Commentary

It’s Time to Improve the School Bond Election Process

Narrow the election dates, give voters timely and direct notices

The presidential election year gives Michigan school districts an extra opportunity to ask local voters to raise taxes to finance construction projects. The approach of that extra election date highlights the need for a more inclusive and transparent election process.

In Michigan, unlike in some other states, the burden to finance a school’s buildings falls almost entirely on a district’s local taxpayers, with little more than indirect support from the state. But many of the voters paying for those upgrades have a hard time finding out about these proposals. Last year, a group of citizens in an Upper Peninsula community expressed their frustrations with an August school bond election. Voters, they say, did not receive adequate notification from the district, and about three in four voters failed to turn out. The measure narrowly passed.

Fortunately, it has become harder in recent years for a local district to keep voters in the dark. Less than 20 years ago, districts had wide latitude in when they held tax elections, leading to what were often dubbed “stealth elections.” A 2003 state law narrowed the number of eligible election dates to four, later reduced by Michigan lawmakers to three: the Tuesday after the first Monday in May, August and November.

Every four years, though, districts get a bonus date. Each year, a presidential primary election gives districts a fourth date when they may ask voters to approve tax-funded school construction bonds. On March 10 of this year, then, some Michigan voters may hardly notice the tax-raising proposals that will appear on the primary ballot. Nolan Finley raised the alarm in a recent column for The Detroit News, arguing that “the tax grabbers believe the anticipated larger turnout of Democrats will skew toward those voters more sympathetic to tax hikes.”

Finding information on local school tax elections to see whether school officials buy into this strategy is not so easy. At last count, the state reports 11 Michigan school districts have scheduled bond elections for March 10, and 13 (and counting) are scheduled for the subsequent date of May 5. But the count only includes “qualified” bond elections, where districts have gained approval from the Michigan Department of Treasury to borrow funds through the state and use its credit rating. Records of other bond elections are scarce and inexact, but they include one of the largest Michigan has seen in recent memory: a $1 billion proposal Ann Arbor voters approved last November.

Finley notes that Michigan’s March 2016 vote turned out about a third of all voters, historically high compared to earlier presidential primaries here. By comparison, deciding these tax issues on general election dates would involve about half of all voters.

The collective fiscal stakes of these voter decisions can be significant. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s latest tally, Michigan school districts owed a combined $17.7 billion in long-term debt as of June 30, 2016. Property owners in the vast majority of Michigan school districts are currently helping to pay down debt through their school taxes.

Taking on the obligation of more debt must be weighed against the purported benefits of a construction or renovation project, especially considering more than 80% of Michigan school districts have, over time, had fewer students to educate. Students deserve access to clean, safe facilities, but figuring out the right amount of space and the right configuration for future needs can be a challenge.

A small number of states raise the bar for local school tax measures by requiring a supermajority for approval. But a better approach would be to limit these requests to November general election dates. This would encourage district leaders both to craft their plans carefully and to gather more input from the community to make them broadly persuasive.

If that limitation is deemed too restrictive, the Legislature could let schools continue asking for tax increases in months other than November, but then require a minimum turnout for any bond proposal to be successful. For instance, the state could say that at least 60% or 70% of the number of voters who cast ballots at the last general election must participate in order for the measure to be ratified.

That would encourage local districts and other taxing authorities to make broad and concerted efforts at sharing information with voters. But the issue isn’t strictly about the level of participation. It’s about taking time to put information and persuasive arguments before local voters when asking them to approve tax-funded proposals with long-term fiscal ramifications.

Perhaps the best approach would be to require election officials to give all registered voters a clear and direct notification – by old-fashioned mail, along with an electronic mail opt-in so that the district could save on postage costs. Setting a deadline of 60 days before the election should ensure voters have enough time to research the proposal’s costs and benefits, and it would fit well within the current timeline for conducting these elections.

The time has come for the Legislature to revisit local school tax elections. Some modest changes could help ensure a process that leads to more fiscally sound outcomes.