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The Big Ask

The Ann Arbor Public Schools are asking voters for $1 billion for renovation and expansion.

by James Leonard

From the November, 2019 issue

The bond will be the only issue on the ballot November 5. If approved, it would cost a typical homeowner $220 a year.

Why so much? "Our buildings are deteriorating," says superintendent Jeanice Swift. "Our average age is sixty-three years. Five of our buildings will be one hundred in the very near future."

In a 2018 report, EMG engineering consultants found the district's buildings "to be in overall good to fair condition and have had an adequate level of maintenance over the past few years. However, without substantial upfront investment, many of the schools will fall into the 'poor' rating within a few years." In addition to projecting repair and replacement costs twenty years into the future, the consultants recommended safety and comfort upgrades for all buildings, including full sprinkler systems and central air conditioning.

It's not that the schools have failed to maintain the buildings. "We passed the increase to the sinking fund in May of 2017," Swift says. "We've invested $57 million into our schools. But we said from the beginning that that was just a start for the infrastructure needs.

"We've done a series of millages during my almost seven years in town," she continues. "The last bond request that we made for new money was the technology bond in 2012." After making the final payments last year, "we're currently with no bonds for capital investment. Overall, the district is [at] about 12 percent of what we're able to bond for."

The schools' current millage rate is 2.45. Passing the bond would add another 1.65 for a total of 4.10. By comparison, Ypsilanti is at 20 mills, and Dexter is at 8.5. Ann Arbor's rate is lower because the city is bigger and its real estate is more expensive.

The state's fourth-largest district, the AAPS draws students from town plus parts of eight surrounding townships. Enrollment has increased by 8.8 percent during Swift's tenure, from 16,493 in 2013 to 17,945 in 2018. They're projecting 18,195 this year

...continued below...

but don't have final numbers yet.

"This year will be a stabilizing year," says Swift. "We've added to about nine classrooms to prepare for that development that you see everywhere. [We're] particularly crunched in the north, the Nixon corridor, and the west, where there's a great deal of housing development, and in the south, [where there's] quite a lot of multifamily and some single family. We're going to have to hustle to stay ahead of development."

If voters pass the bond and continue to renew the sinking fund, the district will have $1.45 billion to work with over the next twenty years. In addition to overhauling every existing building, that would be enough to buy two new schools.

Their locations are yet to be determined, but district spokesperson Andrew Cluley emails that "the plan is to find locations that can help meet increased enrollment demand caused by new housing developments." First, though, they'll be used "to welcome students from other schools that are undergoing renovations/construction."

Local voters have approved every school money request since Swift arrived. including the Washtenaw Intermediate School District's $53 million bond for major renovations last August. While the superintendent allows that two education asks in the same year could hurt the bond request, she thinks that it helps that it's the only thing on the ballot, because "those folks who care about this will be out to vote."

As the Observer went to press, the Ann Arbor Citizens Millage Committee had raised $40,000 to get the word out. Former school board members Christine Stead and Glenn Nelson are members, as is Steve Norton, the executive director of Michigan Parents for Schools. Norton says they've already done mailings to registered voters and will likely do more. They also have lawn signs and are going door-to-door in some neighborhoods.

At press time no organized opposition had surfaced, but there were enough critical comments online to raise the question: what will the district do if it fails?

"We will be forced to come back to the table," says Swift. "Any capital needs not met through a capital bond would need to be met through the general fund, and the general fund is more than 90 percent salaries and benefits."

As school board president Harmony Mitchell points out in an email, "because the state of Michigan does not provide additional money for school infrastructure, districts are forced to make choices between books, teachers, and roofs." Which means that if the bond fails, "our board and the boards to come will be forced to make some hard choices."

Last spring, Swift was a finalist for the state schools superintendent job but didn't get it. Now she says "I'm here in Ann Arbor, and that's my commitment. I think it was the early 80s the last time somebody stayed [as superintendent] more than five years."

Whatever happens in November, Swift says, she'll be here "as long as I'm physically and otherwise able and as long as the community will have me."     (end of article)

[Originally published in November, 2019.]


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