Among Michigan’s public educators, the 2010-11 fiscal year is being called “The Cliff.” Based on a grim downward trajectory of funding from the state, decreasing revenues from local property taxes and expenses like health care continuing to climb, that’s the year many districts are expected to plummet over the edge into the red.
Robert Allen, deputy superintendent of the Ann Arbor Public Schools, described this scenario at a sparsely attended forum last Thursday at Huron High School, where he and superintendent Todd Roberts made a pitch for voters to support a proposed countywide millage on the Nov. 3 ballot. They didn’t claim that AAPS would be among those districts falling off the cliff, but they did say their district faces a $15 million deficit that year. Without new revenue from the millage, they contend that the district would need to make dramatic cuts, and that those cuts would almost certainly affect students in the classroom. Michigan’s financial crisis is hitting hard, they say.
“As the state goes, so goes our funding,” Allen told the group on Thursday.
The state isn’t going so well.
But opponents argue that school districts haven’t done enough to cut costs, and that taxpayers can’t absorb the added burden of another millage. Beyond that, people on both sides say there’s an urgent need to reform the way schools are funded in Michigan, regardless of the success or failure of the Nov. 3 millage vote.
This Chronicle report looks at how Michigan funds K-12 public schools, why local school districts say they need a special enhancement millage and why critics say they don’t, and what that proposed millage would entail. Ann Arbor Public Schools is the largest of Washtenaw County’s 10 school districts, and would receive over a third of the $30 million collected from the millage annually – we’ll focus our coverage on that district.
Background: How Michigan Funds Public Schools
The state controls revenues for local school districts in two ways. First, it collects taxes directly from residential and non-residential property owners – 6 mills each, annually – and pools that money into the state’s School Aid Fund (SAF), which also includes revenues from sales and income taxes, state lottery revenue and other sources. Out of this fund, the state pays local school districts a per-pupil allotment – a variable amount set by the state legislature that can increase or decrease each year.
In addition, state law controls the amount of taxes that school districts can levy directly – those that are not pooled into the SAF. Beyond the 6 mills that go into the SAF, for example, there’s an additional tax on non-residential property owners, but the state caps that tax at 18 mills.
Both the funding from non-SAF local property taxes and from the total School Aid Fund are factored into an amount called the per-pupil “foundation allowance.” This amount varies by district – Ann Arbor’s per-pupil funding was originally expected to be $9,723 for the current fiscal year, which began July 1. With about 16,500 students in the Ann Arbor district, its per-pupil foundation allowance would be roughly $160.5 million – the bulk of the district’s projected $192 million budget for this fiscal year. (Other revenues come from the district’s share of a countywide special education millage and from federal grants.)
The current system stems from the 1994 passage of Proposal A. The goal of that ballot initiative was to create more equitable funding across all districts and to keep property taxes from escalating dramatically. Proposal A took away, to a significant degree, local control over school funding, though districts can still request voter approval to levy local millages for building construction, repairs, and maintenance. Ann Arbor has done that, most notably to fund the construction of Skyline High School.
Proposal A also created “hold-harmless” districts – Ann Arbor is one of only 44 districts statewide that are classified in this way. When Prop A took effect, these districts were receiving revenues higher than a $6,500 per-pupil base level set by the state at that time. Rather than have their funding lowered, the “hold harmless” districts were allowed to levy an additional millage to make up the gap. For Ann Arbor, that amount is $1,234 per pupil, or 4.42 mills. (The millage rate varies depending on property values, in order to generate a fixed amount of $1,234 per pupil.)
Another issue is this: As revenues from property taxes, sales taxes and other funding sources have decreased because of the state’s economy, the School Aid Fund has been shrinking. This year, the state is projecting a $1 billion deficit in the fund – that’s one reason why the legislature cut state funding for schools by $165 per pupil earlier this month. (The legislation authorizing that cut hasn’t yet been signed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm, however.) And depending on the amount of revenues coming into the School Aid Fund over the next few months, the state might make additional per-pupil cuts early next year.
