"Everything is on the table"
The schools grapple with budget cuts
Published in December, 2009
Ann Arbor was the only municipality that supported the proposed two-mill "enhancement" tax in the November election. "We did gauge the temperature of this community accurately," says Ann Arbor PTSO co-president and pro-millage leader Donna Lasinski. But the city's 56 percent yes vote couldn't overcome the rejection elsewhere in the county. The Washtenaw Intermediate School District millage lost everywhere outside Ann Arbor, and by more than three to one in Freedom, Manchester, and Salem townships.
Most observers think the decisive moment came in mid-October, when McKinley president and philanthropist Albert Berriz came out against the tax. "It's almost impossible for any governmental entity of any kind to pass a tax increase in the face of well-organized opposition," says former Dexter superintendent and state rep John Hansen, speaking for himself and not for the Ann Arbor Chamber of Commerce (where he's interim president). "When a strong voice rises up and says 'Wait, this is not the right thing,' you can almost never overcome it."
"With us being a grassroots, volunteer group, it was very difficult to respond to the time and resources [the opponents] put in the last ten days," says millage supporter Lasinski. She believes the opponents shrewdly targeted outlying, more conservative areas--which voted in heavier numbers than usual.
Berriz donated at least $75,000 to the anti-millage campaign, but he contends that voters responded to the merits of the arguments, not their volume. He and his allies, former school board member Kathy Griswold and retired computer entrepreneur Ted Annis, argued that the tax increase would unfairly burden poor voters--and also that it wasn't needed. They claimed the schools could easily save the money they need by cutting administration and overhead.
Lasinksi doesn't buy that, pointing out that the central administration and principals together consume only 4 percent of the school's $190 million annual budget--about $7.6 million. Without the millage's extra $11 million a year, superintendent Todd Roberts says, the school board will need to decide this month how to
cope with reduced state aid for the current year. By February, he adds, "there will be a plan to bring our costs in line with revenue" next year--when the state is expected to cut schools funding even more.
The district has already cut $16 million from its budget in the last four years without laying off teachers or cutting special programs like music. But now, Roberts says, "Everything is on the table."
The obvious target is teacher salaries and benefits, which absorb 71 percent of the district's budget. "Until the board takes on the union and brings wages somewhat closer to reality," a pseudonymous commenter warned on AnnArbor.com, "I'll vote no on any new millage requests."
"There's a lot of vitriol and anger out there," agrees Brit Satchwell, the new president of the Ann Arbor Education Association. Saline's school board has already asked its teachers and other unions to reopen their contracts. Though Ann Arbor hasn't taken that step, Satchwell agrees that the vote has changed the playing field. "We are right now engaged in discussions that the union wouldn't touch before," he says. "We are engaged in [discussions of] merit pay and [teacher] evaluations."
Satchwell, surprisingly, agrees with Griswold's characterization of the defeated millage as a "Band-Aid." But he challenges her view that, had it passed, Ann Arbor would have "no incentive" to press the state legislature to reform school finance. Says the union president: "I don't think the rest of the state going up in flames was enough of a reason to throw our kids onto the bonfire."
[Originally published in December, 2009.]
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