(Crystal A. Proxmire, Feb. 23, 2016)
Pontiac, MI – “In all the school districts across the state, how many operate without a non-homestead millage? None. Makes you wonder why we have to vote on it, but that’s the way it is,” sad Oakland Schools Deputy Superintendent for Finance and Operations Robert Moore.
Moore was on a panel of experts at a town hall meeting Monday at Newman AME Church in Pontiac to talk about the two issues facing voters on March 8. Pontiac Schools is asking for an 18 mil non-homestead millage renewal and a sinking fund proposal that would bring the district $7 million per year for five years for infrastructure repairs.
The last time voters approved money for building repairs was 1996.
Funding Pontiac Schools has long been an uphill battle, and proposals often fail. The district has geographic boundaries that extend into neighboring suburbs where many parents send their children to other districts because of schools of choice. Pontiac also has a high concentration of charter schools that compete with the public schools for enrollment.
Dr. Wanda Cook-Robinson, Oakland Schools Superintendent, said that between 2009-2014 the district lost an average of 5.5% of students each year. Last year the loss was only 2%, and the hope is that new magnet programs at the High School and increased early education enrollments will continue to bring kids back.
Much of the discussion centered around how Pontiac got to be in the challenging financial position it is in. “They naysayers that thought we were just messing up,” said former School Board member and former County Commissioner Mattie McKinney Hatchett, “we took our two pennies and rubbed them together and we made history. Imagine what we could do if we had come money.”
Moore explained the history. In 2004 the district had an $11 million fund balance. By 2009 they were sliding into deficit which reached the bottom at $51.7 million in 2013. In Aug. 2013 Governor Rick Snyder declared an emergency and reached a consent agreement with the district.
Several factors led to the deficit. In 2012 the foundation allowance, which is the amount of money distributed from the state from the collection of taxes, was reduced by $470 per pupil. Inflation continued to rise while the base of money given to the schools was cut. “Had foundation funding kept up with the rate of inflation, it would have meant $22 million for Pontiac Schools,” Moore said.
Enrollment also dropped due to a wave of charter schools. Urban areas were particularly hardest hit because charters could easily compete. Pontiac in particular struggled because charters tend to pick the best students, leaving the public schools with a higher concentration of students with special needs. Over the last ten years, funding for special education has also declined.
“Many factors have contributed to the deficit. I’ve just mentioned several the district had no discretion, no control over,” Moore said.
He also recognized that since the consent agreement, the deficit has continued to decline. Part of this was due to loans. Part was due to building sales. And a big part was due to tough choices and dedicated employees.
“The most significant contributions to the deficit reductions have been made by the employees themselves, huge. This can’t be forgotten. There would simply be no operating Pontiac School District without them,” Moore said.
If the ballot measures pass, Pontiac will still have the lowest amount of revenue for building maintenance and repair. The 2.87 mills for the sinking fund are less than every other district besides Bloomfield Hills, and in most cases it is less than half of what taxpayers are investing in their districts.
Another point Moore raised was that if the initiatives fail and the school district fails, “the state is permitted by law to issue a judgment levy against every property owner, including the homestead property owners, that’s everybody, to pay the debt owed to the state. And that’s easily $30 million.”
Opponents of funding Pontiac Schools argue that failure will force state takeover and force the district to be dissolved and merged with neighboring districts. However, no matter what district they are in they would still be responsible for paying taxes to support their school district, on top of whatever levies the state would impose.
Dr. Cook-Robinson noted that the district is on track for recovery. The deficit is down 35%, enrollment is stabilizing, and graduation rates are increasing. “When the district no longer has to use general fund dollars to make emergency repairs, we’ll see progress speed up,” she said.
McKinney Hatchett, who came to Pontiac Schools in 1963 “as a young innocent teacher,” said that the kids are learning. “And we are just asking, let us continue to help them grow.”
For more election information go to: http://oaklandcounty115.com/category/election-information/.