With the West Bloomfield School District seeking a $148 million bond proposal, for some Keego Harbor residents, the status of Roosevelt Elementary School is a key issue.

With the West Bloomfield School District seeking a $148 million bond proposal, for some Keego Harbor residents, the status of Roosevelt Elementary School is a key issue.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

Roosevelt Elementary’s future unknown ahead of bond issue

By: Mark Vest | West Bloomfield Beacon | Published April 13, 2023


KEEGP HARBOR/WEST BLOOMFIELD — In recent years, the status of Roosevelt Elementary School has been a source of contention between some Keego Harbor residents and the West Bloomfield School District.

It is an issue that goes at least as far back as 2017, when some residents in Keego felt that they were “duped” into supporting a WBSD bond proposal.

At that time, some in Keego were concerned that the district was planning to go from a five elementary school configuration to four, with Roosevelt Elementary School being a likely candidate to be consolidated.

Keego resident Kirsten Sonneville-Douglass believed that the district took Roosevelt off of the “chopping block” in order to increase the chances of voters approving a $120 million bond proposal in 2017.

The bond ended up passing, with Sonneville-Douglass and other Keego residents supporting it at the time.

Sonneville-Douglass said that residents were promised “renovations and monies” for Roosevelt that have not materialized.

The issue is in focus again this year, as the district is seeking a $148 million bond proposal. Residents will have an opportunity to cast their votes for or against the proposal May 2.

For some, Roosevelt — which, according to the district’s website, was built in 1920 — is once again at the center of the issue.

Late in the school term last year, a ceiling collapsed in a room at Roosevelt. Since that occurrence, students have not returned to that school and currently attend what was formerly Abbott Middle School in West Bloomfield.

Prior to May 2, some Keego residents are looking for answers as to where students who formerly attended Roosevelt will be going, as the only assurance that has been made so far is that they will remain at Abbott at least through the next school year.

“Maintenance has not been done from the last bond passage,” said Keego resident David Emerling, who is an engineer. “They promised there would be maintenance done on Roosevelt, and the engineering study that they did pay for did indicate that one more investigative engineering study had to be done, and they have not paid for that study or done that study, and they have not gotten any quotes (of) what it would take to fix the building. In my eyes, the building is very, very structurally sound. It lacks maintenance that they’ve promised to do from the last bond, and the students of Keego Harbor deserve better.”

West Bloomfield School District Superintendent Dania Bazzi was asked if money from the 2017 bond proposal has been spent on Roosevelt.

“The remaining funds are still available for future projects, and they will be carried forward into future projects following the outcome of the May 2023 bond proposal,” she said. “Those funds will be available for future projects and they’ll be rolled into the May 2023 proposal. … We’re really focused on educational spaces that are conducive to 21st century learning.”

Bazzi, who started in her position with the district last July, was then asked if money from the previous bond has been spent on Roosevelt up to this point.

“To be honest, I don’t know exactly,” she said.

In a story that was published in the Beacon in 2021, former WBSD Superintendent Gerald Hill shared his rationale for why Roosevelt wasn’t receiving the funding some would like for the school.

“The scheduled improvements to Roosevelt were planned to take place during the summer of 2021,” he stated via email. “Given that the board is now considering a potential consolidation of elementary schools, those scheduled improvements have been placed on hold, pending a final decision on the consolidation.”

Bazzi addressed the current status of Roosevelt.

“The recommendation right now is to remain at the Abbott site, due to staff and student safety concerns,” she said. “Roosevelt students will remain at the Abbott building for the ’23-’24 school year. … In working with our staff and administration, we found that our students are in a wonderful building, currently, that’s conducive to learning. … At the Abbott building there’s an abundance of space and opportunity. It’s a safer building and better meets the learning needs of our students than the previous building.”

Emerling disagrees with Bazzi’s assertion.

He said that the superintendent has stated that old buildings are not good for educating students, “that only new buildings have the layouts and the latest protocol of what it takes to educate students, and I find that very close-minded, because old buildings can do everything new buildings can do, maybe sometimes even better,” he said. “Many other school districts have embraced the historic buildings in their district to showcase the old architecture and what old buildings bring.”

Waterford resident Carly Wilbur said that she grew up in Keego and attended Roosevelt. She has children in the district who currently attend Gretchko Elementary School.

Wilbur supports the district’s current recommendation of not sending students back to Roosevelt.

“When I started looking for schools, I didn’t feel comfortable sending them to Roosevelt because (it’s) a three-story building — it’s older,” she said. “(The) design of it is not up-to-date for current learning, and I didn’t feel safe if there’s an emergency. … I sent them to Gretchko, but now that Roosevelt’s in Abbott, I’m actually considering switching my kids back over, because I love Roosevelt and the community — it’s closer for me.”

At a Keego Harbor City Council meeting last month, City Council member Brian Lampl addressed Bazzi, who was at the meeting.