The upshot? Districts can’t be sure exactly how much money they’ll receive from the state for their current fiscal year, which began July 1. For AAPS, the $165-per-pupil cut means a loss of about $2.7 million, bringing its per-pupil foundation allowance down to $9,558. The school board passed a balanced budget in June, which included tapping their fund balance (the district’s equivalent of a savings account) for nearly $2 million, to help resolve a $7.1 million deficit. But they’ll likely have to make additional cuts in light of the state’s decision to decrease per-pupil funding.
In the past, shortfalls in the School Aid Fund have been plugged by transferring revenues from the state’s general fund. But because the general fund has also faced staggering deficits, lawmakers have been using federal stimulus money in the past two years to shore up the School Aid Fund. Last year, AAPS got about $6 million in stimulus funds to cover what would have otherwise been a $365 per-pupil cut. The district has received another $3 million in stimulus dollars earmarked for special education, and about $1 million for Title 1 programs, which provide reduced and free lunches to low-income children.
Stimulus funds aren’t expected to be available beyond 2010-11, and the state still hasn’t determined how they’ll use those funds for schools in the current fiscal year.
What Ann Arbor Taxpayers Pay for Schools
In addition to the state school tax of 6 mills from residential property owners and 6 mills from owners of commercial and rental property, or of property that isn’t a taxpayer’s primary residence, there are four other school-related millages for the Ann Arbor district:
- 17.97 mills for operating funds – a “non-homestead” tax paid by owners of non-residential property.
- 4.4201 mills for the supplemental “hold harmless” tax.
- 2.0325 mills for debt repayment on school bonds.
- 0.9861 mill for a “sinking” fund, which can be used for school construction, renovations or repairs. The fund was initially approved, in part, to build the new Skyline High School.
Voters renewed the AAPS sinking fund, supplemental and non-homestead operating millages last year.
The Washtenaw Intermediate School District also collects two taxes countywide: 1) an operating millage of 0.0984 mill, and 2) a special education millage of 3.8761 mill.
In total, Ann Arbor homeowners pay just over 17 mills in school taxes. A mill equals $1 for every $1,000 in a property’s taxable value, which usually is considered roughly half of the market value. So owners of a home with a market value of $200,000 are paying about $1,700 annually in school taxes now, and would add another $200 to that if the millage on November’s ballot is passed.
In their public forum on the millage, AAPS school officials noted that since Proposal A passed in 1994, local taxpayers have seen their school millage rates fall. [Link to chart of school millages paid by Ann Arbor residents from 1994 to 2009.]
How the Proposed Millage Would Work
Individual school districts are prohibited by state law from levying additional millages for operations. However, under the umbrella of the Washtenaw Intermediate School District – an entity set up in the early 1960s to provide services to all 10 public school districts in the county – an operating millage can be levied and distributed equally, with each district receiving the same per-pupil amount.
The Nov. 3 ballot proposal calls for collecting 2 mill countywide each year for five years, starting in 2010. The millage is projected to raise $30 million annually, to be divided among the 10 districts. The WISD would not receive funding from this millage, nor would any percentage of the millage go to the state.
Here’s what voters will see on the ballot:
REGIONAL ENHANCEMENT MILLAGE PROPOSAL
Pursuant to state law, the revenue raised by the proposed millage will be collected by the intermediate school district and distributed to local public school districts based on pupil membership count.
Shall the limitation on the amount of taxes which may be assessed against all property in Washtenaw Intermediate School District, Michigan, be increased by 2 mills ($2.00 on each $1,000 of taxable valuation) for a period of 5 years, 2009 to 2013, inclusive, to provide operating funds to enhance other state and local funding for local school district operating purposes; the estimate of the revenue the intermediate school district will collect if the millage is approved and levied in 2009 is approximately $30,000,000?
