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Published: Wednesday, 5/16/2007

Schools face future without levy funds

BY BENJAMIN
ALEXANDER-BLOCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Two school districts in Erie and Bedford townships are trying find ways to move on following defeat of capital improvement levies last week.

Whether it was poor marketing, Michigan's flailing economy, an aging population, political division, simple disinterest, or low voter turnout that caused the capital improvement levies to fail, both districts are without the designated funds to repair their aging facilities.

And according to both district superintendents, the lack of funds could mean cutting into instructional programs that would directly affect students' education.

Bedford Public Schools' levy was narrowly struck down by a 57-vote margin.

"It compounds our financial concerns," said Ted Magrum, assistant superintendent of finance and operations. "The [levy] money would have prevented us from having to cut funds from the classroom."

He said the district now will have to put off repairs to its buildings - which are on average 37 years old - as long as possible.

When it becomes impossible to hold off any longer, he said he will have to take funds out of the district's already-strapped general fund.

Mr. Magrum said the fund faces a roughly $2 million shortfall this year and a $3 million deficit next year.

He said the majority of the $2 million will come from layoffs that will be announced later this month.

The district's capital improvement levy would have generated about $2.5 million over five years, and cost owners of a $200,000 home $50 a year.

Nearly two-thirds of the 3,293 residents who voted on the Bedford levy were absentee voters, typically elderly voters who no longer have children in the school system.

Some residents also pointed to anonymous flyers - titled "Vote No on any increased taxes" that were dropped on their front yards - to explain the losing margin.

Mason's Interim Superintendent Dennis Rottenbucher blames politics for his district's loss.

The two newly-elected Mason trustees - Sandra Dobbs and Don Pearce - ran on platforms of no new taxes.

Also, trustees Pamela Cousino and William Saul voted against putting the levy on the ballot when it was voted on in January.

"When we didn't have a unified board for the ballot issue, it became a political issue," Mr. Rottenbucher said. "Now the new board of education will have to determine whether they want to put it back on the ballot again."

He said the board will likely discuss that possibility at its regular board meeting on Tuesday.

"But in the meantime, our general fund is woefully low," he said.

"We have the smallest general fund in the county."

The district has $300,000 left over from its capital improvement fund that expires this year, which he said the district will need to safeguard in case of an emergency.

The failed levy would have brought in $2.98 million over five years and cost owners of a $200,000 home $200 a year.

The district has $525,000 in its general fund. If the state legislature passes the proposed $122 per-pupil tax cuts, that would add up to a cut of about $171,000 dollars, leaving only $354,000 in the fund.

The interim superintendent said the Mason board will likely discuss staff reductions sometime before the end of this month.

Blissfield Township voters were some of the few in the region to pass their school district's capital improvement levy.

The 1.75-mill levy will last 10 years, from 2010 to 2019, and is estimated to bring in $425,000 during its first year.

Superintendent Paul Palka said the money will be used to either help repair the high school or build a new high school.

"This is the third five-year renewal we have passed [for our capital improvement fund], only this time the renewal was for 10 years," said Mr. Palka, who will step down this year after 31 years in the district and 14 years as superintendent.

"I think we have a chemistry with our citizens, where they trust what we do," Mr. Palka said.



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