TRAVERSE CITY — School board members face some sobering truths about Traverse City Area Public Schools.
TCAPS officials will need to shutter at least one school within the next three years if the district can’t find new money for capital projects, and Interlochen Elementary School is first on the chopping block.
It’s a dilemma school board President Kelly Hall never anticipated when she joined the board.
“I don’t think a district recovers from a decision like that for at least a generation,” Hall said. “It tears a community apart. It’s not something I thought I’d ever be considering when I got elected to the board.”
But that was before voters rejected two district requests to sell capital bonds in as many years. Officials planned to rebuild Interlochen, Glenn Loomis and Eastern elementary schools if the most recent ballot proposal passed. Now those plans — and a host of other capital improvements — are on hold as the cost of maintaining TCAPS’ aging facilities grows.
Board members began discussing how best to confront this problem during a meeting last week.
A host of changes to the district’s capital plan were considered, but two options served as bookends on the spectrum of possibilities.
One is to cap the millage rate at its current 3.1-mil level with few new capital dollars incoming for roughly the next decade. Interlochen Elementary, TCAPS’ most run-down school, likely would close in that scenario.
Board Vice President Julie Puckett said district officials need to look beyond financial considerations before closing any schools. She used the closing of Bertha Vos Elementary School in 2008 to support her argument. Residents of Acme Township rallied against the district to oppose the closure. They eventually filed a lawsuit filed against the district that was later dismissed.
“Ripping off the scab that I thought had healed from Bertha Vos, I’m going to tell you,” Puckett said during the meeting. “You take away a community school, you change a community.”
The other bookend option involves returning to voters in November with another capital improvement millage proposal. But TCAPS already has a millage question slated for that ballot: renewal of the district’s 18-mill levy on non-homestead property.
That millage, originally required of all Michigan districts as part of Proposal A funding, annually accounts for about $31 million in operational dollars for TCAPS, said Paul Soma, associate superintendent of finance & operations.
Board members don’t want to jeopardize the outcome of the crucial non-homestead millage renewal by placing a capital millage question on the same ballot.
A third option gained traction from many board members during the discussion last week: returning to voters for either a special election this spring or in 2015 with another capital millage proposal that would serve as of referendum on school closings.
Puckett during the meeting said she did not realize school closings were on the table if the 2013 TCAPS millage failed.
Board Treasurer Erik Falconer said district officials need to make those stakes clear, then return to voters one more time.
Falconer said he supports holding another millage election in November 2015, and spending roughly $700,000 to keep Interlochen Elementary open in the meantime.
Hall said the board could hold a special millage election in May.
“I’m not a huge fan of off-November elections, but I think if we’re very transparent and say ‘we’re having this and it’s going to be a referendum on what we are going to do with these schools,’ I would be willing to go down that road,” she said.
Other board members pointed out a successful referendum needs the support of voters throughout the district, not just those who live in communities that face school closures.
“Remember, the entire district needs to buy into that argument,” board member Scott Hardy said during the meeting. “That means that everybody in the TCAPS area has to say, ‘I will support that.’”