July 2, 2014 at 3:47 pm

Wayne plan for countywide school tax divisive

Property values and student enrollment will determine the winners and losers if Wayne County voters approve a countywide school millage hike that faces opposition from some wealthier districts.

That’s because the 2-mill, six-year revenue enhancement millage on the Aug. 5 ballot would be collected according to taxable property values, but distributed on a per-pupil basis. Wayne County educates about 213,000 students in K-12.

All of the county’s 32 school districts would get extra revenue if the millage passes, but districts such as Plymouth-Canton would pay more in taxes than they would get back in collections. And districts such as Detroit Public Schools would pay less in taxes than they would receive because of higher enrollment.

The tax would raise about $80 million in its first year, costing a homeowner $100 a year for every $100,000 of market value.

For example, in the Grosse Pointe Public School System, the tax would generate $4.99 million yet provide only $3.17 million for the district, which has 8,347 students.

Other districts would be winners. The tax would generate $14.7 million from DPS taxpayers but provide the state’s largest district with just over $18.5 million because it has 48,904 students.

Superintendent Chris Wigent of the Wayne Regional Educational Service Agency said a countywide revenue enhancement millage has never been tried before in Wayne County but is allowed under Proposal A.

State law prohibits districts from asking voters to consider millages above the 18-mill non-homestead levy specified in the state law.

“We continue to see in polling that education is one of the top priorities for people in Wayne County. This is an opportunity to help support school districts that have continued to see decreases in state funding,” Wigent said. “We want the voters to have the option of supporting their local district.”

Wayne RESA, the intermediate school district for the county, placed the millage on the ballot after school boards representing more than 50 percent of public school students in Wayne County requested this spring that the issue be brought before voters. Twenty of the 32 districts in Wayne County approved the question for the August primary.

The Grosse Pointe school district was not one of them. Its board of education voted in April against placing the measure on the ballot, claiming that for every $1 collected from local taxpayers, the district would receive a little over 63 cents back.

“Financially, we as a school system can always use the additional revenue stream,” Superintendent Thomas Harwood said. “The difficulty occurs when the community providing the tax support is paying $1 but getting 63.7 cents back ... it comes as a burden to the Grosse Pointe taxpayer.”

Michael F. Addonizio, a school finance expert with Wayne State University, said all districts are in a predicament because they are limited to the revenues the state assigns them on a per-pupil basis and collections from the 18-mill non-homestead levy. About 50 Michigan districts can levy a local millage as a “hold-harmless district.”

Enrollment losses statewide have put tremendous financial pressure on all districts, along with increasing retirement costs, leaving less money for classroom instruction and building upkeep.

The only chance for extra money are these countywide millages, Addonizio said, which often pit suburban districts against urban ones.

“Both sides are going to be making an effort to get their people out. It is a tough road to hoe,” he said.

Across Michigan, countywide school millages have seen mixed results. Voters in Monroe, Midland, Kalamazoo and Muskegon counties have passed such taxes for schools, while voters in Alpena, Washtenaw, St. Clair and Ionia rejected the measures.

In Wayne County, the ballot proposal comes at a time when a majority of the county’s districts are struggling financially, either with year-end deficits or declining revenues.

Compared with four years ago, every school district in Wayne County is receiving less money per pupil, Wigent said, and nearly every district’s budget is smaller than it was four years ago. Districts have endured years of revenue cuts and increased costs toward the state-run retirement system for public school employees, he said.

Revenues from the millage would be unrestricted, which means each district could spend the money any way its board of education chose, including new technology and equipment, pay increases for teachers or new construction.

If the millage is approved by a majority of voters in Wayne County, it will be assessed to all taxpayers in the county.

Sue Carnell, superintendent of Westwood Community Schools, said her district, which has a $3 million deficit, can use the additional revenue.

If the issue passes, Westwood plans to use the money for enhanced security measures such as structural changes to windows and doors and adding locks and cameras. The cash-strapped district also needs instructional materials such as workbooks, textbooks and hands-on materials in science labs and art classes.

When voters consider the tax, Carnell hopes they consider the financial situation of all districts across the county and what happened when the state dissolved the insolvent Inkster School District in 2013. The neighboring Romulus, Taylor, Wayne-Westland and Westwood school districts absorbed more than 900 Inkster students.

“What happened to Inkster, we don’t want it to happen to any other district in Wayne County,” she said. “While some may be against it, they have to think (if another district is dissolved) of where do these children go?”

Detroit Public Schools included the revenues from the ballot measure on the district’s budget forecast and deficit elimination plan for 2016 through 2019, essentially depending on funding that has yet to be approved by voters.

DPS spokesman Steve Wasko said the move was made “given all the pressures and constraints in our budget.” The district is under emergency management and has a $127 million deficit.

Wigent said districts should not be planning on the tax revenue until after the vote. “I wouldn’t recommend that,” he said.

Money from the millage would not go to the Education Achievement Authority, which is run by the state and does not receive local tax dollars, or the Highland Park school district, which is run by a charter operator.

William Miller, executive director of the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators, said he understands why some voters would be concerned about tax rates and valuations being higher in some communities and not others. But he said voters should give cash-strapped districts some relief.

“We need to raise as much revenue as we can for schools right now,” he said. “The situation is very, very difficult. In the recent school aid bill, some districts only got $50 per pupil more and it’s not enough with all the demands of security and the need for additional support for student achievement.”

He added: “For communities, this is the opportunity to step up and provide badly needed resources for the entire county. It’s a benefit to all the students to pass this millage.”

jchambers@detroitnews.com
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