TRAVERSE CITY — Increasing property values in Grand Traverse County have the region’s largest school district bracing for a possible cut in school funding.
Traverse City Area Public Schools is going to the voters to prevent such a decrease. TCAPS is asking taxpayers to approve a 1.0 mill increase on the district’s authorized operating millage rate. Residents in Grand Traverse, Benzie and Leelanau counties will vote on the proposal.
The additional mill, which will last for five years, will not result in a tax increase to property owners and does not apply to most homeowners.
TCAPS collects 18 mills through the non-homestead tax — commercial properties, some agricultural properties, second homes and vacation homes in the county — to supply nearly half of the district’s per-pupil funding of $8,111. The rest comes from the state through sales tax and the Michigan lottery.
By law, TCAPS cannot collect more than 18 mills. The authorized rate increase only prevents TCAPS from collecting less than 18 mills.
The $8,111 is the lowest per-pupil funding school districts receive from the state, but TCAPS could get less than that if the operating millage rate falls below the 18-mill mark. The state assumes all districts collect 18 mills and would not make up the difference to get to $8,111 for a district collecting less.
The measure is part of the Headlee Rollback, a law put in place in 1978 to prevent school districts from collecting taxes on skyrocketing property values. School districts must reduce their millage rate when growth on existing property values exceeds the rate of inflation set by the the Consumer Price Index.
The topic is complex. Even TCAPS Superintendent John VanWagoner said as much. But VanWagoner said it is important that voters and taxpayers understand the complexities.
TCAPS has collected 18 mills since 1999, and voters approved a 10-year operating millage rate just a tick above 19 mills in 2014. The authorized millage rate for the 2020 fiscal year is now 18.3. VanWagoner and TCAPS Associate Superintendent Christine Thomas-Hill expect that number to drop below 18 within a year or two.
The decrease in per-pupil funding could be a “big hit” financially, VanWagoner said. In a district with nearly 10,000 students and questions looming about future state funding, less money per student adds up, VanWagoner said.
VanWagoner, the former superintendent of Alpena Public Schools, said the non-homestead tax made up 23 percent of Alpena’s per-pupil funding. That number is doubled (46 percent) for TCAPS.
“We’re hoping it doesn’t happen at all. That’s why we’re doing this,” he said. “Every dollar matters when we’re so underfunded. A dollar less hurts us.”
Thomas-Hill said district officials are trying to educate the community about the importance of authorizing the millage rate and cutting down any talk that the 1.0 mill increase will take more money out of property owners’ pockets.
“We’re trying to be proactive,” Thomas-Hill said.
Traverse Connect voiced its support for the millage.
Kirstie Sieloff, director of government relations, said the local business community “values quality education for our children” and sees TCAPS as an important part of attracting people and businesses to the area. Sieloff said the proposal is “in line” with Traverse Connect’s “economic development priorities.”
Thomas-Hill said TCAPS will go back to the voters in 2025 to get approval on another 10-year authorization on the millage rate. The 2014 renewal, Thomas-Hill said, was not high enough to sustain the rollback for 10 years.
Voters will decide on the measure Nov. 3.