$14-Million School Is Complete, But Will Not Open

By Roger Martin — June 23, 1982 3 min read

Ortonville, Mich.--There’s a brand new, $14-million high school in Brandon Township, a quiet bedroom community in Michigan’s Oakland County.

The “ultra-modern” school has computer-training facilities, word-processing equipment, a cable tv studio, and sophisticated vocational-training equipment.

What it lacks however, is the money to open its doors.

The brand-new Brandon High School will be ready for September’s onslaught of students, but the school will stand vacant because school-district voters in April defeated a tax increase, thereby cutting the building’s operating funds.

‘Sign of the Times’

“It’s a sign of the times,” says the district’s superintendent, Richard Wilson. “People want [the new school] open, but they can’t afford it.”

“It’s a crime,” adds Carol Hanson, whose 15-year-old daughter is a freshman at the district’s old high school--which enrolls 87 more students than the 850 it has room for. The old high school’s overcrowded conditions have forced Principal Richard Kremkow to set up classrooms on the auditorium stage and in storage areas. Combined, the high school, the middle schools, and the district’s two elementary schools are 439 students above capacity. Supply and storage areas are used as makeshift classrooms in the middle school, and nine portable classrooms help ease overcrowding in the two elementary schools.

“The new high school is absolutely needed,” says Mr. Kremkow, but not only because of overcrowding. “About 70 percent of our system’s students don’t go on to college,” he explains. “These kids need the kind of vocational training the new school can give them. We hope the school can give them an edge on the job market.”

Bills Paid by Taxpayers

Opening the new school for the 1982-1983 academic year would cost $300,000, according to officials of the district. Jerry Wabeke, assistant superintendent, estimates that just maintaining and heating the empty school will cost about $100,000 per year--a bill to be paid by taxpayers. So, for savings of about $200,000, the school will remain closed.

Residents voted for a new school board June 14, but strong anti-tax sentiment in the area pushed another proposed millage hike off the ballot, according to board members.

“We really haven’t discussed it enough to know for sure when we’ll have another vote on the millage,” said a board member, Thomas Rogan. “There’s always a chance in the fall.”

Three years ago, the future promised prosperity for the community, located halfway between Flint and Pontiac. During the 1970’s, Brandon’s population nearly doubled. Unemployment was low and planners predicted more growth.

Residents in 1979 approved--by only eight votes out of 2,000 cast--bond sales to pay for the school’s construction. Since then, however, the township’s unemployment rate has soared to 28.2 percent, according to March estimates from the Michigan Employment Security Commission.

On April 5, the issue of funding the school’s daily operations was presented to local voters. The millage was defeated by a margin of nearly 2 to 1.

‘Economic Conditions’

“It’s because of the economic conditions,” says Township Supervisor William Wright. “It’s tough to tell someone who’s unemployed to vote for a tax increase. He’s going to say no to property taxes because that’s the only place he has a voice.”

The proposed increase would have added $40 in taxes annually to a house with a market value of $40,000 and an equalized value of $20,000.

When--or if--the new high school opens, officials plan to shift students from the overcrowded elementary schools into the middle school. Middle-school students will move to the old high school.

A version of this article appeared in the June 23, 1982 edition of Education Week as $14-Million School Is Complete, But Will Not Open