|TCAPS officials point to rooms like this, at Central Grade
With Election Day five weeks away, Central Grade School and a proposed performing arts center are now at the core of the ballot initiative to fund facility improvements at Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS).
"Since I've been here, the dilemma of Central Grade School has hung over the head of administrators," says Paul Soma, chief financial officer and chief operating officer for TCAPS, referring to the outdated and – some believe dangerous – state of the elementary school. "Somewhere in the back of everybody's mind is 'what are we going to do about Central Grade?'"
What they’re doing is asking voters to approve a .8-mil tax increase. According to Soma, this means that for the average home in the district with a market value of about $170,000, taxes would go up about $68 a year.
But didn't we already do this back in 2007, when voters set the millage rate at 3.1? Why, then, is TCAPS asking for 3.9 now? Blame the poor economy.
"If property values had continued to increase as they were projected to in 2007, we would not be asking for an increase [now]," Soma says.
Altogether, TCAPS is asking voters for about $100 million over the next 10 years. The funds, school officials say, will not only fix the aging Central Grade, but also improve:
Technology: TCAPS spends $2 million a year to make sure classrooms not only have computers, but the necessary wireless infrastructure behind them.
Buses: The district has a 100-bus fleet, each one lasting about 10 years before replacement. TCAPS spends about $1 million a year on buses.
Visual and performing arts equipment: $150,000 a year; physical education facilities $200,000 a year; operational equipment $150,000 a year.
As for Central Grade, $26 million will completely modernize the building on the inside, while preserving its historic character on the outside.
Then there's the 5,000-pound gorilla in the room – a new, $15 million performing arts center at Central High.
Soma believes the phrase has confused many people. "performing arts center," he notes, is simply the new phrase for a high school auditorium. "I think people thought we were talking about the Wharton Center.” The improvements will not create a luxurious performance palace, but will bring the auditorium up to current standards, he notes.
Soma admits the bond issue might be a tough sell during tough economic times. But he does have the backing of a group of parents who call themselves "Citizens for Students."
Parent Matt McDonough, who has two children attending Central Grade, says that even with the increase, at 3.9 mills TCAPS would still be taxing its district at 23 percent below the state average of 5.1 mills.
"I think that this community in particular has a strong track record of investing in the school system here," he says.
Parent Jeremy Hogue thinks of it as an economic stimulus package for the community, since local contractors will be put to work. And, he says, fiscal conservatives should see the wisdom in rebuilding facilities now instead of later.
"It is costing us, and will continue to cost us long-term, more to maintain these broken-down facilities than it will cost us to invest right now," Hogue says.
County Commissioner Jason Gillman, an outspoken critic of the bond proposal, disagrees. "Many in government seem to think that when the economy is in trouble, they are immune to the effects of that trouble," Gillman said. "While business and landowners are having scramble to find new efficiencies to make up for lost revenues, and those who have limited income face increasing costs everywhere, the last thing they need is a kick in the face when they are down in the form of a property tax increase."
Soma adds he's "proud of how we've managed financially" during the economic downturn.