Schools bond before Benzie voters for fourth time
A look around Benzie Central Schools feels somewhat like a journey back in time.
The schools are well-maintained, but the decades old science labs are now cracked and chipped from years of use. The showers in the locker rooms were built in the 60s, and the layout is uncomfortable for students today, says Superintendent Amiee Erfourth.
“It’s basically a pole in the center with showerheads coming off of it all around. So you have to stand real close to use those facilities,” she says.
A proposal before voters this election would raise $39 million in taxes over the next 25 years. That would fund a long list of improvements like the new locker rooms, as well as a few big ticket items including roof replacements, a new elementary school, science labs and a fleet of new buses.
But advocates of the millage are still up against a group of voters critical of the district, who might not be moved. The millage proposal failed three times in the past 18 months. Though, the vote was close in the August primary, losing by just 34 votes.
“If the bond doesn’t pass, we will basically be able to fix the roofs and that will be about it,” Erfourth says.
School closings raise eyebrows
Controversy over the district’s planned closure of schools is central to the debate.
Platte River Elementary School closed in 2018. If they build a new elementary school, the school board plans to close Crystal Lake elementary too.
Benzonia resident Mike VanAntwerp doesn’t understand why the district would build a new elementary school, when other buildings would sit vacant.
“Pretty soon someone’s going to say let’s stop cutting the grass, the weeds and the crap,” he says. “It’s going to be an eyesore to the community.”
Nicki Brown, the vice president of the Benzie Central Schools Board of Education, says they had to close Platte River Elementary or the state would have taken over financial management of the district.
And now to reopen the school would cost almost as much as building a new one.
“For us to do any building to these schools to bring them up to date, we’d have to bring the whole building up to code,” Brown says. “So we are looking at a rabbit hole financially that we really do not want to go down.”
Erfourth says they have a possible buyer for Platte River and they already have a property where the new elementary school can be built.
Talking to voters
Clarifying points like these and answering the community’s questions has been harder this election because many fall festivals and events were canceled due to the pandemic.
So advocates went to the Benzie County GOP meeting and township meetings to explain the proposal.
“We’re talking to whoever will listen to us,” Brown says.
Now in the last days before the election, the final frontier is Facebook.
VanAntwerp wasn’t among those who heard from these advocates, he doesn’t use social media. But he reads about the millage in the Benzie County Record Patriot.
VanAntwerp says people are tired of being asked to approve this bond.
“We have rejected this millage for 39 million three times and now they’re asking a fourth time,” he says. “This is a pattern all over, everywhere. Let’s just keep asking and we’ll finally get what we want.”
VanAntwerp’s children graduated from Benzie Central Schools and are living successful lives. He wants that for the next generation too, but says he hopes the community will get more of a voice in the district’s decisions.