After two consecutive defeats at the polls, one by just 250 votes, Traverse City Area Public Schools officials could be excused if they took a “you asked for it” approach and closed elementary buildings in desperate need of repair or replacement.
Instead, the school board has wisely decided to find other ways to deal with looming building issues that just won’t go away.
The district will spend about $1.2 million to extend the lives of Interlochen and Eastern elementary schools for five to seven years, a commitment to what must be the district’s overarching mantra: The kids come first.
Interlochen and Eastern are both on the district’s short-short list for critical repairs. At Interlochen, the roof is in such a bad state there are real concerns the building could come down. So TCAPS will spend $715,000 for several projects there, including replacing the roof. The district will spend $465,000 to replace the roof and public address system at Eastern.
It would have been easy to simply say that if this is what the voters want, this is what they’ll get.
Voters in 2012 thrashed a $100 million bond issue that would have provided money to replace or repair Interlochen, Eastern and Glenn Loomis elementary schools. That bond would also have paid for big districtwide investments in technology and safety, and do critical work on Traverse City Central’s aging auditorium, entrance and offices.
After a months-long outreach and listening effort during which board members met with a host of community and parent groups to get feedback on the 2012 bond, the district tried again. It put two issues on the 2013 ballot totaling just over $48 million that together would have cost the owner of a house with a taxable value of $100,000 just $36 a year. The larger issue lost by just 250 votes.
That left the board with no easy way to pay for building repairs, technical upgrades, new buses and much more.
Board members were told they would need to close at least one school — Interlochen was the logical choice — over the next three years if the district can’t find new money for capital projects. Instead, the district last week shuffled its capital projects list and took money initially intended for other uses and applied it to Interlochen and Eastern.
Failing to repair the Interlochen building would have other impacts. There has been talk of turning over the school building to Green Lake Township for use as offices if and when a new Interlochen Elementary was built. While providing offices for the township isn’t the district’s lookout, TCAPS is part of the wider community and in the end, it’s pretty much all taxpayer money. Working with the township counts.
The district has the option of going back to voters in November. But TCAPS is already going to seek renewal of its 18-mill levy on non-homestead property such as businesses and second homes. That tax is worth more than $30 million a year and is the backbone of district funding; officials could not risk muddying the waters with another bond request.
So now it looks like a make-it-or-break-it bond issue will be on the 2015 fall ballot. As trustee Eric Falconer put it, district officials will need to make the stakes of that one clear to voters.
Board secretary Scott Hardy said it doesn’t make financial sense to spend $700,000 at Interlochen if the building is demolished and rebuilt after a successful bond vote in 2015.
“It’s money you can’t recoup if you tear that building down,” Hardy said.
He’s right. But the board must look beyond just the business repercussions here. A community school becomes the center of all kinds of activities in and out of the classroom, from neighborhood meetings, to sports and so much more.
Closing a school — as TCAPS found out the hard way in 2008 — is a wrenching decision that must be avoided if at all possible. Buying time to avoid the worst is a wise investment.
Now the district must convince voters that maintaining the infrastructure taxpayers have already spent millions to create costs money, and it depends on them.