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Wednesday, March 26,2014

Do not erase

Why was a proposal for re-using Eastern High School wiped off the board?

by Lawrence Cosentino
A group of East Side residents and Eastern High School alumni want to know why the Lansing School Board hastily erased a proposal to keep the historic building alive as a limited-use specialty high school.

Jim Lynch, a board member of the Eastern High School Alumni Association and a member of the facilities task force that came up with the proposal after three months of study, wants to know what’s going on.

“It’s interesting that they kind of changed their mind on that,” Lynch said. “We’re not sure why and we’re trying to find out.”

More than a dozen Eastern High School alumni and East Side residents met on March 18 at the Allen Neighborhood Center to discuss the matter.

Joan Nelson, a member of the facilities task force and director of the Allen Neighborhood Center, took exception to a comment from Superintendent Yvonne Caamal Canul, quoted in the Jan. 23 Lansing State Journal, that the plan was not an official written recommendation and was not feasible.

“I’ve been on a lot of citizen task forces. I get it that when we make recommendations, folks have a perfect right to reject them,” Nelson said. “But what they can’t do is re-characterize them, put words in the mouth of the task force members.”

Nelson and Lynch said the proposal was meant to be official (and was written) and merited serious consideration.

“We made recommendations to the board, and now they’re being changed,” Lynch said. “That’s the big issue here. We haven’t gotten any response from the board.”

Bob Kolt, spokesman for the school district, declined to respond “for now.” “Community input is always important,” Kolt wrote in an email. “Simply put, Yvonne will detail her plan going forward in the near future.”

Kolt told City Pulse in an email earlier this month: “The building was built in the late 1920’s and doesn’t represent the kind of learning environment appropriate for the 21st century. It’s (sic) condition is minimally functional. No studies have been done on restoration and re-use (for what would we re-use it?).”

The task force proposed that Pattengill Academy become a conventional high school housing grades nine through 12. The two older high schools, Eastern and Sexton, would be specialty academies “in a scaled-down form.”

Eastern would be a specialty academy for career training in health care and insurance fields; Sexton would focus on careers in math, engineering, technology and science. The plan left room in both buildings for other uses, supported by public and private partners. Sexton, the task force suggested, could house the district’s administration offices. Eastern could launch a “programmatic and financial partnership” with Sparrow Health System, Lansing Community College and Michigan State University.

Nelson said the “deep” partnerships would be crucial to the project’s financial viability.

The task force met weekly for three months to put the proposal together. They visited schools in other cities, including Jackson High School (about the same vintage as Eastern High School), which has been retrofitted for 21st-century use.

The task force presented its proposal to the school board on Jan. 9, but Nelson and Lynch feel that it was unceremoniously rebuffed. Nelson was taken aback by Caamal Canul’s comments, reported in the State Journal, that the specialty academies at Eastern and Sexton were not part of the official written recommendations and not feasible. In a March 5 story in City Pulse, two months after the task force handed down its proposal, school board President Peter Spadafore said no formal plan for re-using Eastern High School had crossed his desk.

“That was news to us,” Nelson said. “I thought we made it pretty clear.”

Lynch said the Eastern High School Alumni Association would support the plan worked out for Eastern by the task force. He fears, however, that the district is headed for a quick cash sale, most likely to nearby Sparrow Health System.

“What they don’t want is to just tear the darn thing down just so Sparrow can build more parking lots,” Lynch said.

While Spadafore and other school board members maintain that Eastern and other aging school buildings aren’t suitable for 21st-century education, century-old Lansing schools are being refitted for high tech companies, like Spartan Internet at the Holmes Street School, Niowave in Marble School and Neogen in Oak Park and Allen Street schools.

“You can’t have it both ways,” Nelson said. “You can’t say that these are hopeless old buildings and turn around and sell them to tech companies.”

The East Side group hasn’t set a second meeting yet, but anyone interested in participating can contact Nelson at allenneighborhoodcenter.org or Lou Hekhuis of the Eastern High School Alumni Association at lehsalumni.com.

“I’m sure they know that this is a neighborhood that pays attention,” Nelson said. “We’ll continue to monitor this, offer our ideas and suggestions, and hope that we will ultimately offer our support for a bond issue.”

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