Traverse City Record-Eagle

May 12, 2013

Editorial: TCAPS bond requests reflect voter feedback

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — After a $100 million bond issue took a beating at the polls in November, the Traverse City Area Public Schools board of education gave itself a homework assignment: find out what voters liked and didn’t like about the request; and figure how to package any future requests in a way that will meet district needs but also ensure voter support.

They got an earful. And so far, it appears the district has taken much of that criticism to heart. Whether that translates into voter approval in the fall - if the district decides to go back to voters - is yet to be seen.

Administrators last week proposed breaking the $100 million November proposal into two pieces. A final decision on how to package any requests won’t come until June.

The first would be a $35 million, 0.27-mill proposal for reconstruction at Interlochen, Eastern and Glenn Loomis elementary schools, bus and technology replacements and security upgrades at Central High School and West Middle School.

The second would be a $13-million, 0.09-mill proposal for auditorium reconstruction at Central High School.

The proposals - for a total $48 million versus the $100 million sought last year - would cost the owner of a home with a $100,000 taxable value about $27 and $9 per year.

Much of the savings would come from a proposal to delay for three to four years major renovations at Central Grade School. Doing that would also shorten the overall timeline for completion of the proposed projects to six years, something voters told pollsters they would support.

The board appears to be divided on including work on Central Grade as part of the larger bond. A telephone survey showed nearly 75 percent of registered voters either supported or leaned toward supporting those renovations, a number that is hard to ignore.

But the 80-year-old grade school building is an expensive proposition. Needed work includes replacing the building’s mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems plus gutting and replacing the entire third floor. A full makeover could cost $23 million to $26 million.

The district has also reduced the proposal to do work on the auditorium at Traverse City Central High School, which came in for a lot of criticism last fall. The November proposal included $18 million for auditorium work and more for a new entrance and offices.

Now, the Central High proposal would be a separate $13 million issue for a 670-seat reconstruction to make Central’s facility “functionally equitable” to West Senior High School’s auditorium. That translates to 0.09 mills and would cost the average homeowner $9 a year.

School officials last year rejected calls to do just what they appear ready to do this year - divide the larger millage proposal by breaking off Central High work into a separate bond request.

The argument then was that the auditorium work was more than just an effort to bring Central’s facilities up to the level of those at West Senior High, which is brand new by comparison. The board argued that a functional performance space was as important to the overall curriculum as modern labs and computers. That’s a laudable standard, but too many voters still considered it a frill.

Now, the auditorium issue will (most likely) stand on its own, which could help ensure passage of the larger $35 million proposal, which must be the district’s primary goal.

In all, the district has listened to voters and responded.

TCAPS Superintendent Stephen Cousins said several things stood out during the review: Voters will support a bond issue; they want it to be for less money; they want a shorter turnaround time; and they want the Central High auditorium to be a separate issue.

So far, the district has delivered. Though the final shape of the requests may change, the district has given needed priority to infrastructure work, buses and technology and will let the Central High auditorium stand alone. Central Grade work may yet be added, which would boost costs but would also recognize strong voter support.

There are months to go before voters decide any bond issues, time the school district must use to educate voters about the requests, why they’re needed, and what they mean to the district going forward.

The national and local economies are stronger now than they were last fall and, given the positive responses the district has gotten in feedback sessions, voters appear ready to again invest in their schools.