Divisive school tax set for vote in Wayne County
Supporters of a new Wayne County school millage proposal on Tuesday’s ballot say the money is needed to fill funding gaps, but some districts and charters question the initiative’s fairness.
The Wayne Regional Educational Service Agency (RESA) is asking voters countywide to approve a 2-mill, six-year property tax that would raise a total of $80 million for the county’s 33 school districts. It will go a long way to help schools, which are getting less financial support from the state, backers say.
“This millage is really the only game in town,” said Randy Liepa, Wayne RESA’s superintendent. “This is the only opportunity school districts have to augment the funds they have to maintain programs. School districts have really no other option for local revenues.”
Between 2011 and 2015, operating funds for Wayne County’s school districts fell by $485 million, according to RESA officials.
If approved, the enhancement millage would cost the owner of a $100,000 home in the county an extra $96 per year, officials estimate. Wayne RESA would levy and collect the revenue and distribute it to each district equally on a per-pupil basis. The agency would not keep any of the money levied and would have no control over how districts spend it.
Districts will receive $385 for each student. There are about 200,000 secondary education students in Wayne County.
While that money would be welcome, some districts didn’t support Wayne County’s intermediate school district putting the question before voters because they say the money raised won’t be divided fairly.
“The funds raised from within our district boundaries do not stay here, but go to Wayne RESA and are redistributed on a per-pupil basis,” said Rebecca Fannon, a spokeswoman for Grosse Pointe Public Schools. She said the millage captures roughly $5.2 million from her district’s homeowners, but just under $3.1 million is returned to the district.
The districts can use the money however they want. Under state law, districts can ask their residents to vote on proposals to pay for facility improvements, such as bond issues or sinking funds. However, they can’t seek property taxes to pay for day-to-day operations. An enhancement millage, like the one voters are to decide Tuesday, is an exception.
The agency — which provides administrative, information technology and special education services to the county’s districts — put a similar millage on the ballot two years ago, but voters rejected it by 2 percentage points.
Liepa said if voters reject the proposal, the intermediate district wouldn’t be able to put it back on the ballot for at least another two years. State law only permits Wayne RESA to seek approval of enhancement millages in August or November elections in even-numbered years, according to the superintendent.
He said if the measure fails, districts would be affected in different ways. Some operating under budget deficits could be forced to make program cuts.
Districts in Wayne County running deficits are Dearborn Heights School District No. 7, Detroit Public Schools Community District, Garden City Public Schools, Highland Park School District, Southgate Community School District and Westwood Community School District, according to the Michigan Department of Education.
Liepa said those with stronger financial outlooks may have to forgo initiatives to reduce class size, buy new technology or make facility upgrades.
The millage is one of two countywide millages on the ballot. Voters — along with those in Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw counties — will be asked to decide a 20-year, 1.2-mill property tax that would raise $4.6 billion for public transit improvements in Metro Detroit. On top of that, a number of communities and school districts are asking voters to approve millages for local uses.
Plymouth-Canton on board
The Boards of Education for 27 school districts, representing three-fourths of all Wayne County students, asked the Wayne RESA to put the proposal before voters.
Supporters of the measure said the millage will help the county’s school districts, which are struggling with declining enrollment and cuts in state funding.
“School districts across Wayne County and the state with significant enrollment declines have been struggling for several years,” Liepa said. “A great example is Wayne-Westland Community Schools. They’re down about $1,000 per student.”
Nicholas Brandon, a spokesman for Plymouth-Canton Community Schools, said his district is backing the proposal because it receives one of the lowest per-pupil state funding allotments in the state. It received $7,391 per student from the state this past school year.
“This additional revenue would certainly go a long way in (Plymouth-Canton) achieving financial balance without impacting the classroom,” he said.
He said for Plymouth-Canton, the funding would mean an additional $6.7 million in revenue each year over the six-year span of the millage.
Corrin Stamatakos, who has three children in the district, said she supports the millage and describes herself as a “huge advocate.”
“From what I understand, there are no other options under the state constitution for us to get any more money,” she said. “It certainly is not a perfect proposal, but with the parameters of Proposition A from 1994, this is the only choice we have.”
Stamatakos said she has attended school board meetings for years.
“Every spring when they do the budget, we cut millions,” she said. “Are they going to cut athletics, para-professionals? If we don’t get this funding, other things will continue to be cut and that will impact my kids.”
The Boards of Education of five districts — Trenton Public Schools, Northville Public Schools, Grosse Pointe Public Schools, the River Rouge School District and the Woodhaven-Brownstown School District — voted against putting the enhancement millage on the ballot.
Despite that, they still stand to benefit if voters approve it.
“The enhancement millage would increase our district’s operating revenue,” Northville Public Schools superintendent Mary Kay Gallagher. It would get $2.9 million, but a total of $5.6 million would be collected from property owners.
With the revenue not being distributed equally among districts is the main reason the district’s Board of Education voted against putting the millage on the ballot, Gallagher said.
Liepa disagreed the revenue won’t be distributed equally among the school districts. Each district will get $385 per student, he said. “Some districts are going to get more money because they have more kids,” Liepa said. “But it is distributed equally on a per-student basis.”
Charter school opposition
Charter schools also oppose the proposal because state law prohibits them from levying mills or receiving any of the money the millage would generate.
“Our belief about funding is Michigan should provide public school districts with the same amount of money on a per-pupil basis,” said Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies. “This millage goes in the opposite direction and creates disparities in funding.”
Wayne County has 110 charter schools with more than 66,000 students — or about 32 percent of the county’s children, according to the group.
“Millages like this are promoted to parents as something that will go to school funding, but they’re not told it won’t apply to (charter schools,)” he said. “If you’ve chosen a charter school for your child, they won’t be accessing that funding.”
Whether the enhancement millage passes or fails, adequate school funding to meet students’ needs will continue to be a critical issue.
“State funding has not kept pace with the rate of inflation, and the majority of school funding increases have been in the form of necessary offsets to pension liabilities, rather than putting additional dollars into classrooms,” Gallagher said. “Funding schools adequately and equitably is a fundamental challenge that needs to be addressed.”