Party affiliation notwithstanding, every election brings a chance of finding a K-12 school bond proposal on your ballot. As you consider your vote, will you make an informed decision, or one based on gut reaction?
As the main source of funding for capital projects (aside from private donations and grants), K-12 school bonds can range anywhere from hundreds of thousands to hundreds of millions of dollars – and voters who have not done due diligence before arriving at the polls may experience sticker shock. So how do you look past the intimidating numbers to ensure your vote supports your best interests? Granger’s Senior Project Manager and K-12 Market Segment Leader, Jeff Tuley, offers the following advice:
1) UNDERSTAND THE NEEDS.
“Everything has a life expectancy,” says Tuley, “and right now, most Michigan public schools are operating well beyond the life expectancy for systems. You have 75-year-old buildings that were built to last 50 years, and the facilities and maintenance staff at these schools have already done everything they can to keep things from falling apart. Eventually, duct tape and tenacity stop working and you need to invest in facility upgrades.”
Unfortunately, most schools do not have the money.
Michigan public schools are funded by tax payers on a per-student basis depending on the school district’s size and other factors. Overall that funding has decreased in past years, leaving schools operating on slim margins.
When a boiler breaks or the roof leaks, administrators must make difficult budget decisions or attempt to gain community support for a bond. If that bond fails, dollars must be diverted away from the students through measures such as laying off staff, consolidating learning spaces, or making similar sacrifices in schools where classroom sizes have already jumped from 20 to 30+ students.
2) UNDERSTAND THE NUMBERS.
If bonds are just meant to cover capital repair projects, why are they so expensive?
The short answer to this question is semantics.
According to language in the Michigan School Bond Qualification and Loan Program, bond funds are reserved for investment in new or upgraded facilities and may not be used for repairs. Therefore, when a school decides to push for a bond, they will often invest in a full facilities assessment to identify what systems are outdated or nearing end-of-life, and work with community members to identify a package of issues and opportunities they want the bond to address.
“We are experienced in conducting facilities assessments for K-12 schools,” Tuley notes. “We have an architect, a civil engineer, and Granger’s estimating team work for weeks, photographing, evaluating and documenting everything. We deliver a final list of opportunities and then it’s up to the school board, administrators and community to decide what their priorities should be and how much they think residents can afford to invest.”
3) UNDERSTAND THE BIGGER IMPACT.
Should residents without school age children vote to increase taxes to pay for facilities they will never use?
Tuley argues, “Yes.” Even community members with no K-12 school affiliation can benefit from new and upgraded facilities:
- Better schools increase property values.
- Businesses are more likely to invest in communities with strong schools.
- Communities can use school facilities for public events and programs unrelated to daily K-12 education (ex. Community Theater, arts programming, senior classes and group fitness activities).
“Communities are ultimately responsible for funding their public schools and it is up to community members to decide what they want that investment to be” says Tuley.
4) GET INVOLVED AND STAY INVOLVED.
What if a bond proposal does not include things you find important? Should you vote no to prove a point, and hope a better proposal will reach future ballots?
Tuley advises voters to be cautious when considering withholding their vote.
It costs money to conduct assessments and get on the voting schedule, and it takes time for the leadership of the school district to meet and develop a plan. There are definitely financial and time considerations with bond proposals.
“People vote no on bond issues for various reasons,” Tuley notes. “For instance, I know people who have children but who plan to vote no just because they are against something about the bond. Maybe it’s because they don’t have confidence in the leadership. Maybe they don’t like something that’s being done in the curriculum. Or maybe some of them are business owners with property that would be taxed at a higher level. I’ve seen a proposal voted down because it didn’t include tennis courts, and another voted down because it did.”
The challenge is that if someone just votes no, they are not passing along their reason why. Instead, if they proactively participated in bond meetings and open forums, sharing their thoughts and concerns earlier in the process, those issues can be dealt with as part of the bond. But if community members do not participate in these planning discussion, you never know.
“The best advice I can give,” offers Tuley, “is for voters to do their own due diligence, decide what is important to them, then be active. Have a voice, and be engaged in the planning process.”
Visit the Michigan Department of Treasury’s website to see upcoming school bond elections and results.