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School Districts Spend Tens of Thousands On Losing Millage Requests

Districts across the state choose to hold funding requests during low turnout elections

This past May, dozens of school districts across Michigan spent taxpayer dollars to go before voters to request more money. A significant majority of those elections proved fruitful for the districts as voters passed millage, bond and sinking fund requests.

But nine districts were unsuccessful, spending thousands of dollars on the losing effort.

Here are the districts that lost their funding requests on May 7, followed by the approximate amount spent and what they were requesting from voters:

  • Bessemer Area School District: $3,448.12 (not including attorney fees) for a $6.76 million bond.
  • Lakeshore Public Schools (Berrien): $15,758.90 for $16.87 million to build a new elementary school.
  • Marcellus Community Schools: $5,249.05 for a $15.62 million bond to renovate schools, add instructional technology and improve playgrounds.
  • Midland Public Schools: $43,173.31 (not including one township) for a $20.88 million bond and $5.12 million sinking fund which would have bought and upgraded new technology and repaired buildings, respectively.
  • Onekama Consolidated Schools: $8,625.82 for a 0.8-mill increase for technology and infrastructure upgrades.
  • Pennfield Schools: $548.83 for a 10-year, 2-mill sinking fund.
  • Richmond Community Schools: $3,092.60 for a $12.9 million bond for a science classroom, new buses, a new running track and other updates.
  • Williamston Community Schools: $14,625.90 (not including one township) for a 10-year, 1-mill sinking fund increase.
  • Wyoming Public Schools: $12,827.55 for a $53.16 million bond to remodel buildings, upgrade security, improve energy efficiency, develop and improve athletic facilities and build a performing arts center.

School districts have the option of holding funding elections in February, May, August and November. According to state law, the districts must pay the cost of the election. If there is a political election held on the same day, the schools only pay the additional costs.

In the case of Midland Public Schools, the district’s request for a $20.88 million bond and a $5.12 million sinking fund were the only two issues on the ballot, meaning the district paid the entire cost of the election.

A new law went into effect at the beginning of 2012 that required school board elections to be held “at the general election in November of even-numbered years.” According to the state, nearly 95 percent of districts were holding their elections on other days before the change.

Requiring school funding requests to also be held during regular elections rather than spending more money to hold them on low turnout voting days has also been discussed. Critics of school districts that hold elections in months where there is low turnout say they are doing so to try and pass tax increases with few "yes" votes.

Capitol Confidential asked the superintendent of each school district why they decided to hold the vote on May 7 rather than waiting until a general election. Most defended the date based on timing.

“The technology bond required us to go through a lengthy process to get our application approved and we were not ready for last November’s election,” said Gary Verlinde, director of human services for Midland Public Schools. “The sinking fund proposal required a May election if we were to get funds for projects during the summer of 2013. Ninety-five percent of sinking fund work projects are done during the summer months.”

Timing also was the reason explained by Mark Johnson, superintendent in Bessemer. “We could not get everything completed in time to get our materials to Treasury to get on the November ballot. So we elected to go with the May date.”

Kevin Hughes, superintendent for Onekama, said he had a few people in the community ask the same question. One of the reasons was that they had a non-homestead vote the previous November.

“We had a tight timeline to get it into the summer tax collections,” Hughes said. “We wanted the money for the technology for the kids hands when they walk in the door in the fall … I’m in the business of educating kids and we had an aggressive timeline so I didn’t want to wait until an August election or November.”

Lakeshore superintendent Julie Powell concurred. “The timing was right for May,” she said. 

“The sinking fund proposal was on the November 2012 ballot. It did not pass,” said Narda Murphy, superintendent of Williamston. “Based on an analysis of the election results from each of the precincts and the compelling reasons for the funding, the board decided to place it on the ballot in May as the outcome of that election would impact the 2013-14 budget.”

Thomas Reeder, superintendent in Wyoming said May was chosen because most voters are used to that already.

"First, many in the public are used to our May school elections, but second and more important, the city of Wyoming collects 90 percent of its tax in July and by running the election six months earlier it allowed WPS to start addressing the needs sooner, given they exist currently and with the intent work could start and be up and ready to put everything in sooner, by possibly a whole calendar year,” Reeder said. "Since we were unsuccessful, we are now coming back in November, a general election, because August does not help us at all related to the timelines."

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