“Fact of the matter is year over year the infrastructure that (Roosevelt) required and the upgrades and maintenance on it wasn’t being done to the extent that it was on other buildings,” Lampl said. “So to say that this time there’s an issue and we can’t use that building seems a little, for lack of a better word, disingenuous. So I suppose I would’ve appreciated, and perhaps this is prior to your time — I would’ve appreciated a little bit more transparency (and) forthrightness in the discussions throughout.”

City Council member Michael Karson also spoke at the meeting. He is a proponent of supporting the district’s $148 million bond proposal.

“I was on a school board for over 12 years, and I understand when a bond runs out you renew the bond,” Karson said. “Year over year over year everyone in the school district pays for these bonds. Roosevelt benefited from it year after year after year, just as the money that Keego voters put in benefits the district as a whole. I really hope that people support the district as a whole.”

During the public comments section, Keego resident Sue Williams spoke at the City Council meeting.

“In 2017, many of us in this room worked to see that the proposed $120 million school bond would pass in Keego because we were promised that $3 million was going to go into our beloved school. The bond passed by a 2-1 margin in Keego, but the investment to Roosevelt never materialized,” Williams said. “I will not trust this district with bond money again.”

The 2017 bond proposal was also on the mind of Keego resident Marilyn Svaluto when she spoke during the public comments portion of the Keego City Council meeting.

“In 2017, we overwhelmingly voted to pass a bond that was going to make a difference for Roosevelt,” Svaluto said. “I sort of get it about Roosevelt, although it breaks my heart. But I don’t understand why the money that was allocated for Roosevelt can’t be allocated for Abbott, to bring it up to speed with technology, with the infrastructure, with whatever it needs, and keep a somewhat neighborhood school. … Never in my life have I voted against a bond, but I’m going to vote against this bond, and I’m going to actively campaign to defeat it.”

Bazzi discussed the possibility of Roosevelt students remaining in the Abbott building beyond the next school term.

“There’s a lot of things that go into that, in terms of enrollment, trends, finances,” she said. “All of those things will help us make future decisions, but there’s been no formal decisions beyond the plan to have Roosevelt at the Abbott building for the 23-24 school year, and any future decisions will be done with the community and the staff, collectively.”

As to whether or not a decision may come before the bond proposal May 2, Bazzi said, “it’s not something that can be rushed.”

Sylvan Lake City Council member Ben Clarke said that the city is mostly “districted” within Pontiac, but that two streets are in West Bloomfield. He also weighed in on Roosevelt’s status with the West Bloomfield School District.

“I’m a big advocate of funding education; I think that’s really important. However, I certainly believe that the lack of investment in Roosevelt when they passed the last bond proposal is concerning,” Clarke said. “Roosevelt’s a historic school. Educators should protect history. It is one of the prettiest school buildings that I’ve been in and it has a long history.”

Clarke expanded on his thoughts.

“I’ve been following the Roosevelt debate,” he said. “With that bond proposal the whole point is they didn’t invest in it — the roof fell in. It feels really negligent, and now they’re asking for more money. That’s concerning.”

Sonneville-Douglass has a child who is in fourth grade. She estimated that Abbott is about a half-mile from Roosevelt.

While that is within walkable distance, she said that it is not safe because it is located on Orchard Lake Road, and that most students take a bus.

However, if the decision is made to close Abbott, she thinks the students would be moved to Gretchko and Scotch elementary schools, which are not within walking distance.

“Those students would be picked up, and it is a 45-minute bus ride, one way,” Sonneville-Douglass said. “Some days, it can be a little less, like maybe 40 minutes, but my son did that in kindergarten — we had actually thought about going to Gretchko — (but) halfway through, we moved him back to Roosevelt. … My son was on the bus for an hour-and-a-half every day, and in kindergarten, that’s not acceptable. … I moved to a metropolitan area where I had a school that was in close proximity; I didn’t move to, say, Highland, where I knew we had dirt roads and my son might be on a bus for a long period of time.”

Bazzi was asked about the most likely destination for students, if the decision is made to close Abbott.

“I can’t answer that,” she said. “That’s speaking into a hypothetical. … Right now, the future next steps is to keep the district configuration as is, and any future steps will be determined after there’s been thoughtful data collection and an evaluation of our district, (in) terms of operational efficiency and finances.”

Emerling said that he would be “totally happy” if the decision is made for the students who previously attended Roosevelt to remain at Abbott.

“That would be perfectly fine, but what are they gonna do with Roosevelt? The thing that is troubling with this school board is they keep asking for money,” he said. “Maybe it is an admin building, maybe it’s a community center, maybe it’s something, but don’t let it just rot away. Let’s find a good use for it within the community.”

Bazzi did not comment on what might become of the Roosevelt building.

She shared a message for Keego residents.

“Our staff and students love Roosevelt,” Bazzi said.  “From the feedback I’ve received they are comfortable at the Abbott building. … We appreciate their dedication and commitment to education within their community, and we have nothing but respect and admiration for their loyalty to the district.”