Each district in the county is projected to receive the following amount annually, based on the number of students in their districts:
- Ann Arbor: $11,209,169
- Chelsea: $1,805,447
- Dexter: $2,477,564
- Lincoln: $3,261,427
- Manchester: $865,953
- Milan: $1,778,896
- Saline: $3,748,612
- Whitmore Lake: $841,030
- Willow Run: $1,358,160
- Ypsilanti: $2,663,743
In lobbying for the millage, Glenn Nelson – an AAPS school board member – notes that many taxpayers will be eligible for a state property tax credit and a federal property tax deduction, offsetting a portion of the increase in taxes. Countywide, he calculates that the millage will only cost taxpayers $21.2 million annually, because of the available credit and deduction, while generating $30 million for schools. That calculation assumes that all taxpayers eligible for the credit and deduction actually file for it.
Why Districts Say They Need This Millage
In making the case for an additional millage, school officials acknowledge that it’s a difficult economic climate for residents, and a tough time to be asking for a new tax. They also say they have no alternative.
All districts contend that they’ve already been cutting expenses and consolidating services, as revenues from the state have fallen. Ann Arbor Public Schools has cut $16 million from its budget over the past four years, according to administrators. Those moves included eliminating 66 jobs, restructuring the district’s middle school program to save $2.3 million annually, increasing class sizes, and cutting back on custodial services, among other things.
Officials also point to countywide efforts, including those coordinated by the Washtenaw Intermediate School District. [.PDF link to list of consolidated school services in Washtenaw County]
But costs continue to escalate while revenues fall, they say – even with the millage, AAPS expects to face a $4 million deficit in 2010-11.
The biggest portion of any district’s operating budget is personnel. At the AAPS millage forum on Thursday, Robert Allen, AAPS deputy superintendent, noted that 85% of the district’s operating budget goes toward personnel costs – salaries and benefits – and that a $15 million budget shortfall equated to about 220 jobs.
The Ann Arbor Education Association – the teachers union, and the largest of the district’s nine bargaining units – has already made some concessions, earlier this fall agreeing to a salary freeze for the first time in its history for the 2009-10 school year. The new contract contained changes in health care benefits too, including an increase in prescription co-pays for teachers, but also a 15% increase in the amount that the district pays for a teacher’s health insurance, to $12,582. And so-called step increases – automatic pay raises that teachers receive each year for their first 12 years of service – remain in place.
At Thursday’s forum, one of the people attending asked superintendent Todd Roberts how he’d respond to those who think teacher salaries are too high. Roberts defended the salaries that AAPS pays, saying that “our teachers are not anywhere near the top” compared to other districts statewide. What’s more, he said, the district needs to pay a decent wage in order to attract and retain high-quality teachers.
Pay is linked to education and time of service. The average AAPS teacher’s salary is about $72,000. First-year teachers with a bachelor’s degree earn $39,540 – the top of the pay scale for teachers with a bachelor’s degree is $66,975. Teachers with masters degrees start at $44,539 and top out at $79,899. Beginning teachers with a Ph.D. earn $49,919 – the top of the scale for them is $87,774.
Maintaining a quality education
The need to keep the quality of Ann Arbor’s public education high – and the role of the proposed millage in doing that – is an argument made by school officials and others who support the millage.
Steve Norton, a leader of the Ann Arbor Citizens Millage Committee, which supports the millage, told The Chronicle that there are two choices: Bring in additional revenues through the millage, or dismantle the school system as we know it. An additional investment now, he said, will buy time for public school advocates to lobby for substantive changes at the state level. It’s a millage they might not need long-term, Norton said, but if they don’t get the funding now, the district will suffer.
School officials give a range of actions that would be necessary if they’re forced to slice $15 million from next year’s budget. Layoffs would be necessary, meaning that with fewer teachers, class sizes would increase. High schools would likely cut their 7th hour of classes, and “enhancement” programs like art, music and sports could be at risk.
