BY GLENN PUIT
TRAVERSE CITY — Call it the war of the school millage mailers.
Advocates for and against Traverse City Area Public Schools' $100 million bond proposal are filling registered voters' mailboxes with fliers that attempt to make their respective cases on the Nov. 6 ballot proposal.
One new opposition mailer seen in mailboxes this week depicts TCAPS Superintendent Stephen Cousins as a cartoon character with a bubble caption reading "Easy Money!" and the words "What Can TCAPS Superintendent Stephen Cousins Be Thinking?"
Local tea party activist and Grand Traverse County Commissioner Jason Gillman said he spent $2,700 of his own money on the mailer with Cousins' image, his effort to convince voters to defeat the proposed millage hike. Gillman mailed the flier to 8,564 households.
"It's out of my bank account, my savings," Gillman said. "My credit union account is shrinking real fast because I'm fed up."
Conversely, Cousins said TCAPS is spending approximately $20,000 on an eight-page color mailer to voters.
"We have to spend some money to get the information in people's hands," Cousins said. "The district has to make sure the voters are informed so they can make the decision they think is best for the district and for their own personal circumstances."
The TCAPS millage request seeks voter approval to increase the district's 3.1-mill bond levy by up to 0.8 mills, raising $100 million over 10 years. The money would pay for reconstruction at Interlochen, Eastern and Montessori at Glenn Loomis elementary schools, estimated at $10 million each.
It also would raise $26 million for reconstruction at Central Grade School, and approximately $25 million for projects at Central High School, including construction of a state-of-the-art auditorium.
Gillman said he believes the TCAPS' mailer violates Michigan campaign finance law, which prevents public money from being used for passage or defeat of a public ballot question.
The TCAPS flier states:
"TCAPS is asking voters to support the continuation of TCAPS' long-term capital infrastructure improvement plan by authorizing a bond proposal on Nov. 6, 2012."
Gillman said it's clear the language violates state law.
"They are known for stepping up to the line but not crossing it," Gillman said. "This time they crossed it."
Not so, said TCAPS Board of Education President Kelly Hall.
"I respectfully disagree," Hall said. "I think it asks people to support the continuation of the plan."
Voters received a third mailing, this one from the group "TCAPS Citizens for Students." Records filed with Grand Traverse County Clerk's Office list the group's treasurer as Wesley Souden, TCAPS' Director of Finance & Business Technology.
Souden said he's involved with the group as a citizen, not as a TCAPS administrator. He referred further comment to Matt McDonough, one of the pro-millage organization's three chairpersons. McDonough said he's a parent who supports TCAPS and its renovation of aging schools.
The group will spend about $5,000 to send the flier to all registered voters in TCAPS' jurisdiction. Money raised for the mailer comes from local parents and businesses, he said.
"I'm just a parent-volunteer, and it's something I feel strongly about," McDonough said.
Traverse City resident Mark Mikula said he doesn't pay attention to the mailers in his mailbox because he's already made up his mind on the ballot proposal. He said he'll vote no because he thinks TCAPS wants too much money.
"I think it's a little bit excessive," Mikula said.
Voter Kate Greene said she'll vote yes, but she hasn't noticed any fliers in her mailbox.
"My kids go to public schools and they benefit from public schools," Greene said. "It's the right thing to do."