The Stories Behind Saying “Yes” and “No” to Millages

Lowell Area Schools got what it wanted from the Nov. 5 election results. Wyoming Public Schools didn’t.

Lowell school administrators are looking forward to improving security measures to keep children and teachers safe at elementary schools and taking care of maintenance needs, such as new roofs on its buildings with the 1-mill increase voters approved. Wyoming’s millage failure means it won’t be getting more security measures, high school improvements or a fine arts center.

The Reactions

As the mother of two children in Lowell Area Schools, Jo Salgat was more than relieved voters approved its millage request — she was “ecstatic. “I couldn’t believe they turned us down in February,” she said of the first request for the millage. “We had to have this passed.”

Salgat said a variety of measures need to be taken to make schools safer. That’s a big reason she helped form Our Community Cares, a volunteer group that campaigned for a yes vote. “Anybody can walk into any of our schools currently, and they’re not safe,” said the co-facilitator of the PTO  at Bushnell and Cherry Creek schools, two of the elementary schools where the security improvements will take place.

Parent Tara VanDyke helped lead the Wyoming Yes! campaign in support of its vote. She said she’s torn between a huge feeling of disappointment and the idea of continuing to ask voters for support. Public comment in response to the loss on social media has been strongly in support of the schools. Volunteers worked for months to promote the bond issue, passing out information, going from door-to-door and spreading the word. As much hard work they put into it, to go through the disappointment of not getting a millage request again would be difficult, VanDyke said. “It’s so hard, it’s so hard. I’m still kind of in that moment of ‘stunned. I just don’t know what to do,” she said a few days after the election.

“I feel bad because there are a lot of people who worked really hard on this,” Wyoming Superintendent Tom Reeder said.

Reasons Why

The Wyoming community has a history of voting against tax increases. Reeder said the disconnect between the schools and residents who do not have children in the Wyoming school system is very hard to overcome. Only 10 percent of residents have students in the district, and, of those, only six of 10 are registered to vote, he said.  The parent support was there to pass the bond, Reeder noted, as shown in the precincts. Votes in favor of Proposal 1 led in 12 of 14 precincts, and for Proposal 2 in 10 of 14, but when absentee votes were counted, both proposals weredefeated, Reeder said.  Absentee ballots were cast by about 800 residents, the majority of whom are seniors.

Reeder, who grew up in Wyoming, said the demographics of the district have changed, and families have opted for charter schools and to attend surrounding districts through Schools of Choice. Enrollment has declined, with a most recent loss of 239 students since last fall. People have lost the sense of importance in supporting neighborhood schools, Reeder said, adding it really boils down to quality of life.

“It’s about what you want in your doggone community,” he said. “This community needs to decide what they value or if they just exist.”

Lowell Superintendent Greg Pratt attributed part of the loss in February to a winter storm that kept many voters home. Turnout on the national Election Day vote more than doubled over the first vote. He also thinks the public had a hard time understanding the district’s needs and the nature of a sinking fund that pays for improvements as taxes are collected. “It was an issue that was complex enough and new enough that there was a sense we needed a little more time” to explain it, Pratt said.

Salgat said security upgrades are badly needed. She’s grateful operational cuts won’t be necessary to pay for security and maintenance needs, noting the PTO has worked hard to make extra opportunities available to students. “I don’t want anything taken from my kids,” Salgat said. “I want them to have assemblies, I want them to have field trips, and I want them to be safe and secure in their own school.”

The Histories

After Wyoming’s first failed request in May for a $53 million proposal, voters considered a scaled-back $49 million version of the request broken into two parts: Proposal 1 was for $37 million to fund security measures for school offices and entrances, additional classroom and instructional space and a completely remodeled high school. The second proposal, for $12.22 million, would have funded a new Applied Arts Community Center and athletic complex upgrades.

Proposal 1 would have increased the current millage by 2.59 mills, costing the average homeowner with a $90,000 home $99 annually. If Proposal 2 also had been approved, the current millage would have increased by 3.49 mills, costing $133 annually. The proposals failed by a slim margin both times. In May the proposal was voted down 1,477 to 1,268. This month Proposal 1 failed 1,895 to 1,816 and Proposal 11 failed 1,928 to 1,738.

“It has always been hard in Wyoming to pass a millage. A bond to support the schools has not been approved since 1994,” Reeder said. “Twenty years later we ask for more money and they say ‘no.’”

Like Wyoming, Lowell voters already had turned down the first request for a millage earlier this year.

Its was narrowly defeated by a 741 to 650 vote. District voters comfortably approved the second try, 1,855 to 1,285 – a 59 percent margin.

What’s Next

Lowell’s millage will raise approximately $700,000 per year for the next seven years, toward an estimated $5.1 million in improvements. More than half of that will be eaten up by roof replacements, including an estimated $2 million at the high school. Paving and energy upgrades also will be made.

But the first priority will be increased security at the elementary schools, Pratt said. He hopes to have “buzz-in” systems in place at some schools by spring, requiring visitors to push a buzzer to be admitted. Eventually, vestibules will be built that send visitors into the front office before entering the hallways.

Some facility improvements will be completed in Wyoming as the district’s operating budget allows, Reeder said, but not everything will be possible. An assessment of district needs completed by an outside firm indicated $100 million in district improvements are needed district-wide.

VanDyke said parents in Wyoming need to keep moving forward working against negative perceptions and support the students and teachers. “People who voted no aren’t close enough to the school to really know what’s going on,” she said.

A frustrated Reeder said he won’t go to the taxpayers again. “The board might want to, but I will not,” he said. “We asked twice.”

CONNECT

Wyoming Public Yes

Lowell Area Schools

Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio.

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