Traverse City Record-Eagle

October 21, 2012

Editorial: TC schools' bond request too much in fragile time


---- — Traverse City Area Public Schools has come a long way from the divided district that faced a major rebellion just a few years ago by parents angry about school closings and what they perceived as a board and administration that wouldn't listen.

Enrollment has stabilized, the district is offering more specialized elementary programs, it has one of the lowest percentage expenditures for administrative salaries in Michigan, the school board is as strong as any in memory and the district has cut millions while surviving on one of the lowest per-student grants in the state.

In short, there have been a lot of good decisions made over the past few years that have kept the district moving forward in tough times.

But the school board's decision to seek a $100 million bond over 10 years to continue its Long Term Capital Infrastructure Improvement Program and put $16 million into reconstructing the Central High School Auditorium is asking too much too soon in a still-fragile economic recovery.

The request has put a lot of voters who have loyally supported the district over the years in a tough spot — having to decide between voting "yes" because they value education but faced with economic realties that make even a modest tax hike a burden.

While the district defends each element of the $100 million bond as necessary to protect taxpayers' bricks-and-mortar investment, it is also true that much of the work can likely wait another year, to a time when voters will hopefully be better able to afford a tax hike.

Everyone who owns a car or a home knows the feeling — there's work that should and, eventually, must be done, but not today.

A "yes" vote Nov. 6 would raise the district's bond debt from 3.1 to approximately 3.9 mills (the state average is five mills), an increase of .08 mills. That's $80 a year for a home with a taxable value of $100,000.

By itself, $80 isn't much. But when it's part of a larger fixed-cost burden in an age of zero salary increases for many voters, it will be felt.

Most of the millage request deals with keeping up efforts to rebuild aging schools and $40 million for infrastructure work, $25 million to rehabilitate Central Grade School, money to buy buses and upgrade athletic facilities.

The item that has drawn the most criticism is $16 million to renovate the Central High School auditorium, which district officials say is falling apart.

Board members stoutly defend including the auditorium in this request, noting that by the time they graduate 50 percent of students are involved in music, band or the performing arts, all of which depend on the aging auditorium.

The auditorium also can't handle school assemblies and other necessary events. But $16 million this year is too much.

If the millage fails the district could and should come back next November with a request that answers some of the current criticisms.

Given current indications, 2013 should be a more favorable economic climate; but 2012 is still a time for frugality.