We’ve Got Issues: Could special tax solve budget problems for schools Up North?

Nov 13, 2017

Isabella Cronk (right) designs a bridge with students at Westwoods Elementary School.
Credit Morgan Springer

Many school districts Up North – and across the state – are suffering from chronic budget problems. It comes at a time when there’s also increasing pressure from parents and lawmakers for students to do better in school.

In the Traverse City area, leaders have even resorted to closing schools to save money. But in Charlevoix and Emmet Counties, districts will be getting a boost in funding next year because voters approved a rare kind of property tax last week.

It’s called a regional enhancement millage, and only a handful of areas in the state have one.

Jeff Crouse, superintendent of the Charlevoix-Emmet Intermediate School District, says the cash could help districts fix their budget woes, or pay for new programs. 

"The nice thing about this enhancement millage is it is an unrestricted source of funds,” Crouse says, “and we don’t often see that in public schools where we can really do whatever we want.”

The millage will raise more than $5,000,000 for schools next year. That means more than $600 extra per student, adding to what schools already get from the state. And that’s just year one of a property tax that will last a decade. 

“The local school districts and the kids are going to be the beneficiaries for the next generation,” Crouse says. “This is ten years. I mean, this is going to cover a generation of kids.”

Most school districts are not allowed to raise money this way to pay for operating expenses. For the most part, the money to operate schools comes from the state. 

It didn’t use to be like this. But following an outcry over high property taxes, among other issues, voters changed the state’s school funding model by passing Proposal A in 1994.

The law did allow an exception to this property tax rule – the enhancement millage – which has to be approved across not just one district, but an entire intermediate school district.

“The beauty of a regional enhancement millage is every dollar, every bit of the funding, stays regionally,” says Mike Hill, superintendent of the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District. “And it goes out on a per-pupil basis based on student enrollment.”

Enhancement millages have been rare in Michigan. The Charlevoix-Emmet ISD is only the seventh in the state to pass one ever. There are 56 ISDs total in Michigan. 

Voters in the Traverse Bay Area ISD, which stretches from Frankfort to Bellaire, rejected an enhancement millage in the late 1990s. But Mike Hill says the idea is still discussed frequently by districts.

He says it would be a good thing for the area to have one.

“I think it would be a very worthwhile endeavor,” Hill Says, “most importantly because it’s local control.”

Some school districts in the Traverse Bay Area ISD are struggling financially. Traverse City Area Public Schools closed two elementary schools last year. Suttons Bay Public Schools has dealt with numerous money problems.

But passing an enhancement millage would not be easy.

Keith Smith, superintendent of Kingsley Area Schools, says passing one is not feasible due to political challenges right now.

“I don’t know that in this particular area with as many different viewpoints and the fighting – I think it would be a very difficult sell at this time,” Smith says. 

Smith says one of the big problems is that some communities have property worth a lot more than others. With an enhancement millage, those areas would contribute more money than they'd get back. 

Smith says he would not support bringing an enhancement millage to voters right now.

The superintendent at Traverse City Area Public Schools, Paul Soma, says he doesn’t think the area is ready for it either. Those two superintendents represent more than half the student enrollment in the entire Traverse Bay Area ISD. 

Matt Mikus contributed to this story.