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School funding requests crowd March ballot in Oakland

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Birmingham — While the emphasis in next month's election may be on picking a Democratic candidate to run for president, the flip side of the March 10 ballot is expected to get considerable scrutiny in Oakland County.

Voters in several communities will decide school millages and bond proposals totaling more than $551 million.

Some are renewals, others are replacement or sinking fund propositions designed to shore up budgets in eight public school districts.

Media specialist Danica Menna speaks to a class in the media center of Ferndale Lower Elementary School in Ferndale. A bond vote in March will decide whether the school will be replaced with a new building.

The largest tax question in Oakland County is a $195 million school improvement bond in Birmingham public schools for remodeling and equipping existing school buildings and facilities. The district’s annual tax level to cover its debt is expected to remain at the 3.8 mills levied in 2019.

The bond, to run no more than 20 years, would assess 0.47 mills in its first year. Approval would cost a taxpayer with a home with a state equalized valuation of $100,000 about $47 annually or $141 annually for a home valued at $300,000, according to Mark Dziatczak, district superintendent.

When asked what would happen if the issue is rejected, Dziatczak replied, "nothing drastic immediately.” However, he added, “this reduces the portion of our general fund budget that can be spent on instruction or instructional support services.”

“It will cause us to spend general fund dollars on special projects and facilities needs when roofs leak or driveways need repairing, for example, which this bond seeks to address across the district,” Dziatczak said.

There are 7,950 full time equivalent students enrolled in Birmingham’s schools, he said.

In Ferndale, the school district is seeking approval of a $124.8 million, 30-year bond issue to build a new elementary school; construct additions, remodel existing school buildings and other facilities and property, including playgrounds, outdoor athletic fields and facilities.

Ferndale district voters also will decide on a 2-mill, 16-year increase on businesses and commercial and rental properties but excluding owner-occupied homes. That tax would raise $95,650 in its first year.

Bill Good, a spokesman for the 3,100-student school district, said a new elementary school, to house 600 K-2nd graders, will be built on the site of the Center for Advanced Studies and the Arts, on Rosewood Street in Oak Park. The new school, which would cost $25 million and open in fall 2022, would replace Ferndale Lower Elementary School. 

This is the entrance to Ferndale Lower Elementary School in Ferndale. A bond vote in March will decide whether the school will be replaced with a new building.

“The school district currently owns the land and the construction plan calls for new green space and playgrounds to be developed on the property, which would be open for general use by the community,” said Good.

He stressed the millage is largely to improve, modernize, and maintain facilities and “if the bond were to fail then those projects would simply not be done and we would be forced to expend increasingly more funds on the maintenance of aging facilities.” 

According to a website promoting the bond issue, ferndaleforward.com, it would not result in a tax increase.

Voters in the Brandon school district will be asked to approve borrowing $19.5 million, with an estimated rate of 0.83 mills for 20 years. Superintendent Matthew Outlaw said approval would mean an increase of $77.61 per year, or $6.47 a month, for a taxpayer with an $187,000 home.

Outlaw said if the bond question fails, essential projects will not be done, including work on roofs, parking lots, heating and cooling systems, playgrounds and a 70-year old elementary school, he said.

The district has 2,300 students in five schools.

In the Clarkston school district, residents will decide on an 8-mill increase for non-homestead property owners — non-residential, commercial, and some agricultural properties — for six years for general operating purposes will be decided.

Mary Ellen Rowe, district spokeswoman, said there would be no tax increase to homeowners but if the measure fails, the school system would lose $67,311 from its ’ general fund effective July 2020. Clarkston schools say the losses would grow annually and impact day-to-day operations.

Clarkston has just under 7,100 students at 12 schools, she said.

Farmington school district voters will be asked to approve borrowing $98 million over the next seven years to remodel, construct or equipment school buildings and facilities. The district estimates $72.5 million will be spent on infrastructure needs, $20 million on technology and $5.5 million to replace buses.

While it may sound like a pricey proposition, school district spokeswoman Diane Bauman said approval would result in a .1-mill decrease in debt millage — from the 2019 assessment of 3.3 mills to 3.2 mills. Enrollment is around 9,000 across the district’s 17 schools and 21 sites, she said.

“A home with a market value of $239,000 — or an SEV of $119,000 — would realize a reduction in tax of $11.95 a year on approval,” Bauman said. “If it fails, it would be even greater, $119.50 a year less. But failing, you won’t receive $98 million for various needs."

Northville Public Schools voters will be asked to approve a sinking fund proposal of .9519 mills for five years. It is expected to raise more than $3 million in its first year.

The Pontiac school district seeks approval of a $147 million bond question for remodeling, equipping and furnishing school buildings. The issue, for no more than 30 years, would assess 2 mills in its first year.

Voters also will decide a building and site sinking fund renewal of .8 mills for up to five years for construction and repair work. The tax would raise an estimated $2.1 million in 2021. 

The district views approval of the two questions and the combined 2.8 mills as a millage decrease, since it will replace the current levy of 2.87 mills that expires with the summer 2020 tax bill. The new tax will begin in 2021. The owner of a home with a market value of $100,000 now paying $287 a year will see taxes drop slightly to $280 annually.

“Should the proposals fail, our district will be unable to make the necessary improvements and provide important technology and learning tools for our students and staff to truly work to close the achievement gap,” said spokeswoman Heidi Hedquist. “Not being able to provide these elements will directly negatively impact the ability of our children to learn at their best, in a safe, up-to-date environment and will put additional strain on our staff.

“Additionally by not making these improvements, this will also hinder our ability to attract teachers to our district. The failure of these initiatives will put an incredible strain on our general fund for vital repairs to our schools.”

There are 4,000 students enrolled in the district’s nine schools, she said.

The Southfield school district has a 10-year replacement operating millage proposition on the ballot that would levy up to 20 mills on taxable properties, of which not more than 16.9698 mills may be imposed on principal residences, for 10 years.

Currently the district levies 14.9377 mills on homesteads. The last operating millage proposition was approved in 2013 and expires in June 2021.

School officials said there will be no increase in residential property taxes if the proposition is approved and no reduction if it fails. It is expected to generate $42.3 million in its first year. About half of the district’s operating expenses come from the operating millage.

Southfield Public Schools has 14 schools and enrolls 5,579 students.

In non-school questions, as elsewhere in Metro Detroit, all Oakland County voters will be asked to approve a 0.2-mill, $13.6 million tax for 10 years dedicated to the operation of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Bloomfield Township is seeking a 10-year millage renewal of 1.3 mills to generate up for $5.1 million that would go towards operating expenses for, but not limited to, its police and fire departments.

In Huntington Woods, voters will decide whether to approve 3 mills for 25 years to fund a pension and retirement program for public safety workers.

mmartindale@detroitnews.com

(248) 338-0319