After a lively discussion during its special meeting on April 26, the Van Buren Public Schools Board of Education voted unanimously to proceed with an upgrade to the current Belleville High School cafeteria to make it into “The Commons.”
Cost of the project is more than $2 million, which would include raising the roof to improve acoustics and removing interior pillars that now block the sight line.
The vote directed engineers to create specifications for the project and go out for bids so the exact price of construction could be determined. The actual approval of the project would come with the board’s acceptance of the bids.
Architect John Davids of Fanning Howey said plans call for replacing the hard tile floor with rubber flooring, which would reduce the decibel level in the cafeteria. Pillars would be removed, which would increase the seating capacity and take away the blockages to sight lines.
“I’m not as interested in the acoustics if it’s just a cafeteria,” said BHS Principal Michael Van Tassel, who said if the room was just for eating they could plug their ears and bear the noise during lunch time.
But, he said, this space is the last piece of the puzzle in the new school building and would provide a setting for 21st century learning.
“Educational leaders are more interested in the learning environment,” Van Tassel said, noting that Eastern Michigan University has a true commons area, which is used for many different activities, especially group learning projects.
He said the BHS commons space could be used for many different community activities.
“Often this high school has ignored the community relationship,” Van Tassel said.
Davids said the 12,000 square feet of room with a low ceiling “makes it feel flat to me.”
Van Tassel said the bank of windows will bring in natural light. Davids said studies show teachers and students perform better with lots of natural light.
“We are so close to a world-class high school in every respect, we don’t want to cheat this,” Van Tassel said.
Davids said the auditorium and cafeteria are old buildings that are remaining and their update will improve the image of the building, so it’s not like a huge addition to an old building.
He said they will take out the little strip of windows on the south side of the cafeteria, which now faces the classroom towers, and replace them with big windows to the north.
He said people going by outside will be able to see the students inside. He said the new media center will be next to the cafeteria on the north side of the complex and it also will have large curved windows.
Davids said with the addition of new bolstering trusses in two places, they will be able to take out the support columns to have one, big, open space.
Van Tassel said the current cafeteria cannot be used for state testings of students because the lines of sight are blocked and tests cannot be properly monitored.
Van Tassel said he hopes the Rotary and other community organizations will come in and use this space.
“I hope the community would use it every night,” Van Tassel said. “The community is dying for a place like this.”
Davids added that being at the front of the building with the media center, it will be one of the public hubs.
Van Tassel said this goes along with the concept of an extended day, where German can be taught after school by Eastern Michigan University, with credit at EMU. He said BHS will have a college campus environment.
Davids explained the furniture that has been chosen for the commons. Some tables will be at standing height rather than sitting, and there will be counter tops so students can eat together in groups, standing or sitting. There also will be tables.
“We’re trying to get away from the prison tables,” Davids said, adding that most students have some form of undiagnosed ADD and can’t keep from moving their feet and hands.
Davids said other furniture for the new school is ergonomic in design.
Davids said the big atrium extension to the east of the commons will seat from 150 to 200 additional students. He said the new servery (food counter) on the south wall will have soups, salads, and other items.
Van Tassel said for September, October, and November of 2012, when the cafeteria is being transformed into the Commons, students will eat in a temporary lunchroom in the auxiliary gym. The new wooden gym floor will be stored and the students will walk on the sealed concrete floor.
He said the food will be cooked and brought in from South Middle School.
Kenric D. Van Wyk, an acoustics engineer, told the board the BHS cafeteria is one of the noisiest cafeterias he’s ever measured. He said the upgrades will make a clearly noticeable change of noise levels, bringing the decibles from 85 to 75, which sounds half as loud.
After all the discussion on the upgrades, resident Jane Kovach noted that this project is something that has been well-studied.
“I’m inspired,” said Kovach, who had opposed the “raising of the roof” on the cafeteria. “I’m surprised I’m talking like this.”
The board tabled the agenda item called “The Belleville High School Commons Proposal,” because it was vague and should have been just an informational item.
Then, after much, discussion, the board approved directing engineers to make construction drawings and go out for bids on the $2-million-plus project that includes kitchen work.
The Commons’ HVAC, cafeteria roof and interiors, estimated at $418,418, were added to the estimated $1,632,845 for raising the roof, glass, acoustical treatments, etc. bringing the total to over $2 million.
Trustee Sherry Frazier chastised the architects and engineers for breaking the project into two parts, accusing them of not being straightforward.
Board President Martha Toth said the board members had asked that the projects to be broken into two parts. Trustee Scott Russell said he did not recall any vote on that.
Trustee Russell’s motion to table the vote on the project for two weeks to get public input failed 5-2, with Frazier being the only other board member supporting his motion.
He said the people in the community were under the impression that the cafeteria work was to be $1.6 million and now it’s $2 million. He said he couldn’t see how holding off for two weeks could hurt the project, which was scheduled for late 2012.
That evening’s meeting was held on a Tuesday, instead of the regular Monday meeting night (because of the Easter Monday school holiday) and at the cafeteria instead of the regular meeting sites. Only two members of the public attended: Kovach and Reggie Ion.
The board also approved locking in up to $243,421 in bids for the roof replacement for the theater and low-roof kitchen area, hoping to get ahead of rising commodity prices due to climbing oil costs.
In other business at the April 26 meeting, the board:
• Heard an update on the BHS bond project and noted a board tour of the site will be arranged for sometime in May. The guaranteed maximum price of construction is $60,638,628 and the project is on schedule and 5% under budget. The total bond cost is $79,050,131;
• Approved a resolution opposing the Governor’s proposed budget cuts, noting the Van Buren Public Schools budget is already down $6.3 million since 2008. Trustee Kevin English said that 100 other school districts have already adopted similar resolutions; and
• Heard Treasurer Toni Hunt and Secretary Brenda McClanahan report on their two days in Lansing where they were trained as Emergency Managers to find out all about the process. McClanahan said an EM can dissolve a union after just 30 days if no consensual agreement can be reached and bargaining has come to an impasse. “We have to do everything in our power to avoid it,” Hunt said, noting a lot of other school board members were being trained of the 340 that received certification in her class. Hunt and McClanahan stressed the people trained as EM’s weren’t professional managers, but from all walks of life. School Supt. Thomas Riutta said, “They’re just warm bodies.” McClanahan said the EM’s would bring in forensic auditors and other consultants with the expense borne by the community. Hunt said the Emergency Managers come if a community or school board refuses to make the hard decisions.