TRAVERSE CITY — Traverse City Area Public Schools' leaders continued their pitch for a $100 million tax increase this November, and contend the millage hike continues a necessary, long-term capital plan to protect school district infrastructure.
TCAPS Superintendent Stephen Cousins also defended the inclusion of a $26 million performing arts center in the bond proposal that would raise taxes on a $200,000 home by $80 a year.
Cousins and other district officials met with Record-Eagle editors on Wednesday to discuss the millage, including a state-of-the-art, 1,200-seat performing arts center at Central High School that would replace an aged auditorium at the Central campus. The upgrade is necessary, they said.
"If we don't have this capital available, we won't even be able, in some senses, to meet the needs of our current programs," Cousins said. "Those assets are deteriorating, and if we don't fix them, they are not available to use.
"Central's auditorium is just a great example of that," he added. "That cannot, in any event, go on in its current condition much longer before it's not going to be usable. People are just not going to sit in the seats. Kids are already overpowering the technology. You can't even get the choir and orchestra on the stage at the same time. Some of these assets will deteriorate to the point where they are unusable."
The push to increase the district's 3.1-mill bond levy by up to 0.8 mills has drawn some opposition. Grand Traverse County Commissioner Jason Gillman expressed dismay at the size of the proposed tax hike. He said the new auditorium is a "luxury" and an unnecessary use of taxpayer money.
"You spend a few thousand dollars to fix the planks, wax the floors and paint the walls," Gillman said. "You don't spend $26 million at a time (when) people are struggling just to make their tax payments.
"People don't like this," Gillman said. "I haven't heard of anyone who is for this tax increase. They bit this one off too big this time. You shouldn't try to eat the elephant all at once. Little bites at a time."
The Nov. 6 ballot item would raise $100 million over 10 years to pay for reconstruction at Interlochen, Eastern and Montessori at Glenn Loomis elementary schools, estimated at $10 million each. It also would pay for a $26 million reconstruction at Central Grade School and the performing arts center. Remaining monies are for maintenance, technology upgrades and buses.
The performing arts center is the clear lightning rod for opponents' criticism. Paul Mahon, TCAPS' Director of Construction and Facility Maintenance, said the existing auditorium has inadequate technology and space, and prevents students from putting on high-tech plays and musicals that feature multiple set designs.
"The existing auditorium has a significant amount of limitations for educating our kids," Mahon said. "The shell, or box of the facility, is not appropriately designed for acoustics. All of the systems — the electrical, the lighting, the sound — all of it needs a significant enhancement.
"One of the other big issues is the stage is not properly sized to allow for the larger performances," Mahon said. "It doesn't have the appropriate space."
Critics not only see the new auditorium as unnecessary, they also question why it wasn't separated and made into its own ballot question.
"They put it all together so they could pass this auditorium," Gillman said. "That's what they did. They recognized this was going to be hard to sell."
Kelly Hall is president of the TCAPS Board of Education. She said the board unanimously approved the bond proposal with the understanding that many northern Michigan residents struggle to pay their bills.
But she said TCAPS needs to follow through with a comprehensive capital plan that's led to the approval of three other millages in 2001, 2004 and 2007.
Supporting the auditorium, she said, is part of offering a comprehensive education to kids that includes the fine arts.
"It wasn't an easy decision," Hall said. "It wasn't made without the recognition that folks are struggling. We do recognize the weight of what we are asking in times of economic hardship.
"I don't believe any line item of this capital plan is more or less important," Hall said. "We are a comprehensive district. We've preserved arts, and we still have athletics."