In stating that the quality of Ann Arbor’s public schools is threatened, Norton, Roberts and others make an economic development argument as well. Education is a pillar of the local economy, Roberts said, pointing to its inclusion in the Ann Arbor Region Success initiative, a countywide strategic planning effort of business and community leaders. From that group’s report:
High quality education systems (from early childhood through post-secondary) are needed to develop skilled workers and attract companies and talent thinking of moving to our region. Companies thinking of expanding or relocating to our region need to know that their children can get the best education possible whether they live in our villages or urban core. This is one of the key factors that site selectors assess when recommending sites for expansion and relocation. High school graduation rates are good in most areas of the county but we need to consistently achieve high attainment levels in all school districts. [.PDF file of entire report.]
Karen Cross, a current former AAPS school board member, told The Chronicle that when people hear what’s at stake, they’re generally receptive to the millage. But that’s not always the case.
What Opponents Say
Critics of the millage proposal make two main arguments: 1) Districts haven’t made sufficient structural changes to lower their expenses, and 2) residents are in no position to absorb additional taxes in the current economic climate. The 17 mills that residents of Ann Arbor already pay should be sufficient, they say.
In Ann Arbor, some opponents also criticize the “redistribution of wealth” aspect of the millage. Because of how the money is collected and redistributed, Ann Arbor taxpayers will be paying more than will be returned to the Ann Arbor school district. That’s true: AAPS will only receive an estimated $11 million from the enhancement millage, though taxes from the district will generate about $16 million. The $5 million that’s not returned to AAPS will go to other districts in Washenaw County. (AAPS is already a “donor” district for the School Aid Fund, with local taxpayers paying more than the district receives back in state aid.)
Several groups have organized to defeat the millage, but taking the lead is the Citizens for Responsible School Spending, spearheaded by former AAPS board member Kathy Griswold and Ted Annis, a technology entrepreneur who’s on the board of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority.
Speaking to The Chronicle just before a meeting of CRSS on Sunday afternoon, Griswold characterizes the rhetoric of millage advocates as misleading and fear-mongering, likening it to the tactics that former president George W. Bush used to drum up support for the war in Iraq. She says the per-pupil amounts are misleading, too, and that per-pupil funding for AAPS is much higher – over $12,000 per pupil, not the $9,723 figure that’s quoted by the district. She calculates that amount by taking the district’s most recent audited financials (from the 2007-08 fiscal year) with general fund revenues of $192 million, dividing that by the number of students in the district, and adding another $1,500 per pupil from revenues of the sinking fund and bond millages. [Link to AAPS financial reports]
Griswold says that though the district has cut costs, the overall operating budget isn’t decreasing – the cuts merely mean that the budget is staying flat or increasing less than it otherwise would, she says.
Griswold also takes issue with the approach that public school officials take in pitching the millage to the public. There’s been a strong effort to get the vote out in Ann Arbor, she said, with the implication being that if Ann Arbor voters weigh in heavily in favor of the millage, then it won’t matter if it’s defeated by voters in the rest of the county. If a majority of the total votes approve the millage, every taxpayer will be assessed – even if it was defeated in their district. “That seems like taxation without representation,” she said.
The Washtenaw County Republican Executive Committee also is opposing the millage, and announced the decision on its website: “While the Committee was unanimously supportive of education, they felt the struggling homeowners and businesses in our difficult economy do not need an additional burden. Following a presentation and a question and answer period with the Superintendents from the Ann Arbor, Chelsea and Saline school districts, the Committee felt that cost cutting measures that the districts had not implemented and were still available were the better approach.”
Getting the Word Out
Citizens for Responsible Spending is planning a community forum sometime this week . They’re also providing the research they’ve done to several other anti-millage groups, including the Citizens for a Responsible Washtenaw, backed by McKinley CEO Albert Berriz. That group is expected to send a mailing to all Ann Arbor residents who’ve requested absentee ballots.
