By Kathy Gibbons
TRAVERSE CITY — Poor economic conditions and a widely held belief that an $18 million performing arts center was too extravagant appeared to dog Traverse City Area Public Schools proposal for a $100 million bond request.
"Education is important, but it's a large sum of money when you see people really having a hard time," said Nevenko Buntic, 61, a Traverse City tool maker and machinist.
Amber Wilcoxson said she voted against the bond proposal because she opposed "building huge, modern schools" in Traverse City, though she supports increasing school funding in other ways.
"I'd like to see (funds) go toward things like more computers and art classes, not big infrastructure projects," she said.
About 23,000 votes still not been tallied shortly after midnight Tuesday, and TCAPS officials were reluctant to concede defeat. But voting tallies throughout the evening ran substantially against the proposal.
The district's board of education had asked voters to increase the current 3.1-mill bond levy by up to 0.8 mills. Most of the money would have paid to remodel and rebuild several schools, upgrade technology and construct an $18 million performing arts auditorium at Central High School.
TCAPS Superintendent Steve Cousins said late Tuesday that if the proposal failed, the board will need to regroup and come back with another one.
"The board will have to sit down and determine how they will come back, because they will have to come back with another proposal in the next year," Cousins said. "I don't think they can wait two years."
Cousins said he had no regrets over the proposal's all-or-nothing approach.
"It's a comprehensive plan and you need an answer," he said. "You create a proposal you think meets the kids' needs and you let the public vote on it."
Jason Gillman, a Tea Party member and arguably the most vocal opponent of the bond millage, said the auditorium was "an absolute waste of money."
Gillman, whose term as a Grand Traverse County commissioner ends this year, was recently invited to tour the auditorium.
"I find it irrelevant, an unproductive use of my time "¦ I don't oppose renovation," he said. "A little paint, some new boards, some new seats. But when you get a flat tire, you don't throw the whole car away."
Gillman said his opposition to the auditorium owed to his larger belief that the school district should focus only on science, technology, engineering and math in order to prepare students for jobs.
"Everything else — athletics. I love athletics. Performing arts? Everything else is fluff. Understand that. It's an add-on. As a community, do we force people on fixed incomes to pay for other people's fluff? Do we put food on the table or pay property taxes?"
Voters leaving the polls yesterday expressed mixed opinions.
Dave Starkey of Acme Township said the performing arts building was the reason he voted no.
"I support the schools, but I was kind of against the performing arts building "¦ I thought it was too expensive with this economy," Starkey said. "I hope they come back and try it without the arts building."
Paul Ellul, a Traverse City Police officer, said he voted yes on the TCAPS bond because it pays off for everyone.
"I truly believe if you have good quality schools and a safe community, that's what makes a strong city," Ellul said.
Jeff Challender, a truck driver from Traverse City, also voted yes.
"Schools need all the money they can get, poor kids," Challender said.
Elmwood Township's Dorothy Gamalski also voted in favor of the TCAPS proposal.
"I think they need an auditorium, they need the arts," she said. "They need science, too, otherwise we'll be a Third World country before too long. But they need a balance."
Gillman, who owns a business selling security equipment, said that he would consider becoming more involved as the district makes new plans.
He would like the new plan to focus more on maintenance than new construction.
"From a critical standpoint, they could use someone with a viewpoint of a taxpayer. I probably will show up more than I have already," he said. "I'd call this a righteous crusade. I'm sacrificing a lot to make a point. The school board will see me coming. I'm hiding out in the open. There's a full slate of candidates, four candidates, in 2014 whose seats will be open."
Gillman said he doesn't intend to run in 2014, but he'll find four candidates he believes will better represent the taxpayers' viewpoint.
Staff writer Anne Stanton contributed to this article.