BENZONIA — The Benzie Central Schools millage proposal could prove the old adage that the third time’s a charm.
District officials are going back to the well for the third time in 14 months and asking the public on Tuesday to pass a 25-year, $38.7 million bond. The new proposal drops the term of the bond by five years from the first effort in May 2019 and by a year from the November proposal.
The district’s request also decreases the amount sought by a little more than $9 million and the mill rate from 3.0 to 2.1, a 0.5 increase from the expired bond that was at 1.6 mills. With that mill rate, the annual increase for a home per $100,000 of taxable value would be $50.
Although Matt Olson resigned as Benzie Central superintendent in June to take a position at the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District, he told the board at the time that he would see the proposal “through to the finish line.” Olson said he feels positive heading into Tuesday.
“We made this a smaller proposal, a more simple proposal,” he said. “We really tried to focus on instructional spaces. People felt good about investing in that and keeping them comfortable, safe and good for learning.”
The highlight of the bond is the construction of a new kindergarten through fifth grade elementary school, which will replace Crystal Lake Elementary.
Other projects include adding two additional classrooms to Lake Ann Elementary; replacing the roofs at Lake Ann, Betsie Valley and the middle and high schools; upgrading HVAC systems; remodeling the science labs; increasing security measures; building a new bus garage and buying new buses every year for the next decade; and improving technology throughout the district.
Those within the district, like Asa Kelly who has taught at Benzie for 20 years, said these are not wants — they are needs.
“Our buildings are aging and crumbling,” Kelly said. “When you get buildings that are 70 years old, inevitably the roof is going to wear out and the plumbing is going to go bad. Those are necessities that we don’t have money in our budget to repair. This is about replacing those basic things.”
Expected cuts to the school state aid fund because of the COVID-19 pandemic make passing the bond even more important, Kelly said.
The margins of defeat for the last two bonds has been relatively slim, losing by 114 in May and 101 in November.
The failed November proposal struggled to gain support in Homestead, Inland and Platte townships, which were served by Platte River Elementary. The Benzie Board of Education shuttered Platte River in 2017 because of declining enrollment, and Olson said at the time that there still are some lingering issues from that decision.
The plans to build a new elementary school just three years later has some voters scratching their heads and asking why the money can’t just be put into rehabbing those two schools and then reopening Platte River.
Bruce Pierre Doyon, a retiree who lives in Benzie County, said in October that district officials needed to rethink their priorities and reconsider the 1.4-mill tax hike they were proposing eight months ago. He said they were spending “too much money in the wrong places” and putting that on the backs of people who don’t make a lot of money.
If the district thinks about what it really needs, Doyon said he was sure the public would pass it.
Both Olson and Kelly said they listened to the criticisms. Kelly is hopeful the community sees the benefits of a new school and gives the bond a thumbs up.
“It’s like if you drove a 1985 Mustang. Are you going to pay $10,000 and pour all that money in there to repair it — knowing you’re going to have to go back in a couple of years and pour more money into it — or are you going to buy the new Mustang?” he asked.
Aside from the $9 million cut, the lower tax rate and the decreased length, the new proposal also rolls back remodeling the gymnasiums at the middle and high schools and improvements to the district’s athletic facilities.
Benzie also relies on the 0.9-mill sinking tax fund, which brings in $700,000 a year, to manage any urgent needs. Unlike the previous proposal, which would have eliminated that fund, Olson said the district plans to continue collecting it for the next seven years until it expires.
The key, Kelly said, is making sure the public is informed about the changes. He and his wife, who teaches at Crystal Lake, spent hours handwriting postcards highlighting the adjustments made to the proposal to send to residents.
“I think people are voting with a lot of misinformation and relying on a lot of rumors being spread around the district,” he said.
More than 700 additional voters turned out for the November election than did for the May 2019 primary. Although the contagious nature of the coronavirus could deter some voters from going to the polls in person, Olson is encouraged that turnout will be even better because of mail-in ballots and same-day voter registration.
“I think more people support this than oppose it,” Olson said. “We are hoping people get out there and vote. Hopefully, we’re in a good place to pass this.”
Polls open at 7 a.m. Tuesday and close at 8 p.m.