Government, Higher Education, and Human Resources

Kent ISD asks for tax hike

Ballot proposal would add $211 per pupil, per year, for 10 years in 20 Kent County school districts.

April 14, 2017
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(As seen on WZZM TV 13) Drawing on a Michigan statute passed in 1994, Kent Intermediate School District will ask for nine-tenths of a mill on the May 2 ballot to support business and early college programs, personnel and other services for the 20 school districts in Kent ISD.

Ron Koehler, assistant superintendent of organizational and community initiatives and legislative affairs at Kent ISD, said in 1994, Michigan voters passed Proposal A, which rolled back the ability of individual school districts to propose local millages to fund programs.

Instead, it granted regional ISDs the ability to propose millages up to 3 mills to support services not covered by the state foundation allowances established in the proposal.

Currently, five ISDs out of around 50 in Michigan have passed regional millages; Kent ISD would be the sixth.

The millage, 90 cents on each $1,000 of taxable property valuation, would cost the average homeowner $6.70 per month, or $80.40 per year.

By law, Kent ISD would distribute 100 percent of the funds among the 20 districts, amounting to about $19.9 million total in the first year, which comes out to $211 per pupil, per year, for 10 years.

Koehler said the funds would help maintain existing programs and improve other services.

“Each district would use those funds for their own priorities,” he said. “All would like to provide greater connection to business and early college programs for their students. They all have different needs.”

If the millage passes, the districts must report the funds on their websites, and independent auditors would hold the districts accountable in spending the revenue.

Koehler said Kent ISD has not taken advantage of the regional enhancement millage option since the statute became law.

“(We didn’t earlier) in part because funding in the early years was adequate between 1994 and the 2000s. … We have had very strong local supporters and legislators who thought we were adequately provided for, and we didn’t want to go against them if there was no support for this.”

After the recession when the state started pruning foundation grants, he said, “We had a lot of belt tightening to do. Since the early 2000s, we’ve saved about $30 million through consolidation of services. We’ve worked hard to work with the Legislature to help them better understand our needs.”

In 2005 or 2006, Koehler said he went to Lansing to discuss increasing foundation grants due to mounting needs, and then-Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema, R-Grandville, pushed back.

“He said, ‘Ron, we’ve given you a tool to use, and you’ve not used it,’” Koehler said, referring to the regional enhancement millage.

Koehler said the current base foundation allowance from the state is $7,511, with districts like Byron Center, Caledonia, East Grand Rapids, Forest Hills and Godwin Heights receiving more, and Grand Rapids and Wyoming receiving less.

Two of the region’s largest private schools, Grand Rapids Christian and West Catholic, charge high school students about $10,000 per pupil to cover the services they deem essential.

Between charter and private school enrollment, about 30,000 Kent area students are outside the public school system. Approximately 95,000 students attend Kent ISD public schools.

Ron Caniff, Kent ISD superintendent, said the ISD and the 20 public school districts it serves discussed for a long time what millage rate to put on the ballot.

Ultimately, nine-tenths was the “survival increase” they felt was necessary and feasible, he said.

“It was a harsh political reality that we would probably not be able to pass a higher millage because the concept of a regional enhancement millage is new to Kent County voters, since we have not done it before,” Caniff said.

Koehler said of the 95,000 public school students in Kent ISD, 10,000 are English language learners — many of them immigrants or refugees — and 12,000 are special education students. The most diverse districts with the greatest needs will use the funds to help give those who are behind because of poverty, special needs or language barriers a “good start.”

Forest Hills Public Schools and others have expressed a need to recruit and retain high-quality staff to stabilize class sizes and provide paraprofessional support.

Other districts need help with bringing third-grade reading and eighth-grade math skills up to higher proficiency levels.

Kenowa Hills Public Schools wants to retain a fledgling vocational program established in 2016. The Knights STEM Academy is a partnership with seven local companies held at DeWys Manufacturing in a “maker space” where students can learn real-world skills.

“John DeWys thought it was important to help students who want to go in advanced manufacturing get into a plant and understand what actually goes on there,” Koehler said. “It’s not the dingy and grimy factory of their parents’ generation; it’s a clean manufacturing environment. (The STEM Academy) has seventh- and ninth-graders and wants to expand to eighth- and 10th-graders.

“Without the millage, KHPS Superintendent Jerry Hopkins is concerned he might not have the funds to expand it even though the manufacturer provides the space. It’s cases like these where the districts’ ability to innovate and partner is at risk because they don’t have the funds.”

Many of the 20 districts would like to be able to put required match funds toward securing the assistance of Kent School Services Network, a nonprofit that provides physical, mental health and social “wraparound” services on-site at schools in partnership with other local organizations.

Kent ISD also would like to see the millage help support other districts in adopting the Innovation High School project-based learning model.

Koehler said the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce has endorsed the millage proposal “because it would contribute to workforce development.”

In an effort to increase transparency, Kent ISD’s School News Network has been writing articles about how each of the 20 districts plans to spend the millage funds at schoolnewsnetwork.org.

Koehler said revenue is currently about $1,200 per pupil below the rate of inflation, and the millage would help narrow that gap.

“Districts are spending down their fund balances to maintain the programs they currently have,” he said. “Schools need additional dollars.”

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