Asked what he’ll be doing the evening of November 3, Ann Arbor schools superintendent Todd Roberts smiles wanly and replies: “Worrying!”
The source of his anxiety: the vote on a proposed tax that would pump an additional $30 million a year into Washtenaw County school districts, including $11 million to the AAPS. Roberts says the district has already cut $16 million in spending over the last four years, but, with state revenue continuing to fall, it could lose another $15 million next year. If the “enhancement” millage doesn’t pass, he says, “everything is on the table” to balance the budget, possibly including the first teacher layoffs since the 1960s.
Despite its name, the money will only “maintain existing programs, not approve new ones,” points out former school board president Karen Cross, a coleader of the Ann Arbor Citizens Millage Committee (a2cmc.org). The five-year, 2-mill tax would cost the owner of a $200,000 home an extra $200 a year. The money would be collected by the Washtenaw Intermediate School District and divided up among the county’s ten school districts based on enrollment.
Nine of the ten school boards voted unanimously to ask WISD to put the millage on the ballot. The tenth, Manchester, recorded just one dissenting vote. Ann Arbor PTSO council cochair Donna Lasinski says parent volunteers are organizing at every school in the city to canvass their neighborhoods and make phone calls. A leader of the pro-millage group, Lasinski predicts that if it doesn’t pass, “it will lead to a devastation of the programs Ann Arbor is going to offer.”
Lasinski points out that every state elected official in the WISD area supports the millage, and the Ann Arbor Area Chamber of Commerce, which many expected to oppose it, is silent. But the Washtenaw County Republican Party is campaigning against it, and two new groups have sprung up to fight it.
In mid-October, McKinley CEO Albert Berriz organized a political action committee called Citizens for a Responsible Washtenaw. Berriz says he’s a strong believer in public education and supports some taxes–he helped lead the fight for Ann Arbor’s 2003 greenbelt millage–but says it’s “unethical and irresponsible” for the schools to ask for more money now. The eastern part of the county, he says, is in “tumult” from lost auto jobs and foreclosures–and “when you’re on the edge, $200 is life and death.” He also argues that it’s unfair that Ann Arbor would pay $16 million in taxes into the enhancement fund but get back only $11 million.
Berriz says his campaign is “totally collaborative” with another opposition group, Citizens for Responsible School Spending (a2crss.org). Led by retired computer entrepreneur Ted Annis and former Ann Arbor school board member Kathy Griswold, CRSS criticizes the school district’s high taxes, arguing that the city is “already very generous to its schools.” Griswold also finds it unfair that Ann Arbor receives about $2,000 more in state funding per pupil than most Michigan districts. If the millage goes down, she says, local residents will be “forced to work with reps in Lansing for a statewide solution.” (Former schools administrator Bob Galardi says he doubts that will happen–in the legislature, he says, Ann Arbor students are dismissed as “poor little rich kids.”)
Annis says rejecting the millage would force the schools to “develop a more effective and innovative way of delivering education.” Instead of more money, Berriz argues, what they need is the “discipline” to cut costs and combine districts. Berriz says he could envision “one consolidated school district, one central office” for the entire county.
Supporters are hoping to turn out a strong yes vote from Ann Arbor, which normally supports both schools and millages. But with an active opposition and a recession-weary public, the norm may not hold–which is why Roberts and the nine other superintendents are worried.
“We are a group of ten local school districts facing financial disaster,” says Chelsea superintendent Dave Killips. “We might be a step behind other schools in heading toward that cliff, but if this doesn’t pass, we’re all going to fall off it.”