said in an interview with the Beacon prior to the meeting starting. “It’s a staple in that community. What purpose is the empty building or demolished building servicing the West Bloomfield community? … If somebody wants something and you don’t, give somebody your trash.”

Keego Mayor Rob Kalman also spoke at the meeting. He encouraged Board of Education members to listen to the residents’ concerns and hear what they’re saying.

“Take it to heart,” Kalman said. “I think what they’re showing is passion. It means something to them, and it would be wrong of me to sit back and not support their efforts in talking with you and sharing their concerns. … If you’re going to do any real estate assessments for the property … please make them public; let everybody in the community understand the economic decisions.”

From Calvin’s perspective, communication is one of the district’s strengths.

“They do listen; they do communicate,” he said. “Frankly, they send out more updates from all the schools than I have time to keep up with. … They give all kinds of information. … I think the board and administration are very transparent about what’s going on.”

Keego Planning Commission member Kevin Douglass also addressed Board of Education members during public comment. He pleaded with them to not demolish the  Roosevelt building.

“Since you do not have a purpose for the building, we know that other developers do,” he said. “Please help me understand how tearing down a beautiful, historic building that is in the heart of (the) Keego Harbor community is a good decision and is fiscally responsible. You’re making a decision that affects a community that you do not live in or care about — that is careless and negligent. Sell the building and allow the Keego Harbor community (to) thrive off the real estate.”

Greater West Bloomfield Historical Society board member Hannah Dagg said that she is torn about the issue.

“To me, it would be ideal if the building could be saved, but I also feel it’s important for the district to get a fair price for the property, if they were to sell it,” Dagg said in an interview with the Beacon. “I do think that the offers that have been made so far are not, probably, what the district should be getting for it, if it were to be sold. … That would concern me too: the possibility of a charter school. I don’t know how much of a threat that is.”

Keego resident Katie Sexton said that Roosevelt is one of the cornerstones of the city and holds historical value. She is an advocate of the building being repurposed.

“It is considered a disadvantaged community, based on household income and other demographics,” she said at the meeting. “The district seems to be ignoring the principles of diversity, equity and inclusion when it comes to the people and students of this community. … Please explore the many other options for redevelopment and repurposing of the building, or at the very least, delay the motion. Repurposing the school is fiscally responsible, environmentally conscious and historically valuable.”

Although Bazzi did not address the controversy surrounding Roosevelt at the meeting, she did make a statement in a press release last year.

“We understand the importance of including the input and ideas of the residents and families of WBSD and specifically Keego Harbor,” Bazzi stated in the release. “This was not an easy recommendation to make and we understand the emotions surrounding the decision. However, it’s crucial to clarify that listening to the community does not always mean we can fully agree with every perspective. It is important to remember our focus is education, and we are educating students for their future and not our past.”

David Emerling has continued to hold out hope that the Roosevelt building could still be saved.

“I will have optimism until the bulldozers come,” he said. “We have a committee that keeps growing of volunteers.”