Work begins on computers and early childhood center in Otsego

By: 
Ryan Lewis

A nature-based early childhood center and new computers for most students are in the pipeline after Otsego Public Schools voters passed a $6.96 million bond project on the Nov. 7 ballot.
The proposal passed by a vote of 1,046 to 996.
Superintendent Jeffrey Haase said, “We were very excited and very pleased with the approval and being able to offer additional opportunities for our families and community members here with the early childhood center.”
He said school board members, at their meeting Monday, Nov. 13, celebrated the local donation that helped spark the concept for the center in the first place.
School board president Wendy Stafford said they accepted a $500,000 check from the Bennett family at the meeting.
When the money was pledged last year, school board members formed a committee to determine the best use of the funds and decided to find a way to provide free preschool for every child in the district. That necessitated seeking to add classroom space. ttee sought a partnership with the Kalamazoo Nature Center to provide a math and science curriculum for an early childhood center for 3- and 4-year-olds. The donation will be used as an endowment to fund scholarships to help students attend.
Stafford said, “This money will be going to families to make sure Otsego residents have affordable access to preschool.”
Marty Bennett, the third-generation owner of the Community Shoppers Guide in Otsego, presented the check to board members with his wife Jacquie and son Grant.
He said the donation was from his grandfather Grant Bennett’s estate; he died 19 years ago.
“He bought the newspaper at the time and turned it into what is now the Shoppers, and through all that success was able to set aside some money,” Marty Bennett said. “What sparked it was when my father (Ron) came to my daughter’s high school swingout ceremony, he saw all the different scholarships and it got him thinking.”
After talking it over with Marty’s grandmother, Hilda, Ron believed Grant Bennett could be memorialized through a donation. After talking it over with the school, the idea transformed from helping the school build a building into its current form, an endowment for scholarships bearing his name.
Marty Bennett said he liked the idea of it even better after the concept of the nature-based center was announced.
“It’s going to be one of the only places like it in the area, and I think it will attract more kids,” he said. “That might mean more of them continue to put their children in Otsego schools and the community will grow and make it that much stronger.”
Also rolled into the eventual bond proposal was an effort to fund new computers for students.
Haase said, “Obviously, we want to thank voters for their support, for what we’re doing for Otsego schools and the direction we are heading.”
He said the center is expected to cost an estimated $5.6 million; its 10 to 12 classrooms would be ready for fall 2019 enrollment.
Administrators will meet later this month with architecture firm Tower Pinkster and the construction management team at Skillman Corp.
“Over the winter months, January to probably April, will be a lot of design work,” Haase said. “In late spring, we’ll put the project out for bid, with a tentative construction start for late July or early August. Construction is expected to last 10 months.
“We’ll be meeting with our focus group that helped put this forward, meeting with preschool staff and community members to help develop the preschool, what the classrooms are going to look like,” Haase said. “We’ll be meeting with Kalamazoo Nature Center staff, just a lot of behind-the-scenes work prior to its opening.”
The $1.3 million in technology purchases is largely for Chromebooks for, at least, students in grades three through 12.
They would be purchased for each high school student, and they would be able to take them home. Middle schoolers would leave theirs at school. For the elementary grades, there would be devices in every classroom.
Purchases would then be staggered, rolling out the new devices to grades three through eight in fall 2018 and then the high school in fall 2019.
Stafford said she was delighted the public had passed the proposal.
“My first thought was, ‘Oh my goodness, we can move forward with this dream,’” she said. “We’ve been wanting to provide this service in Otsego for quite a while.”
As far as technology, she’s heard the comments in the community.
She said, “I’ve heard some say, ‘Friends in other districts have this available; when will it be available in Otsego?’ So we’re happy to move forward with both projects.”
As for the money that will fund all of it—now with voter approval in hand—Haase said the administration would meet with the district’s financial advisors at Umbaugh and Associates to schedule a competitive bond sale for February or March. That would put the bond money in the district’s coffers by early spring.
Haase said the district expects the debt millage currently charged to taxpayers, set at 7.5 mills, will not have to be increased to pay off the debt; it will be collected longer, however, through 2040.
The ballot proposal passed by a three-to-one margin within Otsego city limits. It passed by 78 votes in Otsego Township. Voters in Kalamazoo County largely rejected the proposal; the Alamo Township vote came in at 228 for and 417 against while the Oshtemo Township vote came in at 123 for and 131 against.
Contact Ryan Lewis at rmlewis@allegannews.com or (269) 673-5534.

 

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