Time for everyone to step up

School property tax millage renewals are the first step toward securing adequate funding for our public schools, and Ann Arbor Parents for Schools supports these measures.

And so it begins. Facing continued pressure on the Ann Arbor Public Schools’ budget, the AAPS Board of Education voted to get an early start on renewing local tax levies that provide half of our public school system’s operating budget. In their 20 February meeting, board trustees voted to place these renewals on the ballot for the 6 May school elections.

The millages would replace existing levies which expire at the end of 2009. Under current state law, local school districts are allowed (and expected) to levy a tax of 18 mils – $18 per $1,000 of taxable value – on commercial and other non-homestead property to fund the schools’ operating budget. The State of Michigan assumes that districts will levy this tax, and will not make up the difference in their school aid payments if the tax fails at the polls.

Ann Arbor is one of some forty communities state-wide with per-pupil spending levels that exceeded the state’s maximum payment when the system created by Proposal A went into effect in 1994. As a result, Ann Arbor is allowed by law to ask voters to approve a tax on residential property to collect precisely $1,234 per pupil – the amount by which Ann Arbor exceeded the state’s maximum fourteen years ago. This amount has never been adjusted for inflation, and the tax rate needed to collect this amount varies each year – for the current school year, it was 4.72 mils. As with the tax on commercial property, the state will not make up the difference if voters fail to approve this levy.

On the ballot proper, these two measures are combined into one ballot question which asks for authority to levy these taxes for ten years starting in 2010. Because of peculiarities in state law, the school board cannot call this a “renewal,” but must ask voters to raise the constitutional limit on taxes – which is otherwise zero. A descriptive paragraph that introduces the ballot question tries to explain this, but makes for dense reading.

A second question, also approved for the May elections by the trustees, asks for a five-year renewal of the 1-mil “sinking fund” that helps pay for capital projects and major renovations in the district. More on this in a moment.

The Board’s discussion of the renewals began after a long evening meeting in late January, in which the trustees heard presentations from the action teams charged with finding ways of implementing the district’s five-year strategic plan. Seven teams presented their recommendations for ways to improve and expand the operations and educational offerings of the district, while the eighth explored ways to pay for everything. I had the honor of serving on that eighth team (“Ensuring adequate resources”), and I was struck by how much the points of view of our diverse team converged after several months of work. Parents, educators, business leaders, and school administrators all came to agree, after our long exploration of the district’s budget troubles, that the only possible answers lay in a combination of efficiency, public-private partnerships, and efforts to build citizen support for investments in public education.

The plain fact is that our schools’ operating budget is at the mercy of the state Legislature, which specifies how money will be allocated to districts across the state and how much will be available to spend. Constant readers will be familiar with this argument. But this does not mean that there is nothing we can do locally.

First off, the district needs to do their utmost to make sure available funds are being spent as wisely as possible. Our schools’ officials have been working hard on this for years, in large part to limit the damage from many years of budget cuts. But the district needs to be much more up front with the public about what they have done to increase efficiency and cut costs. In the past, officials have been reluctant to detail cuts, for fear of lowering the public’s opinion of our schools. The time for such fears is past: if the schools are to ask for increased public support in these difficult economic times, they must be at pains to show the efforts they have already taken. Opportunities to share costs with other districts, and to involve all employees more directly in efforts to find efficiencies, were outlined in our action team report. But all of this will just begin to stop the bleeding.

If the citizens of Ann Arbor want to have good public schools – and the reasons fill the pages of this web site – then we must be willing to do our part by investing in our schools. Renewing the operating millages that provide half of our schools’ funding is the very least we can do. In our view, this should be a first step toward a broader discussion of what else we all can do to help our schools. One option, likely to be presented to voters in the next year or so, is an “enhancement millage” that would be levied county-wide and benefit students throughout school districts in Washtenaw county. This will help, but it’s no magic bullet. Private giving, especially for the district-wide initiatives of the AAPS Education Foundation, can make a huge difference, and the Foundation has recently ramped up a major fundraising campaign to help become part of the solution.

Finally, change at the state level will be critical. Big change, like increasing the resources committed to public education and changing how funds for school aid are raised (to protect them from ups and downs of the economy) are crucial but hard to push through. Smaller changes may be easier to accomplish, such as changing the rules for what school expenses can be covered with sinking funds. Right now, they can only be used for capital projects; measures are pending in the Legislature to allow schools to pay for technology expenses and school buses with these funds rather than from their operating budget. This would allow more of the operating budget to be spent in the classroom. Similar measures have failed in the past, but support from an aware public could turn the tide.

Please join us in our efforts to take back the fate of Ann Arbor’s public schools and to ensure the best education for every child.