From school bells to doorbells

From the porch of her three-bedroom, 1,180-square-foot house, Katherine Maggi looks across the front lawn of one of Royal Oak's oldest schools, sees a neighborhood of 1950s-style bungalows, towering trees and a park and questions the school district's plan for transforming it into a block of newer, bigger homes.

"We don't need four-bedroom, huge houses with no yards. That just doesn't fit," says the mother of three who runs a nonprofit agency. "I would rather have the park there and the kids there than I would some huge houses."

Maggi may not get her wish. The Royal Oak district is in the process of selling off six elementary schools — including the 1920s-era brick building next to Maggi's house — to developers who are paying cash for the properties and have plans to build big homes on them.

Such a plan seems to be unique, as districts elsewhere in Michigan and the Midwest struggle to match facilities to fluctuating student populations. Some must build new schools for growing populations; others must close and consolidate schools and then determine what to do with the buildings. One of the most extreme situations is in Detroit where this spring some 34 schools were slated for closing during the next two academic years.

Jennifer Rodgers, spokeswoman for the Michigan Association of School Boards, says districts in Michigan haven't used a plan like Royal Oak's, which encourages new family-friendly housing as sites are reused, but that it makes sense as its school-age population declines.

"It's logical. It helps the community if more people move in. It's a logical, smart move for the district to be proactive like that," she says. "Usually districts hold on to their property. They use it for their growth or they want to put a new high school on it. It's uncommon that they have property to sell and that they do it in this way."

Rick Savors is the spokesman for the Ohio School Facilities Commission, a state-supported project that has overseen the replacement or renovation of buildings in about 200 of Ohio's 614 districts to date. Not once has he seen a district decide the fate of a school site based on similar criteria to what Royal Oak is using: the construction of single-family homes in part to help repopulate a district or at least slow the enrollment decline.

The benefits of the plan to the Royal Oak district are two-fold: The developers pay cash for the property, providing funds to renovate still-open schools; and homes designed to accommodate families with school-aged children will be built. Superintendent Thomas Moline reasons that building these larger homes in Royal Oak will attract new residents, increase the tax rolls and ultimately slow the rate of decline of enrollment.

"Having six or seven kids in a bungalow in Royal Oak, those days are gone," he says.

Forty years ago when the last of the baby boom generation was school age, Royal Oak Schools had an enrollment of more than 20,000 with students filling two high schools, four junior highs and 18 elementary schools, according to district records.

By 1998, when enrollment had fallen to about 5,900, the district had two high schools, two middle schools and eight elementary schools. This fall, with enrollment projected to be about 5,400, just one high school, one middle school and six elementary schools will remain.

In a city that has been losing population for decades, the school district has been losing students at an even faster rate. The city planning department says the population peaked in 1970 at 86,238. According to U.S. Census data, Royal Oak's population in 1990 was 65,410 and fell further to 58,299 by 2005.

"Probably the biggest change is people just don't have large families anymore," Moline says. "And they opt to go to the outer rings in Oakland County for housing. The highway systems have allowed them to get out there and back. They've gone past Royal Oak."

Projections have enrollment there as low as 4,300 students in 2011, and district officials believe the building consolidation plan they've got is appropriate for that size school population. The question became what to do with the extra buildings.

Two years ago, the district sold two elementary schools. Parker Elementary School and its land went to Beaumont Hospital for $6.1 million, which Moline says was about a $1 million more than the next offer. Five homes will be built on the site by a separate developer and the hospital plans eventually to build there too, Moline says. Also in 2005, the district sold the Franklin Elementary School site for $1.6 million where 47 homes are to be built.

Then, earlier this year, Mark Twain Elementary School, on Campbell Road near 14 Mile Road, went to a developer for $2 million for a planned subdivision with about 55 homes and the former Lincoln school site was sold for $1 million.

Not all residents are fans of the plan.

"I'm not one of the people who believe we should keep Royal Oak as it's always been. I believe in change and progress — but when you do it, you have to look at the whole," says Maggi, who lives next to Whittier Elementary School just northeast of 11 Mile Road and Main Street. "To be honest, what I see happening now in Royal Oak, I think, is horrible."

Moline says the district would like to see a total of about 200 new homes built on former school sites during the next few years; he estimates an additional 200 children could join the district when their parents buy the homes.

"We're right at the zenith of all this," he says of the consolidation project. "The methodology and the mentality behind this was developed by a citizens group in 2002 and 2003. The idea was that we would certainly have to downsize in terms of declining enrollment. Where buildings are being removed and property sold, we wanted to try and develop and foster the rejuvenation of families and children on those sites."

The district received bids last month for two of the school sites: Longfellow Elementary School off 11 Mile Road near Woodward and Starr Elementary School at 13 Mile and Crooks. The bids are being reviewed by district administrators, board members and attorneys who also are interviewing potential buyers this week.

Some of the bids offer what district officials were looking for — 2,000-plus square-foot single family, three- or four-bedroom homes — but others propose senior housing, an expansion of the YMCA and a commercial district.

Among the offers for Longfellow are a $600,000 purchase price for the land to become single-family condominiums and townhouses or colonials, $1.8 million for a "concept plan under development" and several offers in the $1 million-$1.4 million range for single-family homes. Some include developing the 1.4-acre site along 11 Mile as a commercial site.

At Starr, proposals included a $1.43 million offer to purchase the land and build condominiums, a $1.35 million proposal that would include 184 senior housing units and a $1.8 million senior housing community plus nine single-family homes.

Joe Novitsky, the owner and principal architect of JSN Architects in Bingham Farms, proposed an adaptive reuse for both schools as assisted living facilities with a purchase price of $1.3 million for the Longfellow site and $840,000 for Starr.

"They would be for seniors from the same neighborhoods and keep them just blocks away from their homes instead of miles away from their homes and free up their existing housing for new families," Novitsky says.

His plan also calls for a first-right-of-refusal for the district to buy back the schools in 15 years, as Novitsky, also a city commissioner in Berkley, believes the school-age population will grow in Royal Oak during that time. He says the district's plan to eliminate school buildings and their grounds "offends" him.

"We lose not only the schools, we lose the park lands. We lose the open space that belongs to the city. That's where my kids learned to fly kites, learned to play ball, ride their bikes, ultimately steer a car for the first time in the parking lots. These are really important places. To lose those would drive me crazy," he says.

Terri Shaffer has children at Longfellow. If it can't remain open as a school, she's hoping the building is spared because of its historic value. "The only thing we can do is wait to see what they do with these bids," she says.

Moline says the district will be in final negotiations for the Longfellow and Starr sites within a few weeks and plans to put Whittier up for sale later in the summer.

"Ultimately we've got to get the most we can out of these properties," he says.

Sandra Svoboda is a Metro Times staff writer. Contact her at 313-202-8015 or [email protected]
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