Wayne County Schools’ Tax Hike Sponsors Paint False Picture With ‘Factual Information'

'Significant cost cutting measures?' What about recent $114.4 million school spending increase?

Earlier this year, some Michigan newspaper columnists, editorialists and politicians complained about a new law prohibiting local governments and school districts from publishing material referencing tax increase proposals they place on the ballot 60 days before an election. The law was passed in response to an extensive record of taxpayer-funded electioneering in favor of votes to raise taxes.

Yet cities, school boards and their allies argued the new law was a disservice to voters, who could not receive “factual” information sent to them by the same government entity that placed a particular tax hike measure on the ballot.

In the current election season, the Wayne County intermediate school district is asking voters to approve an $80-million-a-year property tax increase. The measure appears on the Nov. 8 ballot in Wayne County, and if approved, the additional tax money will be divided between county school districts. 

Communications from the Regional Educational Service Agency raise new questions over just how much electioneering is allowed under a standard that merely requires particular statements from a government tax hike sponsor to be “factual.”

For example, on a webpage about the tax proposal, the Wayne RESA states: “Despite implementing significant cost cutting measures, districts are now struggling to provide many of the core educational programs our students deserve.”

Yet, an analysis of the spending history of its constituent school districts raises the question of how the agency defines “cost cutting measures.” While the line items of some school district budgets have gone down, others have risen even faster. On balance, overall spending is much higher at many of those districts than just four years ago.

At the Harper Woods school district, for example, revenue and spending on operations rose from $12.2 million in 2011 to $18.6 million in 2015. Harper Woods received a $4.2 million increase in state funding by adding 515 students to district enrollment in those four years.

The Dearborn school district’s spending on operations, meanwhile, increased from $164.7 million in 2011 to $183.2 million in 2015. That’s partly due to the district gaining 735 students, who brought an additional $6.2 million in funding.

Yet how many Dearborn voters who read the Wayne RESA’s claims about “significant cost cutting measures” will have any clue that their local district spends $18.5 million more annually than it did just four years ago?

Some Wayne County school districts with no enrollment gains are getting substantially higher revenue per student each year. The Livonia Public Schools lost 1,309 students from 2011 to 2015, an enrollment decline that means $10.6 million less in annual state funding. Despite the decline in the number of students, Livonia’s operations spending has been flat, going from $151.4 million in 2011 to $151.5 million in 2015.

Michigan Capitol Confidential examined 31 conventional public school districts within the Wayne County RESA, not including Detroit, which was excluded due to the state bailout it received earlier this year and other factors. Altogether, annual state funding at those 31 districts was $114.4 million higher in the 2015-16 school year than four years earlier — despite an aggregate enrollment decline of 5,995 students. On a per-student basis, average state funding in those 31 districts went from $6,902 in 2010-11 to $7,863 in 2015-16.

This is not the picture painted by the “factual” information being presented to voters by the Wayne County RESA just eight days before it asks them to impose an $80 million annual tax increase on the county’s home and property owners.

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.