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Cornell Elementary will stay where it is; $275M Okemos schools bond will be on the November ballot

Cornell Elementary School
Posted at 3:34 PM, May 25, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-25 15:34:26-04

OKEMOS, Mich. — Cornell Elementary School could be rebuilt if a Okemos schools bond proposal passes in November.

The debate was over where it would be, which was settled at Tuesday night's school board meeting. School board members voted to rebuild Cornell where it now stands rather than rebuilding on empty green space owned by Okemos schools on Powell Road near Grand River Avenue.

Emily Waller doesn't live in the Cornell neighborhood, but that didn't stop her from speaking at Tuesday night's meeting.

“I had written this speech to present to them about, what about the people in these areas," Waller said. "I think that was the key component that they were forgetting is that how this affects all people."

Waller and her husband met and graduated from Okemos High School and moved into the Wardcliff neighborhood near the building once used for Wardcliff Elementary. The school closed in 2011 due to declining numbers and Waller said the neighborhood hasn't been the same since.

“When Wardcliff was a thriving school, there was this amazing life and energy in the neighborhood and when they closed that down, that just got sucked away,” Waller said.

She was worried the same would happen to the neighborhoods around Cornell if the school board voted to move the school to Powell Road.

“Older generations love having neighborhood schools because they get such joy out of hearing those kids off in the playground, and they learn from the younger generations and as a result, they get more energized," Waller said. "There's a trickle down effect. And then the younger generations learn from the older generations and there's this beautiful circle of education that happens, because there's a neighborhood school present.”

So when the 5-2 vote came in Tuesday night, approving the language for the $275 million bond proposal to appear on the November ballot, Waller was relieved.

“I was so happy for the Cornell neighborhood because our words meant something and it struck a chord with those board members and they decided to save that space and maintain that energy in that neighborhood," Waller said.

Board President Mary Gebara voted in favor of keeping Cornell where it is and got emotional explaining why.

“I’m a Cornell mom," Gebara said. "I want the community to know that it’s about the neighborhood schools, and, for me, it’s about keeping Cornell a community where it’s at because people bought their homes in Cornell and the surrounding areas because the school was there.”

Gebara said she hadn't slept well in weeks debating the right decision.

“We can’t let our community think that Cornell’s going to be another Wardcliff or another empty promise or another unkempt facility,” Gebara said.

She knew keeping Cornell where it was was the right choice for her.

“People move here for the schools and they stay here for the community,” Gebara said.

The $275 million would not only be used to rebuild Cornell Elementary but includes the replacement of Chippewa and Kinawa Middle School and connecting those two buildings.

If the bond passes, Cornell could be rebuilt by fall of 2028 with Kinawa and Chippewa opening in 2030.

While Waller is happy with the board's decision, she's worried about the future of Wardcliff.

“The worry for us is that if the bond passes, they'll demolish the school, and then they'll sell that green space to somebody else, and then our neighborhood will no longer feel like a part of the Okemos community that it is,” Waller said.

Which is why board member Andrew Phelps encourages that neighborhood to keep speaking out.

“I’m glad I’m hearing so much about Wardcliff," Phelps said. "That's a community that desperately, desperately wants to be heard. I’m glad we’re hearing it, I hope that noise continues and doesn't end tonight because I do think there’s opportunities in the future.”

Other projects included in the $275 million bond proposal are updating fine arts and academic spaces, athletic space updates, replacing furniture across the district and renovations that would relieve overcrowding.

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