Traverse City Area Public Schools officials understandably are down in the dumps since district voters’ Nov. 5 rejection of a bond proposal intended for major reconstruction and other upgrades at local schools. TCAPS badly lost an over-inflated bond request last year, but returned this year with a more thoughtful, slimmer proposal that would have addressed significant deficiencies in three elementary schools, among other improvements.
A second item on this year’s ballot would have paid for a dramatic face-lift for Central High School’s performing arts center.
Both ballot questions fell, the former by about 250 votes and the performing arts request by a larger count.
That means TCAPS officials spent the better part of two years pouring time and energy into efforts that at first blush bore no fruit. What’s left is a post-election hangover, as well as an opportunity for soul-searching.
The latest loss left some TCAPS board members in a bit of a dither at their Nov. 11 meeting, the first such official gathering since election day. Some — not all — acted in, well, reactionary fashion, and variously blamed seniors, residents of Traverse City’s outlying townships, and others for not acting responsibly and approving the millage.
The election outcome should spur TCAPS administrators and elected officials to do some deep-thinking, but they’d be wise to avoid taking the twin defeats so personally. Likewise, they should refrain from casting aspersions when figuratively rounding up the usual suspects for blame. Voters in Kalkaska and Elk Rapids school districts also shot down millage dreams, and Grand Traverse County voters in August demolished Northwestern Michigan College’s request for a tax hike.
There’s more to tax request defeats than personal animosity toward government officials, though that mindset certainly is true of a segment of the voting public. But for the most part voters who continue to smart from the Great Recession and who worry about their most basic financial and survival needs aren’t in much of a mood to boost their property tax bills, regardless of the benefit to the overall community.
Grand Traverse County voters did approve one tax request, a multi-million dollar millage sought by the county road commission. Frankly, that one was and is a real head-scratcher, not because the county roads aren’t in lousy shape — they are — but because the initial three-year, $4.4 million tax plan is far more expensive to individual taxpayers than was TCAPS’ bond proposal. Road commissioners may not have long to bask in their win because taxpayers may not be so benevolent — particularly those in the townships — when they realize much of their money will go to streets in Traverse City, Kingsley and Fife Lake, as well as to tax agencies that don’t and won’t put a dime into road repairs. Road commissioners, in other words, have a small window to do wonders if they have any hope of extending their millage beyond three years to finance their desired 20-year roads overhaul plan.
Conversely, TCAPS officials don’t have the luxury of new money to carry out their construction plans. They’re confronted with crumbling elementary schools, bottom-tier per-pupil state funding and a dissipating fund balance, so they need to study their strategic plan, scrutinize their administrative structure for potential savings and adjust to the reality that is consecutive election defeats.
TCAPS leaders need to ascertain why they lost, particularly this year. Did they need a better campaign strategy? Did they do enough to convince voters who have a vested interest in top-flight schools, i.e. the parents of TCAPS students, to carry the flag? Indeed, did TCAPS or their foot soldiers do enough, or anything at all, to get parents registered to vote for their kids’ best interests?
And they need to decide whether their administrative team is up to the task of guiding the district through what’s sure to be a challenging stretch over the next few years.
It’d be foolish to return to voters next year with another similar millage request, so for now TCAPS leaders need to make do with what they have. And what they have is an overall stable, supportive community, strong programming, generally competent leadership and thousands of young minds to educate and prepare for the future.
That’s where the focus has to be.