By BRIAN McGILLIVARY, ART BUKOWSKI
TRAVERSE CITY — George Ford's five children attended public school in Traverse City, and eight of his grandchildren go to school here, too.
But family roots in Traverse City Area Public Schools run only so deep for Ford, of East Bay Township. He's already cast his absentee ballot: a resounding no to the district's request to boost the millage rate from 3.1 to 3.9 mills for a $100 million capital improvement package.
"It's never going to fly," said Ford, a retired insurance agency owner. "It's too much money, especially in this economy."
A sampling of local voters indicates strong pro and con positions on TCAPS millage request. Most voters will weigh in on Nov. 6, and the district's single ballot question asks them to pay to remodel and rebuild several schools, upgrade technology, and construct a new performing arts auditorium at Central High School.
The auditorium — its cost is pegged at roughly $18 million — appears to be the main point of contention for many millage opponents.
"To repair the schools, yeah, but not for a big, monster auditorium," Ford said. "It seems a little grandiose right now with this economy."
Others disagree and said they'll vote for the millage.
"I'm 100 percent for it," said Jill Martin, of Traverse City, whose children attended TCAPS schools. "We need that auditorium, I don't care what people say. At Central, lots of programs happen in the gym because there isn't enough room in the auditorium. It's not comfortable, it's not like a sporting event where you can just get up and walk around."
Local voters typically support TCAPS funding requests. If the latest proposal fails, it will mark the first such rejection in a decade. Since 1987, a 25-year stretch that featured 15 TCAPS requests for money, local voters said no only four times, two of those in 1992.
Those 25 years included several rough economic patches, but none as deeply rutted as the recession that engulfed the state and nation by mid-2008. The economy clearly is on voters' minds as they consider TCAPS latest plea.
The lunch crowd at Round's restaurant on Eighth Street recently voiced skepticism at TCAPS plans.
Traverse City retiree Carolyn Knopf said she isn't convinced the planned upgrades are needed, and worries about a higher tax load.
"I'm a senior citizen now, and I don't have any kids in school," she said. "At this age, I watch my money closer. I can't afford to spend it."
Rick Barthuli is a merchant seaman who lives in Florida but has property in the TCAPS district.
"If it's more taxation, it's bad," he said. "If you give them more money, they'll waste more money."
He believes taxpayer-supported bonding lends itself to haphazard spending.
"It's much easier for me to spend your money than mine," he said.
Garfield Township resident Linda Peoples has a daughter who teaches at TCAPS and a son who teaches at a downstate district. She supports the millage and believes the proposal will benefit students and teachers.
"I'm just like everyone else. I don't want my taxes to be raised," she said. "But I also want what's best for my kids and children coming up."
Kevin Whiting, Round's manager, believes TCAPS officials spent more money than necessary when they built West Senior High, among other issues.
"I just don't feel TCAPS spends their money wisely, so I don't think they need to be getting some more," he said. "I think they need to take smaller bites and prove they can spend it wisely."
Whiting has two children in the TCAPS system and two more who graduated from the district.
"In my mind, the community has been very generous to TCAPS, and TCAPS just keeps asking for money," he said. "This community supports the schools, but just jumping on every millage just because they throw it out there just doesn't make sense."
Yes and No
Locals who strolled downtown on a balmy day last week also offered mixed reactions to the millage request.
"I'll vote for it," said Traverse City resident Matt Price. "I have a kid in school and I'm a parent."
Mike and Marilyn Clear live in Traverse City, but previously worked as downstate educators. They'll vote yes.
"We never vote anything down for education," Mike Clear said. "The generation before us paid to build things for us, we need to pay for the next generation."
"We support education and we always will. We won't start voting no now," Marilyn added.
But city resident Jerry Marek said Central's auditorium price tag swayed him against the millage.
"I don't like the way they did it," he said. "Central Grade school (reconstruction) comes after the auditorium and it's an old school. The auditorium should have been separate.
"This is the first time in 44 years I'll vote against a school millage," Marek added.
Ken and Margery Taylor, of Traverse City, also worry about Central's proposed auditorium, billed as a top-flight performing arts facility that would seat well over 1,000 performers and audience members.
"It's too much, too soon. They should have broken out the entertainment place at Central," Ken Taylor said. "Administration at TCAPS are all paid six figures. If they were all that concerned about the kids, they wouldn't give that much money to administrators."
"They need to take a long, hard look at our resources," Margery Taylor said. "There are other sites to utilize for entertainment purposes and there are a lot of other needs here."
Jamie Roster owns the Cherry Stop on Front Street. She plans to vote yes.
"My son goes to Eastern and if you've seen some of the pictures of the infrastructure, it needs improvement," she said. "I generally don't take a stance on politics, but for this, I will."
Where does the money go?
It's not the expensive auditorium nor the $30 million budgeted to rebuild three elementary schools that bothers Chris Phillips of Traverse City.
"It's the $53 million for the miscellaneous that scares me," said Phillips, who remained undecided on his vote late last week. "How do you make sure the money goes where it needs to go."
He's a parent with a child who attends Eastern Elementary, a school that he said could use a helping hand.
"Go in the gymnasium and it seems like a bomb shelter. It's decrepit and outdated," he said.
But East Bay resident Bensie Benshauser questions why the district needs to build a new school just to replace what she termed Eastern's leaky roof.
"Our education in this country is pretty much free, so why don't the parents get behind their kids and provide these things instead of hiking taxes," she said. "If we have to cut out the extras, we have to, but at least our kids can still get a good education."
Benshauser, who home-schooled her own children, said the $100 million request is "way too much money."
Henry Huffman was born and raised in Traverse City where he, his children, and grandchildren all attended Traverse City schools. But Huffman lost confidence in the school district after recent sexual assaults on students by a teacher and a school employee.
"I believe in a good education; I don't believe in all the stuff that's been going on in the schools," Huffman said. "The schools need to be reformed, torn down and started over.
"We need to get back to basics and focus on what's important," he said.
Mike Terrell of East Bay Township said the district probably needs the money, but the timing isn't right for such a large proposal.
"It's too much money," he said.
John Roe of Acme Township often disagrees with the TCAPS board's decisions, but said he will support the millage because the schools have been good for his kids.
"Sometimes I question what the school's motives are, but even questions I didn't agree with have not negatively affected my child's education," Roe said. "They are still one of the best school systems around ... and I know there is a lot of infrastructure work to be done and without (the millage) it won't be."
Lucena Muchling's late husband was a school employee so she always tries to support the schools. She still has some questions to resolve before the election, but expects to cast a yes vote.
"You've got to have the schools. Education is important," Muchling said.
Carol Collins, a retired school secretary and volunteer librarian in East Bay Township, counts many educators among her family. She said she always supports school millages.
"Education has always been important for me," Collins said. "Hopefully, it will pass because the schools need it. The schools are our future."
Dean Bull lives in the Long Lake area and said he won't support the millage.
"If they start spending money with any kind of intelligence, I might be able to give some more," Bull said.
Staff writer Kate Milewski and news editor Glenn Puit contributed to this story.