Traverse City Record-Eagle

Archive: Thursday

November 8, 2012

School millage failure puts plans in limbo

Officials still hope to complete school renovations

TRAVERSE CITY — Many improvement plans at the region's largest school district are in limbo after voters rejected a $100 million tax increase.

Residents in the Traverse City Area Public Schools district defeated the proposed millage increase by roughly 25,000 to 18,000 votes Tuesday. The proposal asked voters to increase the district's 3.1 mill bond levy by up to 0.8 mills, a bump that would have funded major renovations at several schools and a new performing arts center at Central High School, among several other items.

TCAPS officials hope to press on and figure out a way to complete planned renovations at Eastern, Interlochen and Montessori at Glen Loomis elementaries, but the performing arts center and a major renovation of Central Grade School are dead in the water.

"The immediate impact is those large scale infrastructure projects ... are on hold," said Paul Soma, the district's chief financial officer. "The performing arts center and Central Grade School are totally off the table at this point."

Grand Traverse County Commissioner Jason Gillman, a vocal opponent of the proposal, was glad voters shot it down.

"I was very satisfied that it not only was stopped, but I think a message is sent when it's nearly a 20-point difference in vote totals," Gillman said. "The board has been complacent. They've gotten pretty much everything they've asked for, and this time, they just reached a bit too far in a particularly bad time."

The proposal's failure means the district will have to dump "short-term money into long-term problems" when it comes to nagging infrastructure needs, Soma said. For example, a roof that perhaps would be entirely replaced if the millage increase passed will now likely be patched.

Unless a viable long-term solution for infrastructure funding is found, those problems could lead to spending cuts in other areas throughout the district, Soma said.

"The longer that we don't have an answer to these needs, the larger the problem becomes. The more that we (spend on infrastructure), the more we might have to access funds that were intended for something different," Soma said. "What budget are you going to take it from? We don't have extra money sitting around."

District officials now will analyze voter response to the proposal in an effort to figure out what went wrong.

"We've got to regroup, look at what the needs are, and evaluate feedback from the election," said Kelly Hall, president of the TCAPS Board of Education. "We've got to come back with something, but what it will be, I don't know at this point."

It's possible the district will need to float another bond proposal in two years or less, Soma said.

"How we move forward is what needs to be discussed," Soma said. "We have to think about repackaging this bond campaign and somehow putting something out in front of the taxpayers."

It's also possible the district may be able to squeeze more cash out of its existing 3.1 mill levy.

"There's good indications that property values have bottomed out, and they may start increasing, and that will create some leverage for us," Soma said. "If the property values increase, then we don't have to increase the millage rate to raise some dollars."

Soma and Hall said they're grateful for the people who voted for and worked to support the proposal, and Hall — who was "cautiously optimistic" the proposal would pass — said the mood is gloomy among school officials.

"We're down. I personally am very disappointed," Hall said. "We understand that this is a different environment in 2012 than it was the last time TCAPS asked (for a millage) in 2007. That being said, I still thought the community would support our request."

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