Grand Rapids — After a stunning defeat at the polls Tuesday, the president of Grand Rapids Community College said it will be a long time, if at all, before the school goes back to the voters for more money.
Despite a $150,000 promotional campaign, a traditionally favorable time for millage approvals, and more than 100,000 faculty, students, administrators and alumni in the community, voters rejected the $98.6 million bond issue request by a 14 percent margin.
GRCC President Steven C. Ender said he thought the request would have been approved. The community college’s polls showed voters would approve the millage by a 24 percent margin after they were told how the money would be spent. The community college planned to use the money to remodel and maintain aging buildings.
“I can’t explain it,” he said. “We cannot engage with people emotionally to the value added proposition that the college has brought to the community."
Ender said taxpayer burnout could have played a role. The college has asked for more money three times in the past five years. Voters turned down each request, but Tuesday’s defeat was the largest. Ender said he thinks voters are still angry over an unrelated transit millage increase that was narrowly approved last year
“People said we’re done. We’re not going to do it,” he said.
Eric Larson and Jeff Steinport of the Kent County Taxpayers Alliance said they think there is more to the defeat than taxpayer burnout.
“The attitude amongst the board has been to ignore funding capital improvements because taxpayers would bail out GRCC with one giant tax request to fix the things the trustees have been neglecting for years, “ Steinport said.
Larson said he thinks there is growing taxpayer reluctance to support public education beyond K-12, especially when given the choice at the polls. Community colleges are funded through tuition, state and property tax revenue.
The millage had the support of some of the community’s wealthier citizens. They contributed $150,000 in support of the millage and posted their names in a full-page newspaper ad the day before the election. The local paper endorsed the millage.
Also, May is a favorable month for millage approvals. GRCC paid an extra $250,000 dollars to get the proposal on the Tuesday ballot, but denied it was for that reason. The college said it wanted to take advantage of lower interest rates they could have benefited from if the millage increase request had passed.
GRCC had come under fire in past years for lofty pay and benefit packages. This year, the union representing the teaching staff agreed to a five-year pay freeze and an end to raises based on seniority. The contract still needs to be ratified.
Ender says what the public fails to understand is the huge burden the Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System has been putting on districts and community colleges. This year, the community college will have to pay another $2 million out of its $98 million budget toward the retirement system.
Ender says the college has had no choice but to increase tuition. And while the voters have lost their appetite for more support, Ender is not deterred from taking on more debt.
“These needs are very real," he said. "The bond market is incredibly favorable to borrow money, so we’ll look at other revenue strategies.”