• Title: Red Cedar School: Lessons from the Bailey Community Center?
  • Author: Charles Hoogstraten
  • Date: 01/25/2016
  • Additional Categories: Recent Essays, Charles Hoogstraten

Red Cedar School: Lessons from the Bailey Community Center?

As someone deeply involved in the debates that swirled around the closure of the Bailey Community Center and its childcare, I believe that what has--just in the past few days--become a happier outcome for that site may have some light to throw on the Red Cedar School situation. The East Lansing School Board is pressing forward with an aggressive timeline for the reopening of Red Cedar as a K-5 elementary in Fall 2016, provoking a bitter debate within the community. Whatever happens at the Red Cedar building, it is clear that half-healed wounds have been reopened, old arguments rejoined, and a polarization that threatens the success of a planned and badly-needed bond proposal for Elementary renovations and rebuilding has worsened. Did this have to happen, and does it have to continue?

Some abbreviated history: After the City Manager’s 2014 recommendation to close Bailey, an intensive and bitter debate pitted childcare parents, other building users including dance studios, and Bailey neighbors against City administration and the then-majority on City Council. A group of parents, for whom I was privileged to speak before Council, proposed a detailed plan to extend city management for a brief time to allow for transition to a tenant-administered childcare model and building revitalization. This plan was rejected by a 3-2 vote of City Council in January 2015, and the building and childcare closed the following summer. It remains empty. So to those of my friends and correspondents who live in Red Cedar and wish that others in the City understood how they feel about their neighborhood school, I can say: Those of us in Bailey also believe that an unjust process led to an unwise decision that cost us services we value and created an empty facility in the heart of our neighborhood. Yes, we get it.

Where the stories diverge is in what happened after the decisions to close the respective buildings were made. Last Spring, the City of East Lansing convened two “public input” meetings to discuss the future of the Bailey site. I and many of my neighbors were deeply skeptical of this effort, since our first option (maintaining the Community Center as a public good) had already been taken off the table. Nevertheless, many of us from Bailey came and participated in an ultimately constructive set of discussions that produced a number of very specific recommendations for the future of the building. A few weeks later, the Capital Area Housing Partnership produced a plan to rebuild the facility as a combination of income-qualified senior housing on the second and third floors and office/community space on the first floor. Then-CAHP chair Mark Meadows, presenting the plan at a neighborhood meeting, stated explicitly that it had been shaped by the outcome of the public input sessions. Again, sentiment in the neighborhood was very much that this option was inferior to maintaining the community center, and a City Council election was coming up where opponents of the closing had a chance to win a majority (as indeed ultimately happened). Nevertheless, leaders of the Bailey neighborhood and parents’ group threw our support behind the CAHP proposal as the best way to move forward given the then-Council’s actions. The Council passed the various measures needed to support the effort unanimously and with broad public support. Just last week we all learned that CAHP has successfully obtained the MSHDA low-income housing funds needed to proceed. Construction is scheduled to start later this year, with the New Bailey Center opening in Fall 2017. Again let me emphasize: I would much prefer that the building had remained as it was, a preschool for my youngest child, a dance studio and summer camp location for my older girls, and a community meeting place and Tai Chi gym for myself. Many if not most Bailey residents feel the same way. But what will actually come to pass is far better than the building being converted to or replaced by yet another student housing development (apparently the favored option of more than a few folks in City Hall), or remaining an empty and decaying blight at the center of our neighborhood. And crucially, moving forward with this project has not been a divisive, we-have-a-one-vote-majority-on-Council-so-let’s-do-it effort, but a broadly popular and prosocial movement that the community is behind. This is not the exact outcome I would have hoped for, but it’s a reasonably positive one that I and my neighbors can live with. And because we did not try to turn back the clock, but rather agreed to move forward in a creative way, it has brought people back together after a very difficult time, rather than dividing them further.

At the moment, it does not appear that the Red Cedar saga is on track for a comparably happy ending. Those who want the school to reopen appear likely to get their wish; but the Board and community are deeply divided, other problems and priorities are being neglected, the ripple effects and problems created for the district as a whole will be substantial, and a critical upcoming bond issue has been placed at risk. Could a Bailey-style outcome have been possible at Red Cedar? Is it too late? There have been opportunities, some of which have now been lost. In fact, the initial closing of Red Cedar was considered a “repurposing,” and envisioned the building being used for ELPS administration – that is exactly why the Timberlane property was sold – and for pre-K programming of Montessori or Reggio Emilia type. With the Board turnover in 2012 and 2014 toward new members who favored K-5 programming at Red Cedar, neither of these options has been pursued, and other proposals such as a relocation of the Bailey childcare operation have been dismissed out of hand. The unfortunate result is that the debate has now been channeled into a bitter either-or argument between reopening Red Cedar as a K-5 and leaving the building empty.

The least important thing I hope to say with this essay is that, for many reasons of the good of the district as a whole that have been ably expounded by others, I am opposed to reopening Red Cedar as a K-5 school in Fall of 2016. The most important thing is this: I sincerely hope it is not too late for the sincere advocates of Red Cedar programming on the Board to take a step back and ask: Can this valuable facility in fact be used for other purposes that will maintain and even enhance its attractiveness and neighborhood value without disrupting the structure, finances, student bodies, and hard-working staff of the rest of the district’s elementary schools? If, three years from now, Red Cedar were to hold (for example) some Administrative offices for the District, an expanded Great Start Readiness program, and some sort of public Montessori or Reggio program such as exists and is wildly popular in Okemos, I have to believe that the effort would attract wide support from throughout the district. I’m not in the least wedded to that particular vision, as there are lots of ideas that have been floated or might be considered. I simply and strongly urge the Board to think outside the box they find themselves in, to look beyond single-minded efforts to turn back the clock, and to find a fitting use for the Red Cedar facility that can bring the entire community together, rather than tearing it further apart. The example of Bailey shows that, with a will to look forward rather than back on all sides, this can be done.

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