Commentary

Higher Taxes Would Offer Little for Ottawa Schools

Millage money more fairly shared, but promises little results

The Holland Sentinel recently broke the news that local officials are weighing a tax increase to bump up spending on many West Michigan schools. But a fuller perspective of financial facts and trends should give voters a reason to pause and consider whether more funding necessarily leads to student success before they adopt this approach.

According to the June 12 article, the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District board is considering whether to add a regional enhancement millage to this November’s ballot. Millages are taxes assessed on a home or business, using a definition of property value specified in law. School districts can request a tax increase for construction or infrastructure projects, but they can’t do so for their general operating expenses. To get more operating funds, they can petition an ISD to place a regional tax on the ballot.

This type of millage has been available to the state's 56 intermediate school districts since 1997. But only six ISDs currently collect a tax from local residents. Monroe, Kalamazoo, Midland and Muskegon have had one in place for several years. The option gained further traction when two of the most populous regions in the state signed on. Wayne County voters approved an $80 million regional enhancement millage in fall 2016, and Kent County followed suit with a $20 million tax in May 2017.

What would set Ottawa’s situation apart is a new legislative requirement that the regional tax dollars must be shared by charters and conventional districts, on a per-student basis. Charters in the other six ISDs receive none of the regional enhancement millage funds. Charter public schools, which operate independently of districts, have no other means of raising local property tax funds for any purpose.

The proposed 0.9-mill tax would cost Ottawa ISD taxpayers roughly $45 per year for every $100,000 of property value they own, likely raising $10.5 to 11 million annually. Since there are roughly 50,000 public school students in the affected area, including more than 3,000 in charter schools, an approved millage would generate a little more than $200 for each student. That's an average increase in revenue of about 1.5 percent.

The area's charter schools, on average, would still receive about $3,000 per pupil less than the surrounding districts, which made for a disparity of $12,600 vs. $9,600 in 2016-17. But at least the new law would prevent this millage from expanding the district-charter revenue gap.

(An exception may be iCademy Global, a Zeeland-based online charter school. At least 80 percent of cyber school students must reside within the ISD before it gets a share of the millage money. Only two-thirds of iCademy Global's 2017-18 students live in the Ottawa ISD – an area which includes Holland, Hudsonville and Grand Haven.)

The Sentinel article attempts to make the case for the tax, saying that funding is declining, both in districts that are losing students and in those that are growing. But, even when adjusted for inflation, Ottawa districts took in and spent about 5 percent more money per student in 2017 than in 2004.

Additionally, two Mackinac Center studies demonstrate that simply increasing spending on district schools won’t necessarily result in better student outcomes. A 2016 analysis found no relationship between extra school-level spending and better outcomes for students on 27 of 28 measures. And according to a study published earlier this year, charter schools in both Holland and Zeeland, as well as in most other cities, get a significantly better bang for their buck in state test scores than do neighboring districts.

Should Ottawa ISD proceed to ask voters for a regional enhancement millage this fall, voters should be skeptical that those extra dollars would actually help improve student achievement.