Kent County millage increase offers opportunity to sustain school funding

April 14, 2017
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Voters across Kent County in two weeks will be asked to consider a nine-tenths mill tax increase to benefit all 20 Kent public school districts. Typical West Michigan response to the words “tax increase” is a knee-jerk “no,” but KISD makes a compelling case for approval, one that is ringing true with many Kent County business owners and executives who are endorsing the proposal.

State authorization allowing for such a request back in 1994 was a legislative compromise in the wake of passage of Proposal A, giving intermediate school districts opportunity to get local approval for funding not met by the state-established “foundational funding” of per pupil state allotments.

In the 23 years since, West Michigan and the country weathered a disastrous Great Recession. Consequences have included rapid deterioration of state revenues resulting in abdication of public safety in road and bridge repair and funding, as well as depleting state revenue for schools, borrowing from education funds and erosion of local tax bases that 23 years ago provided adequate funds for West Michigan schools. Wyoming Godwin Heights is perhaps a “poster child” for how the state funding formula — at Proposal A 1994 levels — is now outdated. Based on the property tax system, General Motors was Wyoming’s largest contributor (in fact among the top in Kent County). GM doesn’t live in Wyoming anymore. Other than the eroding state per pupil formula, Godwin Heights, like every school district in Michigan, can ask voters for building funds but cannot ask voters for the “foundational” funds to staff the building. All the additional funds from passage of the May 2 millage would be distributed to the schools; KISD will not receive any of the funds (based on the state statute).

The Michigan Legislature majority has refused to replenish the state’s recurring depletion and outright theft of education funds, and as reported in the Business Journal story, pushed the issue back on the intermediate school districts under the 23-year-old authorization for county mileage requests. Adding to the misery of state “sharing”: the state negotiates with school employees on health care costs; the state negotiates pension funds; and then the state sends local school superintendents the bill. “Districts are spending down their fund balances to maintain the programs they currently have,” KISD Assistant Superintendent Ron Koehler said. “Schools need additional dollars.” Koehler notes such state-negotiated benefits have increased $70 per student in the intermediate district of 95,000 students.

Business community leaders, including John Kennedy, Win Irwin and the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce are supporting the effort, largely focused on the ability to attract new businesses and in the pursuit of employee recruitment. Business support also has been an important cornerstone of school-to-work programs initiated and recommended by Kent County business owners and on-the-job training programs established.

It is noteworthy KISD waited more than two decades to make such a request, and that the public schools superintendents agreed to the more conservative request for nine-tenths of a mill, rather than the allowed 3 mills. It should be noted, too, expenses among Kent County schools have been held to 0.6 percent.

It may well offer the best opportunity to assure Kent County schools continue to show better student outcomes in reading, math and graduation rates than other areas of the state.

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