AAPS has already mailed informational brochures to 37,000 residents in the district, outlining details of the millage. The Ann Arbor Citizens Millage Committee sent a mailing, too, funded by private donors and explicitly advocating for the millage. Todd Roberts and Robert Allen held a forum last Thursday, and are holding another one tonight at Pioneer High School’s Little Theater, starting at 7 p.m. And representatives from the Ann Arbor Citizens Millage Committee have been speaking at PTO meetings and other gatherings in the district for the past several weeks.
Citing advocacy for the millage in schools, Citizens for Responsible Spending has raised the issue of possible Michigan Campaign Finance Act violations on the part of the Ann Arbor schools, a charge that Todd Roberts dismisses. In an email to Roberts and Norm Herbert, co-chair of the Ann Arbor Citizens Millage Committee, Annis and Griswold cite concerns over the use of school property for advocacy of the millage, and of advocacy in the AAPS brochure mailed to residents. Roberts told The Chronicle that the AAPS mailing was informational only, and that while other school officials are prohibited from using school resources to advocate for the millage, it is within his right as superintendent to do so. Griswold said that her group is still looking into the issue.
Advocates on both sides are meeting with the editorial board of AnnArbor.com, which plans to take a position on the millage. The editorial board – anchored by AnnArbor.com CEO Matt Kraner, executive vice president Laurel Champion and Tony Dearing, chief content officer – has been expanded to include some community members. McKinley’s Albert Berriz is a member of the board, but has recused himself from this issue, according to Dearing.
Many districts are grappling with a financial crisis, even before the year of “The Cliff.” In Washtenaw County, Willow Run and Ypsilanti school districts are operating under a deficit – by law, those districts are required to file deficit elimination plans with the state, outlining how they plan to resolve the situation. Willow Run has been running a deficit for years; Ypsilanti had a $3.7 million deficit in its current budget, and the district has until Dec. 15 to submit a deficit elimination plan. [.PDF link to list of all Michigan school districts that filed a deficit elimination plan for fiscal 2008]
The numbers aren’t yet in on how many districts statewide are currently running a deficit, but there will be more, said David Martell, executive director of the Michigan School Business Officials, a Lansing-based group.
Tackling the problem is difficult, Martell said, because school administrators don’t have authority to make unilateral decisions about spending. If superintendents could make across-the-board cuts on the expense side, “then we wouldn’t be having these discussions,” he said. Multiple factors prevent that from happening, he added, including the authority of community-elected boards that are ultimately responsible for making tough budget decisions, but whose members might not be willing to take the political heat.
Many school officials and others point to the state as the primary cause of the current financial crisis in public education, and the main target for reform. Steve Norton of the Ann Arbor Citizens Millage Committee suggested that implementing a graduated income tax or expanding the sales tax to include the service sector would bring in new revenues to support public schools and, more broadly, to help address Michigan’s own structural deficit.
Roberts cited retirement costs – managed by the Michigan Public School Employees’ Retirement System – as being a critical personnel issue that needs to be addressed, and one that local districts don’t control. The state sets the rate that districts must pay to cover retirement costs for its employees, and it’s not a sustainable system, he said. [Link to an April 2009 Education Report article about the impact of retirement costs on Michigan's public school districts.]
Term limits for legislators are another huge obstacle to addressing reform at the state level, advocates of public education say, but they believe the current crisis will prompt change – if only because there’s no other choice.
“This really is a tipping point,” Norton said.
Links to Millage-Related Information
Some of the groups against the proposed millage
- Citizens for Responsible School Spending
- Coalition for Taxpayer Relief [Link to campaign finance filing]
- Washtenaw County Taxpayers Association
Some groups supporting the millage
- Ann Arbor Citizens Millage Committee [Link to campaign finance filing]
- Ann Arbor Public Schools Educational Foundation
- Friends of Education [Link to campaign finance filing]
- Washtenaw Intermediate School District
From the schools
Some of the county’s 10 districts have posted information regarding the millage on their websites (most of the other districts link to the WISD site):