Arbor Update

Ann Arbor Area Community News

Super Size Me: The Gluttonous High School Bond

10. June 2004

By Michael Betzold

Distribute as you wish.

(This is my own opinion and does not represent the view of the Ann Arbor Observer.)

The problem: Ann Arbor’s big high schools are too crowded.

The solution: Build another big high school.

It’s a typical American solution: More. Like building more roads because the roads are too crowded. Like building another mall across the street because the parking lot at the old mall is full.

The school bond facilities proposal on the June 14 ballot makes little educational sense. Research shows class size is the most critical component in learning. But the facilities plan won’t reduce class sizes at all. Research also shows that the optimal size for a high school is about 900 students. The Ann Arbor Public Schools administration and board know this but are asking voters to approve a huge bond for a school for more than 1,600 students.

Too much, too late. That much capacity isn’t needed. Demographic projections show high school enrollment has peaked and will begin a downward trend. What Ann Arbor really needs is another small, alternative school like Community High. Two to three times the number of students that can attend Community High apply every year.

The middle schools already are under capacity due to the decline in the Baby Boomer’s Babies enrollment bubble. Why not take one of the five middle schools, convert it to a small high school (with a technology curriculum or something else innovative), and do it at virtually no cost?

The argument is that Ann Arbor needs a new high school with all the bells and whistles because… well….because other districts have brand new high schools, and we want to keep up with the Cantons. Privileged people that we are, we want our kids to have the best: designer clothes, designer schools. But why can’t we do something progressive instead?

At bottom, this bond is a justice and social class issue. Is the crowding at Pioneer and Huron a serious enough problem that it requires punishing seniors on fixed incomes, families that are struggling with mortgages and increasing energy costs, and taxpayers who are already taxed to the hilt?

Though there are way more students at Pioneer and Huron than the high schools were designed for, they remain two of the state’s top schools. Most students don’t see crowding as a huge problem. Classes have been held in portables at those schools for decades. Is this a crisis? If so, it’s been a crisis that’s been going for an awfully long time with few if any demonstrable ill effects.

So for the sake of a victimless problem we are going to send Ann Arbor further down the road toward becoming an elite city that few working-class or middle-class people can afford to live in. Lots of lip service is given to the lack of affordable housing in Ann Arbor. Giving property owners a tax break now would be one small step toward doing something concrete about the cost of living here.

Environmentally, the high school proposal is toxic. The site may attract more sprawl housing and draw more families away from inner-city neighborhoods and schools. But no matter what the site, anything that contributes to the high cost of living in Ann Arbor encourages more sprawl housing outside the city. High property taxes in Ann Arbor are bad for the environment.

Even with all this, the district’s deceptive publicity campaign might be reason enough to vote down the proposal. In ads and brochures distributed to homes, the administration presents charts showing the dozens of dollars a year that homeowners’ taxes would decline if the plan were voted in (because it’s replacing retiring millages). The publicity does not mention the hundreds of dollars property taxes would drop if the millage were defeated. This enormous, something-for-everyone, $200-million-plus millage is presented as a free lunch: all these benefits with no costs. So what is the school administration teaching our kids? That it’s OK to omit known facts and manipulate data in order to win your argument.

If the bond passes, Ann Arbor will take a step toward becoming an even more exclusionary city. If it is defeated, the school administration may be forced to consider using the physical assets it already has to design schools that are more conducive to learning without being toxic to our fiscal and environmental health. And that would be a step toward a more liveable Ann Arbor, with a thriving central city and real economic diversity.

  1. I think he’s right on, but I’m still not sure which candidates I should vote for…
       —js    Jun. 11 '04 - 12:39PM    #
  2. Vote for Theresa Han-Markey for Board of Education. See A2News endorsement, 6/10/04.
       —Kathleen Conway    Jun. 11 '04 - 05:10PM    #
  3. Lord. Research does NOT show that class size is the most important factor in learning. In fact, research shows that class size initiatives in CA and TN have had little if any impact on educational achievement, have cost massive amounts of money, and created teacher shortages and other negative side effects, mostly on lower-class neighborhoods. There are a hundred other things that have been shown to have a strong impact on achievement and cost far less money.

    Sorry for that rant there.
       —mnb.    Jun. 20 '04 - 01:01AM    #