News Story

Timing Of School Election Comes Under Fire

‘For me, it was a very expensive civics lesson,’ retired teacher says of tax hike election

Cindy Barth is a retired schoolteacher. But she hasn’t closely followed affairs in her smallish Upper Peninsula school district of Dollar Bay-Tamarack City since returning home after years of working overseas.

Late last month, she learned, by way of a notification from the local township, that a school election would be on the Aug. 6 ballot. Barth said she called local officials for information, and didn’t get much, but did learn that it was a $4.7 million bond proposal (tax increase), an estimated hike of a little over 5 mills ($5 for each $1,000 in SEV) for 20 years.

She voted no. The proposal passed by 24 votes, out of 360 cast. Turnout was 25.8%.

Barth, who owns commercial property in the school district in addition to her homestead, said she was “sick to my stomach” over the result.

“I felt there was a lack of proper notification. They put out as little as possible that they could get away with. For me, it was a very expensive civics lesson," Barth said.

She’s not alone.

The Dollar Bay bond proposal was one of nearly two dozen public school tax plans on the August ballot across Michigan, according to Gongwer News Service. Fifteen were tax hikes (as opposed to renewals). Ten were approved.

Taxing authorities regularly schedule proposed increases for elections when it is less likely that voters will be paying attention, said Michael LaFaive, senior director of fiscal policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

An analysis by LaFaive and colleague Jack McHugh in 2014 found that millage hikes for school debt increase by 75% over inflation since the 1994 adoption of Proposal A, which placed strict limits on school operating taxes. Many of the tax hike elections were held on dates aimed at limiting voter participation, and came to be known as “stealth” elections, he said.

LaFaive said a subsequent state limit on the timing of tax hike elections (dates in May, August and November), enacted in 2003, has meant that “it happens less often, but not as less often as it should.”

“Obviously, it’s easier to get (tax hike supporters) out in off years. There is much greater turnout of ordinary people in even year elections," LaFaive said.

Jennifer Smith, director of government relations for the Michigan Association of School Boards, said public school officials believe the current limits on election dates and information requirements are sufficient.

“We used to hear that we were holding ‘stealth’ elections. That’s not possible anymore,” Smith said.

State law requires that the information districts provide about tax proposals is factual, Smith said. “We haven’t heard a lot of the election complaints since they limited the number of days” on which tax hike votes can be held, she said.

Kristin Lortie, a part-time resident and property owner in Dollar Bay, disagrees.

“This wasn’t a stealth election. It was an ambush election,” Lortie said of the Dollar Bay millage proposal. She added that people affiliated with the school would have been fully informed about the upcoming bond election.

Information about the proposal — physical plant improvements designed to provide a “Safe, Warm, Dry and Thriving” educational experience for Dollar Bay students, according to the district’s website — was scanty and haphazard, Lortie said.

Lortie said she found out about the proposal from another resident when she attended a property tax Board of Review meeting in mid-July. Lortie, who spent five years working with school districts in Colorado on capital projects, said she was “flabbergasted by the lack of notification . . . and budget information.”

Lortie said she requested details about the district’s needs and how the bond proposal would address them and had to wait until the day before the election “before I got any real information.”

“They’re saying they did everything that was required. But everything about it was disturbing,” she said.

Christina Norland, principal and acting superintendent of Dollar Bay-Tamarack City responded to the complaints in an email. She requested the email be published in full.

The email states:

“Our small school district has not asked local residents to consider a bond issue for our school since 1997, over twenty years ago. Since then, many real needs have been identified that must be addressed: safety/security of students is primary--also necessary are updating our very old boiler system, repairing a leaking roof, and adding additions and reconfiguring space for students’ needs and growing numbers--for example, adding a much-needed preschool (which our town does not have). All of this information, and much more, has been available to the public for some time, and well before the election.

August and May school bond elections are quite common. The school board decided on the August election date because it best suited a construction timeline which allowed for design to take place over the winter and construction to take place the following summer, when school is not in session.

Regarding the district’s publicizing of the election: The legislature imposes the election notice duties on the district's election coordinator, who was required to ensure a notice be published in the local newspaper by July 8th. This was done. Here’s what we chose to do, in addition, in order to get the word out to local voting residents: created and disseminated an informative video about the bond issue; made powerpoints and info sheets and linked them on the school website; had a float/presence in the 4th of July parade (the town's biggest event of the year) and there passed out information and invitations to the bond issue meetings to hundreds of people; sent out digital newsletters and emails to parents and community members about the election; hung 11 x 17 informational posters at all local businesses that would allow it; invited local radio stations, newspaper, and TV to do stories on the election; and held two informational meetings, one in each of the affected towns, which were well-attended. TV 6 ran a story on the election prior to a bond issue town meeting, the local newspaper published a front page story, also before one of the town meetings, and local radio stations announced the election several times beginning days in advance of the election. Because we went far above and beyond the requirements, many people have complimented the district on our efforts in making information available to the public. I am proud of and thankful to all who helped publicize this important event: school staff, the Daily Mining Gazette, TV 6, local radio stations, parents of our students, community members, and more.”