News Story

School District Seeking Tax Hike Challenged on Dollar Figures

Macomb ISD claims a loss of $103 million, but spending and compensation have all been rising

The Macomb Intermediate School District is seeking a $27 million special education millage on Nov. 8, but local taxpayers say the district is being flimsy with the facts.

On the news website, The Voice, MISD Superintendent Mike DeVault was quoted as saying, "County districts combined have lost $103 million annually, or about $785 per pupil, compared to 2008 from cuts in per-pupil state funding, steep declines in local property taxes, and the elimination of other financial resources.” The district has also sent out a mailer with similar language.

When asked to comment on how the district came up with those figures, which have been called into question, MISD’s deputy superintendent, Donald Bollinger replied, “Macomb County public schools are losing $103 million annually, compared with 2008-09, due to a loss of funding from multiple sources.” Bollinger referred questions to a website linked to by the district that advocates for the millage.

But a look at the fiscal figures for the district do not appear to square with the numbers cited to push for the tax increase. According to numbers the district self-reported to the Michigan Department of Education's Center for Educational Performance and Information, the ISD’s payroll, employee compensation and operating expenditures have all risen substantially from 2008 to 2010 (the latest figures provided).

According to the “common questions” section of the website advocating for the millage, “Teachers and other education staff members have taken wage cuts, wage freezes, and reductions in benefits to help control costs.” However, while the ISD’s total number of employees dropped from 1,009 in 2008 to 912 in 2010, personnel costs to the district have risen nearly 20 percent. Though there are fewer employees, the district is paying much more for them. The average employee compensation has gone from $80,699 in 2008 to $97,070 in 2010.

This increase in compensation has taken the ISD’s total operating expenditures from $185.6 million in 2008 to $207.6 million in 2010.

The district’s figures do not add up when looking at the figures for the 21 local school districts in Macomb County, either. Excluding the ISD, total employee compensation has gone from $1.19 billion in 2008 to $1.25 billion in 2010, while operating expenditures have climbed from $1.49 billion in 2008 to $1.56 billion in 2010. The average teacher in the 21 school districts made approximately $75,900 in salary alone in 2010.  

Some local residents are questioning if the district really needs more money.

“Our opposition to the millage is plain and simple: This is a large tax increase for overburdened taxpayers,” said Simon Haddad, a Macomb County resident who is helping lead the fight against the millage. Haddad is a local activist who runs the website to promote fiscal responsibility for local governments.

He says residents pay 2.94 mills for ISD operations right now on their tax bills. The district’s proposal is a 1.2 mill hike.

“Is this really the time for a 40 percent tax hike?” asked Haddad.

There have also been questions about accountability for the Macomb ISD board members. For most regular school districts across Michigan, school board members are elected by local residents to four-year terms. This more direct form of democracy makes board members accountable to voters. When deciding whether or not to propose tax hikes, local board members have to weigh providing more money for their schools with the interests of local taxpayers.

This is not the case for the Macomb Intermediate School District. Its board members are elected by the school board members from the 21 conventional Macomb County school districts. Haddad says this makes them less accountable to taxpayers.

“The MISD board is ‘elected’ through an appointment process by school board members,” said Haddad. “The largest representation on the ISD board is from areas in the county with local governments and school districts who are drowning in debt.”

A look at the district’s website shows that the average school board member for the ISD has been in place for 27 years. One member has been with the district since 1971. None of the members have served less than 17 years.

Jack McHugh, senior legislative analyst at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, has written in the past that ISDs represent a costly layer of middle-management bureaucracy that should be eliminated. He says this governance structure just reinforces that.

“ISDs are in the big government ‘sweet spot,’ with immense powers, huge budgets and little accountability,” McHugh said. “It’s a recipe for taxpayer abuse, and even outright corruption, which we’ve already seen in Michigan.”

Haddad also believes the ISD and local districts have been spinning this as a special education millage, when in reality it is actually a bailout of local districts that have failed to control spending. “This is an attempt to get a hold of people’s money who have been responsible and shift it to those who have not been responsible, ” he said.

McHugh says such gimmicks are common. “They distract voters by focusing on the most benign spending line items, but in fact the money all goes into the same pot.”

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.