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Schools Millage

On May 2, the AAPS will ask voters to extend and expand the schools' sinking fund.

by James Leonard

From the May, 2017 issue

"It's a ten-year millage for 2.5 mills," explains school board president Christine Stead. "It will be spent on roofs and boilers. For example, last year, the boiler broke in Pioneer in January. And Huron probably needs a whole roof replacement. It's got a weird roof. That's about $10 million right there."

Originally adopted in 2002, the sinking fund "would get us $200 million" over the ten years to renovate school buildings, says superintendent Jeanice Swift. "Our average age is about sixty years. Five of our buildings will have their one-hundredth birthday in just three or four years."

The request comes only a year after voters approved the Washtenaw Intermediate School District's ten-year, 1.5 mill special education tax. Since Ann Arbor was already paying for special ed from its general fund, that "rendered us $9 million a year," says Swift. With part of it the schools gave 2 percent raises to all staff. "That was about $3.2 million," the superintendent continues. "We also hired 180 teachers" to shrink class sizes.

"It was up to thirty" students per class, says Stead. "Now with K-2, we try to keep it down to less than twenty-five kids, and we're closer to twenty-two." Classes in grades 3-5 run "about twenty-five to twenty-six" students.

This year's general fund budget was $225 million, and without the expanded sinking fund Swift says "it looks like our [2017-2018] budget will be flat. The new normal is that that's a relief."

Though governor Rick Snyder's proposed budget would add $50 more per student statewide plus an additional $50 for those in high school, the superintendent isn't impressed. "People think that's pretty good, but it ends up to be about to be about $1.1 million, which is 1/225th of our budget and does not cover the cost of living increases."

Will the millage pass? "I am not aware of any organized opposition," emails former trustee Kathy Griswold, who herself has organized such opposition in the past. "In fact, most people are

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not aware of the May election." Though she's "leaning towards support," Griswold allows that she's also "amazed by Ann Arbor's overwhelming support for tax increases, all while giving lip service to affordable housing. Taxes are a significant portion of housing cost in Ann Arbor."

The sinking fund is one way the AAPS can make up for long-term cuts in state funding. The district currently gets $9,230 per student per year, about 5 percent less than it did eight years ago. Another way is to raise enrollment. Adding 1,000 students in the last three years, for a total of 17,449 last fall, increased state funding about $9 million annually.

The board recently reauthorized the administration to accept up to 1,000 "schools of choice" students from other districts. New trustee Jeff Gaynor dissented, arguing that while that benefits Ann Arbor, it hurts neighboring districts. Swift admits that's true but adds that the most of the added students are residents of the AAPS district--some preschoolers in the "Young Fives" program, some new to the area, and some from families who formerly passed over the AAPS.

"We want our families to pick Ann Arbor," Stead says. "We're bucking the state trend" by keeping students in the public school system.

The board president estimates that about 20,000 school-age children live in the AAPS district. "There are about 500 homeschoolers--there aren't exact numbers--and about 2,000 at private, parochial, and charter schools," she says. That works out to about 12 percent of the students in the district. By contrast, Swift notes, "in the state of Michigan in the fall of 2015, 23 percent of students exited their district."

The superintendent sees another 1,000 or so students coming as the population grows. "Over off of Maple is new affordable housing, and that's about 150 students for this fall," she says. They'll likely go to Abbot and Haisley. And though it won't happen this year, the district will also gain students from Nixon Farms, the complex of homes and apartments now under development on the north side. The last major subdivision within the city limits "will be phased in," Swift says. "We don't know exactly how many or exactly how long. The development is a seven-year [project], but the initial phase will be about 940 students. That's pre-K through twelve."

That's as far as Swift will project into the future. "All of those algorithms aren't accurate anymore, because the birthrate in Michigan continues to decline," the superintendent says. "However, our kindergarten roundups indicate we're pulling out of that. I'm anxious to see the 2020 census. Are we optimistic enough now to have more children? My anecdotal evidence would say yes."

Swift, though, now has a new worry: the Trump administration wants to use federal dollars to support private and parochial schools. "The president's budget calls for an education tax credit for parents who would choose to take their children elsewhere," she says.

"Apart from the political discussion around whether we think that's OK or not, we would maintain that state and federal taxpayer dollars should be invested in the public schools. It's very worrisome when federal and state taxpayer dollars go to private or religious schools."    (end of article)

[Originally published in May, 2017.]


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